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UAE has taken the lead on net zero as rest of Gulf plays catch-up

Even if countries fall short of their net-zero goals, more serious climate action, founded on solid and achievable initiatives, has arrived in the Middle East

Electrical Device, Solar Panels, Rug

After making history as the first Middle Eastern country to set a net zero carbon target, announced in October 2021, the UAE has advanced its ambition again. 

On Monday, it increased its goal for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, from 23.5 to 31 percent below “business as usual”.

This should trigger another wave of regional imitation, but not all the Emirates’ methods are easily duplicated.

Under the Paris Agreement signed in 2015, participating countries (virtually everyone) are supposed to submit their voluntary commitments for reducing carbon dioxide and other pollutants, and to tighten them at least every five years. 

The UAE hosts the annual Conference of the Parties climate talks in November next year, following Egypt this coming November, so is under scrutiny.

The country’s “business as usual” emissions were projected to reach 301 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030. The new ambition would cut this to 207.8 million tonnes.

Most of the reduction will come in electricity generation, making up 66.4 percent of the cuts; industry will save 16.6 percent, transport 9.7 percent, carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) 5.3 percent, and waste 2.1 percent.

The power sector savings are the most striking. The UAE’s ambitious nuclear and solar deployment accounts for about half the required savings. 

There could be a boost in efficiency both of generation and of end use, by switching to less energy-intensive reverse osmosis for desalinating water, by better insulation of homes, improved air-conditioning and district cooling systems and suchlike. 

But the scale of the planned reductions imply an enormous scale-up of solar power beyond the current plans, and possibly even further nuclear reactors. The UAE’s ambitious nuclear and solar deployment accounts for about half the required savings

Industry reductions look challenging

The planned reductions in industry also appear tricky, given major expansion plans for petrochemicals. 

Assuming this does not include carbon capture, as it is a separate category, then big improvements in energy efficiency may have to be supplemented with use of some of the large amounts of low-carbon hydrogen the UAE plans to produce. 

Industry could perhaps also make use of carbon ‘offsets’, such as restoring or expanding the nation’s mangrove forests, to trap carbon in plants and soils.

Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, presumably a major part of the ‘industry’ category, plans to reduce its emissions intensity – the volume of greenhouse gas per unit of output – by 25 percent by 2030, but as it will also increase oil production capacity by a quarter over this period, that implies little net saving.

The CCUS target, on the other hand, amounts to five million tonnes per year, in line with the goal of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), but not including any other CCUS initiatives. Ambition here could plausibly be doubled or tripled.

Transport CO2 reductions look achievable

The transport side also looks very achievable: some moderate improvements in vehicle efficiency, and more uptake of increasingly affordable electric cars, whose range is already adequate for most UAE journeys. 

The new lines of the Dubai Metro, a possible revival of the Abu Dhabi metro, and five million tonnes of carbon dioxide saved by the Etihad Rail network, should be enough.

The emissions reductions in waste are quite small, and probably achievable by capturing landfill gas (saving on releases of methane, which has a powerful warming effect), and by stepping up recycling and eliminating unnecessary packaging and single-use plastics.

The elimination of about a third of the UAE’s greenhouse gas emissions over the course of a decade is, mathematically, on track for net zero by 2050.

Further reductions would clearly be more difficult. On the other hand, technology in areas such as electric vehicles, hydrogen and other low carbon fuels, advanced batteries, carbon capture, small nuclear reactors and other areas will have moved on substantially by the 2030s. 

Per capita emissions in this plan will be about 20 tonnes of CO2 per person, the lowest in the country’s modern history. This will still be high by international standards however, with the US standing at 15.5 tonnes per person.

To what extent is this a template for the rest of the Middle East? The UAE has two huge advantages: its wealth and political stability; and its early start. The other GCC states, and Israel, benefit comparably from the first factor. 

But the head start is unique. Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s clean energy vehicle, was founded in 2006; the UAE’s nuclear power programme and the Dubai Metro were launched in 2009, its large-scale solar power in 2013, its energy and fuel subsidy reductions in 2011 and 2015, its first large-scale carbon capture project in 2016. 

Nuclear power is particularly important

Other GCC countries have some similar initiatives; none have all. 

Nuclear power, given its long lead-time and huge emissions savings, is particularly important. But only Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran in the region have anything like it, and are all far behind.

After a slow beginning, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar are accelerating on renewable energy and hydrogen. Egypt may have vaulted to the head of the queue for hydrogen, given its excellent natural resources and geographic advantage.

The UAE’s more ambitious goal may well be emulated by others. 

But even if they fall short, more serious climate action, founded on solid and achievable initiatives, has arrived in the Middle East.

Robin Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis

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