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The UAE has a difficult path to negotiate

As Cop28 host and a major oil exporter the Emirates faces a tricky balancing act

Cop27 Cop28 Reuters
Last year's Cop27 in Egypt had lacklustre results and the UAE will be seeking to achieve more

First there was Dubai Expo, then the World Cup in Qatar. Now another major international event rolls into the region – Cop28. 

The annual UN climate conference is meant to advance global negotiations on curbing the emissions responsible for global warming, dealing with the unavoidable changes and compensating the most vulnerable and affected people.

Up to 80,000 people are expected to attend Cop28, which begins in Dubai at the end of November.

It would be an attendance record. Attendees range from politicians and climate negotiators to students and inventors; from businesspeople to journalists and environmental activists.

This is the Gulf’s first staging of the conference since Doha in 2012. It may be another decade before it returns to the Middle East, so the UAE has to make the most of the Cop28 opportunity. The results of last year’s summit in Egypt were lacklustre.

There are several major items on the agenda in Dubai.

One is mobilising climate finance – the $100 billion a year promised by wealthier countries for developing nations. The sums involved have increased since the pledge was made, but they are still short of the target and have been eroded by inflation.

Much of the promised money consists of old commitments recycled or is only dubiously of any help to the climate – for instance, a Japanese-backed airport in Egypt with solar panels.

Another key item on the agenda is the “global stocktake” – a five-yearly assessment of countries’ progress against cutting emissions in line with their nationally determined contributions (NDCs).

These are the plans for cutting emissions and dealing with climate change that each signatory of 2015’s Paris Agreement is meant to submit and update regularly.

A tricky balancing act for the UAE

As host and a major oil exporter with plans to grow further, the UAE has a tricky balancing act.

The president-designate of Cop28, Dr Sultan Al Jaber, is the UAE’s climate envoy.

He is a respected interlocutor with figures such as the US climate envoy John Kerry and the EU’s climate chief Frans Timmermans, and is the chairman of Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s green energy investor. But he is also the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

Al Jaber’s role has been criticised but in return for this controversy, the UAE has several things to gain.

There is the kudos of hosting a major global event, which is likely to be well-organised. The presidency cannot determine the result, but it can help to shape the agenda and reach a successful outcome.

This builds diplomatic bridges with major UAE partners such as China, the EU, US and India, as well as with others with whom there is less regular opportunity for interaction.

In the run-up to the summit, Al Jaber has stressed the need to involve developing countries. The UAE can also hear the voices of a wide range of civil society and non-governmental organisations, including many that are sceptical of the petroleum industry.

Not all the diplomatic achievements will necessarily be within the formal UN process.

There are also side discussions, such as those that produced the $100 billion US-UAE partnership on clean energy in November 2022, alliances on reducing methane leakage and on reaching net-zero oil and gas production.

This is intended to be a “Cop of implementation”, with tangible progress more important than abstract goals.

There are economic opportunities too, as environmentally focused companies promote their wares.

The UAE Climate Tech event, held in May, was a kind of dress rehearsal for this aspect. Some fascinating technologies were on show in areas such as carbon capture, batteries and drones.

China, the US and EU are all providing huge subsidies and other incentives for green manufacturing and minerals. The UAE may seek to develop co-operation, for example on hydrogen supply to Japan, Germany and the Netherlands, or nuclear power and renewables with Chinese companies.

The Emirati national agenda

The UAE has its own green story to tell.

Per-capita greenhouse gas emissions and energy use are high. But it was the first country in the Middle East to announce a net-zero carbon target, by 2050. It has reduced emissions since 2017, deploying a combination of nuclear and solar power and removing energy subsidies – quite an achievement for a fast-growing economy and population.

A national hydrogen strategy and new, more ambitious NDCs were unveiled in early July, with a carbon capture plan to follow.

Masdar is one of the world’s leading investors in renewables. It is targeting 100gw of electricity and 1 million tonnes per year of hydrogen by 2050, comparable to big European utilities such as Enel and Engie.

Most importantly, the UAE will want to influence Cop28 discussions favourably, while still advancing climate action. A weak final statement or lack of progress on major issues will not go down well internationally, particularly with the Europeans.

Much debate at Cop26 in Glasgow and Cop27 in Sharm El Sheikh focused on the wording of “phasing down” versus “phasing out” coal, and phasing out all fossil fuels versus “unabated” fossil fuels.

The blame falls more on the producers of hydrocarbons than on their users. Abated fossil fuels employ carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) to eliminate most of their emissions. But exactly what level of abatement is required will be the subject of hard bargaining. 

China, India and others will maintain that coal is essential to their economic growth and energy security. Gas exporters will argue their product is much cleaner than coal (as it is) and that it is compatible with climate targets when used with CCUS.

Most environmental groups – and a sizeable faction in European politics – are hostile to or sceptical of CCUS and nuclear power, and want a target for global renewables.

Article 6 of the Paris Agreement is another important topic. It deals with international co-operation, including carbon markets.

A debate has surfaced over Article 6.4, which covers carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere by biological or technological means. This is important to fossil fuel producers as it deals with unavoidable emissions, such as those from air travel.

The initial UN text was grossly biased against removals and Cop28 will have to arrive at a more balanced and pragmatic final version.

There will no doubt be late nights, tense negotiations and disappointment at the final text – international talks never give everyone what they want and we know we are far short of the changes required.

But if Cop28 reaches a constructive conclusion, develops low-carbon business links and helps catalyse progress at home, the UAE should be happy.

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

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