COP 28: the UAE model example and the choice of Al Jaber as President
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is preparing to host the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP 28) to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change. The summit will take place at a time of critical importance for the energy transition towards a zero-emissions future and, for the first time, will be held in a Persian Gulf country primarily known for being a major exporter of fossil energies.
But we need to take into account that the UAE has developed important initiatives aimed at incorporating the climate dossier among the country's strategic priorities. In 2015, the UAE released the "UAE Green Agenda 2030", a program that combines the country's economic growth goals with its decarbonisation efforts. In 2016, the UAE ratified the Paris Climate Agreement born out of COP 21 and inaugurated the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MOCCAE). Finally, in 2017, the "National Climate Action Plan of the United Arab Emirates 2017-2050" was made public. This latest initiative represented a decisive milestone for the country as it defined, for the first time, a strategy to directly connect the country's economic growth ambitions with its climate agenda.
The Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum solar park
The UAE, being one of the world's leading exporters of hydrocarbons, perceives with growing urgency the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop a sustainable economic system in view of a post-oil world. While fossil fuels continue to meet a significant portion of the national energy needs, the UAE has implemented ambitious initiatives aimed at diversifying the national energy mix through the inclusion of electricity produced from renewable sources. Taking advantage of the high solar exposure that contributes to the country's arid climate, the UAE has invested significantly in solar energy. In this regard, the "Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum solar park" and the "Al Dhafra solar photovoltaic project" are the flagship of the Emirates.
Once fully operational, the two photovoltaic parks will have a production capacity of 5 and 2 GW of energy respectively, saving approximately 6.5 and 2.4 million tonnes of CO2 on an annual basis.
Another important pillar in the UAE's action plan to support the energy transition lies in nuclear energy, and specifically in the energy produced by the Barakah nuclear power plant.
Inaugurated in August 2020, the plant aims to meet 25% of the national energy needs by producing 5.6 GW of energy.
Critics, unresolved matters and new reflections around COP28
Although the previous summit held in Sharm El Sheikh produced some positive results - first of all the creation of the "loss and damage fund" (L&D fund) - there are also many unresolved points and controversial issues that risk rekindling tensions between the parties summoned to the Dubai summit. Recognizing for the first time the responsibility of industrialized countries to contribute financially to support developing countries particularly vulnerable to climate degradation, the L&D fund represents a revolutionary step in the fight against the negative impacts of climate change.
However, from the eligibility criteria to be able to access, to the resources allocated, to how the funds will be distributed and who will have to contribute and in what percentage, important gray areas remain with regard to the operating procedures of the fund. If not resolved at COP28, these latent questions risk undermining the transformative potential inherent in the fund. A further critical element of COP 27 that will probably re-emerge in Dubai concerns India's proposal to phase out all fossil fuels from the energy mix. Shipwrecked after having triggered a heated clash between exporting and importing countries of these sources, the motion seems to have revived the interest of the member states of the European Union which recently expressed their willingness to take over the baton at the next conditional table in Dubai.
Furthermore, the road to the global elimination of fossil fuels remains fraught with obstacles and vulnerable to future setbacks, especially as Gulf oil and gas companies make no secret of their plans to expand exploration and production of these sources.
As a host nation, the UAE plays a key role in facilitating the emergence of a general consensus during the negotiations that will take place during COP 28. Its dual nature as a fossil fuel-producing country with ambitious carbon emissions places the UAE in a favorable position to act as a mediating force between the parties. From the first days after winning the nomination to host COP 28, the UAE has hinted that three main points would drive the agenda of the climate summit in Dubai.
On one hand, the spotlights of COP 28 focus on the countries of the so-called "Global South". In contrast to the practice of passing the buck, which has long pitted low-income and developed countries against each other in redistributing responsibility for carbon emissions, the UAE advocates an approach that emphasizes practical limits and economic factors that constrain the ability of developing countries to build climate-resilient societies. Therefore, from the UAE's perspective, recognizing that the fight against global warming entails common but differentiated responsibilities among countries plays as important a role as meeting the ambitious decarbonisation goals necessary to achieve a climate-secure world.
On the other hand, the UAE puts a lot of emphasis on climate action that can deliver concrete and practical impacts in tackling the challenges of climate change. Unlike previous summits where ambitious promises have generally been followed by little concrete results, the UAE aims to ensure that COP 28 presents itself as a platform capable of accelerating the development and implementation of climate solutions ready for the feasibility and capacity to have an immediate and real impact on the daily life of individuals and natural ecosystems.
UAE as example of efforts towards SDGs and the key issue of the oil-exporting countries
Finally, the UAE aims to make COP 28 the climate summit with the highest attendance ever. It is estimated that over 140 government leaders and heads of state, over 80,000 delegates and more than 5,000 members of the press will attend the event at Expo City Dubai. While the UAE's willingness to achieve record participation undoubtedly resembles a measured exercise in soft power, the UAE's massive public diplomacy effort reflects deeper ambitions. On the one hand, it aims to convey a sense of fair representation of different perspectives and priorities on climate change; on the other, it aims to ensure that there are conditions for the development of a general consensus that is as transversal and inclusive as possible.
The key issue for the oil-exporting countries of the Persian Gulf is that climate change is as much a grave environmental challenge as it is a looming socio-economic dilemma. Although the ambitious decarbonization targets set for 2050 seem dubious, given the current scenario, the radical choices that would facilitate their achievement are difficult to pursue in the short term. The energy transition is conceived as a gradual process, made up of many closely interconnected phases where each one plays a key role in the long journey towards a carbon neutral world. This is why is not possible, in terms of “sustainability”, to exclude the fossil sector, by also considering that most of these companies have the capital to invest and the infrastructures to use.
In this sense, the development of a sustainable economic model and the drastic formation of the dependence of the state budget on oil revenues are crucial steps before being able to consider drastic choices such as the complete elimination of fossil fuels.
Therefore, in order to promote a successful energy transition, hydrocarbon producing countries need to have a seat at the climate negotiating table. In this regard, the decision to appoint Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, as president-designate of COP 28 it is really correct, concrete and important. It reflects how fossil fuel exporting countries perceive climate change and economic diversification as two closely interconnected phenomena that require measures coordinated.
Despite the inevitable pitfalls, the Dubai COP is expected to have a positive impact on climate action due to its high inclusiveness of vision. By bringing many different perspectives on climate change priorities and challenges to the negotiating table, COP 28 aims to trigger a positive momentum leading to practical solutions to the fight against global warming and to emerge a transversal and inclusive consensus in choosing solutions for a climate safer.
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About the author
Giulia Faleri is Cofounder at the Italian startup Vezua, the omnichannel sustainability marketplace. She is also a board member of the Italian holding 76 Investimenti. She is a young changemaker of Ashoka network for the EU GEN-C Project promoted by Horizon EU and Agenzia Italiana Giovani. She’s among the youngest female entrepreneurs and is now working in Dubai as UAE Partnership Facilitator for Companies and UAE Investments Advisor.