According to a report published by UN Climate Change this week, Egypt and the UAE are among 26 countries that have updated their climate targets in line with promises made last year at COP26 in Glasgow, UK. Although Egypt has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electricity, transport, and oil and gas sectors further, this is not a comparison to the previously forecast levels. The commitment is contingent upon receiving international financial support. The UAE is pledging to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 31% by 2030, compared to business-as-usual level, which is beyond its previous promised cut of 23.5%.
The UN report says commitments made by countries in the past year will reduce projected emissions rises to 10.6% above 2010 levels by 2030, compared to the 13.7% forecast in a similar analysis last year. They are still far below what the world needs in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s minister of foreign affairs and the COP27 president, called the findings alarming and said they merit “a transformative response at COP27”.
The next two COP summits are an “important moment” for the Middle East, according to Carlos Duarte, a marine ecologist from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology near Jeddah (Saudi Arabia). This is a significant departure from the past. In the 1990s, Saudi Arabia consistently blocked action on climate change, while other oil-rich nations, including the United States, tried to stall it, says Michael Oppenheimer, a geoscientist and climate-policy researcher at Princeton University, New Jersey. Saudi Arabia’s representatives on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) doubted the scientific consensus on global warming, says Ben Santer, an atmospheric scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California, and one of the lead authors of the second IPCC assessment report in 1995, which confirmed that human activities were warming the planet.
In contrast, the region has been embracing renewable technologies over the past decade and focusing on the environment .. Oppenheimer states that Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing countries “not fighting the reality” of science today. This move is for states that depend on oil revenues. It’s about diversifying their economies in the face a future drop in demand. Also, it’s about using renewables to feed growing populations, while conserving fossil fuels for export. Mia Moisio, a Berlin researcher in climate policy at The New Climate Institute think tank, says. She also mentions that climate change vulnerability is another driver. “The region is experiencing these extreme heatwaves. This has likely been a wake-up call .”
The UAE’s environmental credentials include being home to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), which was inaugurated in 2015 in Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s flagship effort to create a sustainable city. Razan Al Mubarak was elected as the president of the highly-respected International Union for Conservation of Nature in Gland, Switzerland. He is the managing director of Abu Dhabi’s environmental regulator. In October, the UAE became the first Arab nation to pledge to reach net-zero domestic emissions by 2050.
Efforts in other Middle Eastern countries are also increasing. Saudi Arabia–the world’s largest oil exporter–and its neighbour Bahrain have set net-zero targets for 2060. Gas-rich Qatar, meanwhile, has announced plans to cut its emissions by 25% by 2030 and has created its first climate-change ministry. Israel and Turkey have both announced goals to reach net zero by the mid 2050s.
More widely, the Middle East Green Initiative, spearheaded by Saudi Arabia last year, has announced a goal to reduce carbon emissions from the region’s oil and gas industry by 60%, although no deadline has been given. This industry is one the largest sources of methane in the world. Moisio, who is also a member of the Climate Action Tracker, which rates countries based on their climate pledges and actions, says, “For the first-time, we’re seeing many countries that used to, or are still, highly dependent on their hydrocarbon industry, come out with net-zero promises.”
The rise of renewables
Currently, there are not many details about how these countries will achieve their climate goals. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are supporting their targets with large investments, including the building or expansion of carbon-neutral cities. The UAE government says it will invest 600 billion dirhams (around US$163 billion) in clean and renewable energies by 2050. The Saudi government estimates that investment across its Saudi Green Initiative will amount to 700 billion Saudi Arabian riyal (US$186 billion).
According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, an energy consulting company headquartered in New York City, overall investment in renewables in the Middle East has risen sevenfold in a decade, from $960 million in 2011 to $6.9 billion in 2021. Saudi Arabia invested around $1.5 billion in solar energy alone last year, and the UAE has put almost $9 billion into the technology since 2017. Mercedes Maroto-Valer is a chemical engineer and researcher on energy systems at Heriot-Watt University. It is located in Edinburgh, and has a campus also in Dubai. “There is quite profound growth we’re seeing here in the region in terms investment,” she said. Currently, however, according to IRENA data from 2020, the region produces less than 4% of its electricity from renewable sources, compared to a figure of 28% worldwide.
In the short-term, the region’s countries are primarily looking to solar energy, wind, and hydropower to meet their climate targets, says Maroto Valer. Renewable technologies and nuclear power accounted for 13% of Abu Dhabi’s energy mix in 2021 and are expected to reach more than 54% by 2025, says Awaidha Al Marar, chair of the Abu Dhabi Department of Energy. Egypt already hosts one of the world’s largest solar plants, at 1,650 megawatts, and Qatar plans to open an 800-megawatt solar site by the end of the year.
High levels of solar radiation give the Gulf states a natural advantage, and the cost of electricity from renewables in the Middle East has dropped to as low as 1 US cent per kilowatt hour (compared with a world average in 2021 of around 5 cents for solar projects and 3 cents for onshore wind). Francesco La Camera, director general of IRENA, says that this is a “tremendously affordable price”.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia are counting on this low cost to develop a new industry–green hydrogen. This fuel is made from renewable electricity that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. Saudi Arabia has the bold aim of becoming the world’s leading producer and exporter of hydrogen in the 2030s. It plans to achieve this through a plant under construction at a futuristic zero-carbon city called Neom, which is being built in the northwest of the country.
In the long-term, the Middle East nations are looking at ways to capture carbon, either directly from hydrocarbon plants or from the atmosphere, by increasing the size of ecosystems. The Middle East Green Initiative, for example, includes a goal of planting 50 billion trees–reportedly the world’s biggest afforestation project–which would restore an area equivalent to 200 million hectares of degraded land and fight desertification. Duarte says that, historically, some 38% of global carbon production has been caused by habitat loss. He believes that reversing this trend should account for about one-third of climate solutions.
Both Saudi Arabia, UAE and other countries will also be relying on offset emissions directly. They will capture carbon and store it or use it to make cosmetics. This approach is not always considered sound. The UAE’s 2050 energy strategy, for example, includes providing 12% of energy through ‘clean coal’, whose emissions are captured. Moisio considers this a red flag because the technology is costly and has not been proven to be economically viable. She says it should be reserved for industries that are difficult to decarbonize such as steel and cement.
There is no end to the oil age
The elephant in the room, however, is the fact that countries in the Middle East continue to invest in oil-and gas exploration. Exported emissions are not included in net-zero targets, as is the case with most countries. The Middle East’s economies are less dependent on oil than they were a decade back. According to World Bank figures, income from oil (specifically a metric called oil rents) accounted for 22.1% of gross domestic product (GDP) in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010. By 2020, this value had fallen to 11.7% of GDP–still considerably higher than the world average, which is less than 1%.
That said, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the subsequent sanctions that have been imposed on Russia by Western countries, have also led energy prices to soar. Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil firm, Aramco, posted record earnings of US$48.4 billion in the second quarter of 2022–a 90% increase over the same period in 2021. Several Western nations have been urging OPEC members to provide more oil to replace Russian production. Although OPEC producers agreed to a modest increase at their most recent meeting, along with a few other countries (including Russia), this decision was controversially reversed at the beginning October. As a result of the restrictions on oil supply, prices have increased, worsening tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United States ahead of COP27.
At COP26 in Glasgow, reports suggested that Saudi Arabia was among those countries that had watered down a recommendation on phasing out fossil-fuel subsidies. Moisio says, “So I would still say there is push back. And I would say that it’s understandable considering their economy is still so dependent upon hydrocarbons.” She says that there has been a shift in public opinion and they don’t want the label of “climate-change laggards”.
Stopping fossil-fuel exploration would be a “important signal, but that hasn’t been seen yet”, she says. The International Energy Agency’s pathway towards net zero by 2050–which will need to be followed if global warming is to be limited to 1.5 oC–includes no new investment in oil and gas production.
Maroto-Valer believes that fossil fuels will continue to be used in countries that lack the infrastructure to produce renewable energy. A fair transition process does not include penalizing countries that export to these countries. She adds that while we should aim to reduce oil exports, it should not be solely the responsibility of the country that produces them.
Duarte acknowledges that Saudi Arabia’s previous environmental strategy was inadequate. He says that although there is still a lot to be done in order to catch up with other countries, the pace of progress and strategy are very sound. He says that projects to address other environmental issues in the region, like the conservation of coral reefs are now supported by billions of dollars of funding. “I hope the rest of the world can eventually see what I see, and have m