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Seven steps to reducing the Gulf’s emissions

All GCC nations are in the top 10 of global polluters. This is what they can do about it

The 300MW Sakaka project in Al Jouf is one of Acwa's 11 solar sites in Saudi Arabia Acwa Power
The 300MW Sakaka project in Al Jouf is one of Acwa's 11 solar sites in Saudi Arabia

The Gulf states play an outsize role in global pollution. They occupy the top three places in carbon dioxide emissions per person, and all GCC countries are placed in the top ten.

Qatar stands out in first place, emitting 35.6 tonnes per capita in 2021, compared to twelfth-placed US with 14.9 tonnes.

This is not entirely the states’ fault. Hot arid climates demand air conditioning and desalination, and they are major providers of energy-intensive goods such as oil, liquefied natural gas, aluminium and fertilisers to the world.

But the high emissions represent a legacy of hydrocarbon dependence and low domestic energy prices, encouraging wasteful consumption and inefficient buildings and vehicles.

There are also wide differences between the countries in their efforts to date and their level of ambition. Economies and populations are growing quickly, creating a very different challenge from that of Europe or Japan.

Oman and the UAE plan net zero by 2050; Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia by 2060. The UAE’s latest update to its UN climate submission should see emissions drop to 182 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030, from the baseline 225 million tonnes in 2019.

Making progress on those targets will future-proof the GCC against unfavourable global climate policy, help limit the damage they themselves suffer from climate change and move them to more diversified and sustainable economies.

It will also set an example for regional neighbours and other major oil and gas exporters.

With that in mind, what can the GCC countries do to make the required rapid progress by 2030? They should begin to build seven pillars of future sustainability.

The seven pillars of future sustainability
  1. First it should eliminate remaining energy subsidies. Kuwait in particular retains very low prices for electricity, water and road fuels. Saudi Arabia raised prices substantially in 2015, then put on value-added tax, but has not acted since then.

    Charging full costs for energy is essential to drive efficiency improvements, and encourage people to treat scarce resources carefully. Charging the right prices for fuels also helps industries and power stations switch from oil to cleaner alternatives, first gas, and then renewable energy.
  2. Subsidy reform then helps build the next pillar – improving energy efficiency. Air conditioning is the main consumer of electricity, using as much as 60 per cent in a Gulf summer and even more as the climate heats up.

    Existing systems need to be cleaned and maintained properly, and upgraded. New installations should be the most efficient, and district cooling systems used wherever possible.
  3. Reforming fuel prices and controlling swelling electricity demand help support the third pillar of electric vehicles. These are not so critical for emissions reductions by 2030, but it is important to lay the groundwork. EVs may still not be the most economic choice, given moderate or very low petrol prices across the GCC, but they are increasingly popular.

    Other than Saudi Arabia, the GCC states are relatively small. So “range anxiety” should not be a problem, and installing a dense network of chargers should be straightforward. Saudi Arabia in particular is also keen on developing its own domestic EV brand and supply chain for manufacturing.
  4. Solar power’s world record-low costs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi have made headlines. Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar are now catching on, and wind power in the right places is also attractive.

    Solar and wind power are much cheaper than generation with oil and gas, and at the relatively low levels reached to date, it does not matter that it does not generate at night. The GCC countries, especially Kuwait and Bahrain, need to accelerate solar power.
  5. Only the UAE has nuclear power, although Saudi Arabia is looking at it. Delivering large amounts of low-carbon power is the sine qua non for decarbonising homes, businesses and industries.

    The different resources and time zones of the GCC states, and even more their neighbours such as Jordan and Egypt, favours electricity interconnections. The latest G20 meeting also proposed a link between India, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, though that would be a longer-term project.
  6. The sixth pillar is carbon pricing. As Europe and other regions move ahead with plans to levy tariffs on high-carbon imports, Gulf industries need a consistent carbon price – whether a tax or, like the EU, a trading scheme – to make low-carbon technologies more competitive. This could be on an individual national basis, but a GCC-wide scheme would be more effective and efficient.
  7. Finally, carbon capture and storage is the essential tool for decarbonising the petroleum and industrial sectors. Saudi Aramco, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Sharjah National Oil Company and QatarEnergy all have major plans for carbon capture. 

Some of these pillars are straightforward to construct, some are more challenging in politics or implementation. But all are technically very feasible by 2030.

Done right, they would build a solid foundation for the much more difficult second stage of net zero to 2040.

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

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