If there was a sign the United Arab Emirates is taking its role as host of the next UN climate talks seriously, the 1,073 delegates it registered to attend the Cop27 summit in Egypt would be it.
The Persian Gulf petrostate came out in force in Sharm el-Sheikh with the second largest delegation in the history of climate summits, including 70 oil and gas lobbyists – a flavour of what is to come.
The UAE takes on the UN climate talks presidency from the Egyptians at the end of November next year, when it hosts Cop28 on the site of the Dubai Expo.
The Emirates are seeking international clout as the Gulf’s most proactive nation on climate action. It was first in the region to set a 2050 net zero goal. And at Cop27, it became the first to announce absolute emission cuts, instead of from a hypothetical business-as-usual baseline.
But its plan includes expanding oil and gas production, which is incompatible with limiting global warming to 1.5C. The UAE has pitched its role as providing the world with reliable and low-carbon intensity oil and gas for decades to come.
“The UAE is known as a responsible supplier of energy and will continue to play this role as long as the world needs oil and gas,” president Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan told the leaders’ summit at Cop27.
In its climate diplomacy, the UAE is pursuing a two-pronged approach: an aggressive campaign to fund thousands of megawatts of clean energy at home and overseas and even greater efforts to boost its oil and gas production.
It is on the defensive, as the case for leaving fossil fuels in the ground gets more vocal. In Sharm el-Sheikh, more than 80 countries pushed to extend language on phasing down unabated coal power to oil and gas, but petrostates blocked it from formal negotiation. The issue is not going away.
“The Emiratis will find it difficult to deal with a fast-moving debate on fossil fuels, given their economy is structured around oil and gas,” Glada Lahn, a senior research fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House. “Sharm showed that the tide is turning. What’s missing are the great examples of diversification – the UAE could definitely elevate its work on that.”
The discovery of commercial oil in the late 1950s bought enormous riches to Abu Dhabi, the largest of the emirates, where almost all of the country’s oil is pumped.
Today, the UAE says it has the world’s sixth largest crude oil reserves and seventh largest gas reserves.
It has made efforts to diversify the economy away from oil – grasping the need to do so earlier than most of its neighbours. Tourism is a key growth sector. Dubai is becoming a business and financial services hub. Yet, more than half of government revenues still depend on the oil and gas industry, according to Carbon Tracker.
Prepare to be dazzled
The UAE has been assiduously preparing for Cop28 since it received the green light to host the summit at Cop26 in Glasgow, UK last year.
Climate envoy Sultan bin Ahmed al-Jaber started consultations with the UK and Egypt as early as January.
In Sharm el-Sheikh, the Emirates boasted one of the largest country pavilions. The steel structure of the media centre was sprayed with “made in UAE”.
“They will hold a very slick event – they are excellent hosts. That is what they like to do,” said Lahn.
“They try to dazzle visitors. They like to say they are the biggest and the best at everything they do,” Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute, told Climate Home.
And Cop28 could turn out to be the biggest UN climate summit yet.
Al-Jaber told the government the event, which will coincide with the UAE’s national day on 2 December, is expected to welcome more than 140 heads of states and over 80,000 delegates at the Dubai expo site – more than double the size of Cop26.
“The expo was supposed to get the UAE back on the global map,” said Ulrichsen. Originally scheduled for October 2020 and plagued by pandemic delays, the event received fewer international visitors than expected. Cop28 is the UAE’s biggest opportunity yet to wield its soft power.
Political prisoners and pragmatism
In the UAE, like in Egypt, where human rights concerns came to the fore, it will be “a very controlled experience,” said Ulrichsen.
“The UAE have been able to brand themselves as a version of southern Spain or Ibiza although below the surface they have similar issues as their neighbours: exploited labour force, political prisoners and a police state,” he added.
In an example of authoritarian solidarity, the UAE last month arrested an Egyptian-American national over criticism of Egypt’s president. Sherif Osman may be extradited to Egypt, his fiancee told Reuters, where she feared he would not get a fair trial.
The UAE has pitched Cop28 as a moment to find “realistic, practical, and pragmatic solutions to accelerate the global energy transition”.
The summit will hold the first formal assessment of progress since the Paris Agreement came into force – known as the global stocktake. The outcome could be critical in spurring much -needed emission cuts this decade.
Adaptation and agriculture are poised to be key priorities for the host, which imports 85% of the food it consumes. Under a partnership with the US, the UAE pledged to invest $1bn in high-tech “climate-smart” agriculture. The alliance is controversial for favouring intensive agriculture over nature-friendly farming and working with climate-denying meat lobby groups.
In the climate talks, the UAE negotiates under the Arab Group, chaired by Saudi Arabia, which takes most of the flak for the group’s position.
Cop28 “might force them to break cover,” said Ulrichsen.
For the UAE, like other producers, that conversation cannot happen without the oil and gas industry, who have received an early invitation to Cop28.
“The hydrocarbon industry will have to be included as part of the mix,” climate envoy Al-Jaber said of the summit earlier this year. Their expertise is necessary to develop “meaningful, practical climate solutions,” he added.
Al-Jaber has a stake in the oil business. Minister of industry and advanced technology, he is also CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc), the state-owned oil company. In addition, he is chairman of Masdar, a government-owned renewable energy company he helped establish.
“Wearing these different hats at the same time shows the UAE’s commitment to further climate action is balanced with the fact that its political wellbeing depends on oil and gas,” said Rice University’s Ulrichsen.
“It is not hydrocarbons or solar, not wind or nuclear or hydrogen. It is all the above,” Al-Jaber told The National, an Abu Dhabi newspaper owned by the royal family.
While Adnoc is planning to invest $127 billion in expanding production and downstream activities in the next five years, it is also taking part in a government partnership to scale up renewable capacity.
The UAE was early in the region in establishing a climate ministry, now headed by Mariam bint Mohammed Almheiri, a woman representing the “young, progressive nation” the government wants to world to see.
In 2012, Abu Dhabi was chosen to house the International Renewable Energy Agency headquarters.
It is establishing itself as a renewable energy financier overseas. The government says it has invested more than $50bn in clean energy projects in 70 countries. It promises to supply clean electricity to 100 million people in Africa by 2035.
At Cop27, it signed a deal to develop a 10GW onshore wind farm in Egypt – one of the largest in the world.
And it struck a partnership with the US to mobilise $100bn in financing and technical support to deploy 100GW of clean energy globally by 2035. That includes nuclear and technologies to cut emissions from oil and gas production such as carbon capture and storage.
“If you look at their size, they do punch above their weight,” said Mia Moisio, who leads the Climate Action Tracker project at NewClimate Institute.
As one of the world’s richest and most polluting countries per capita, the UAE is a prime candidate to expand the donor base for climate finance.
Fuzzy net zero aspirations
In October 2021, the UAE became the first Gulf state to set a 2050 net zero goal. But it has yet to set out credible plans to get there.
Under its latest 2050 energy strategy, dated 2017, the nation aimed for renewable and nuclear energy to make up 50% of its installed power capacity by mid-century.
The rest would be met with gas and “clean coal” – a misleading term that usually refers to coal-fired power plants fitted with carbon capture and storage technology.
This year, the UAE was among a handful of countries that heeded a call to step up their 2030 climate plans. It pledged to cut emissions 31% compared to business-as-usual, up from 23.5% previously.
At Cop27, the UAE set out absolute emission reduction milestones on the road to net zero. It aims to cut emissions 18% compared to 2019 levels by 2030 and 60% by 2040. But the announcement didn’t quantify the 2019 baseline – making it difficult to assess.
The UAE's last published national greenhouse gas inventory is for 2014. “There are vastly different estimates for [carbon] emissions when you compare different sources,” Moisio said. “Without their own baseline, it’s a bit of a wild guess.”
The UAE unveiled its National 'Net Zero by 2050' Pathway today at #COP27, living up to its legacy as the first MENA nation to commit to #NetZero by 2050. @MoCCaEUAE will lead the national strategy, in collaboration with 20 federal & local government entities. #UAEforClimate pic.twitter.com/AqjKfYjOiL
— Office Of The UAE Special Envoy For Climate Change (@uaeclimateenvoy) November 11, 2022
Climate Action Tracker scores the UAE’s climate plan as “highly insufficient” to meet global climate goals. The plan, it says, is aligned with more than 3C of warming.
While the UAE is planning to use less fossil fuel in its own energy mix, it plans to export more and protect carbon-intensive industries such as aluminium, steel and cement.
Adnoc aims to increase oil production to five million barrels per day by 2027, up from around 3.5 million today. It is expanding offshore gas drilling to reduce reliance on imports from neighbouring Qatar and export to Germany.
Gambling on failure
Carbon dioxide emissions from burning oil and gas are counted in the consumer country. The UAE could achieve CO2 cuts without halting fossil fuel production for exports. But fugitive emissions of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas, count at the wellhead, where they are coming under increased scrutiny. And critically, the strategy relies on others continuing to buy oil and gas.
Without a rollout at scale of carbon capture technologies, the UAE’s net zero plan “is predicated on the rest of the world failing to achieve net zero,” Jim Krane, another fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute, told Climate Home. “There is nobody that matters that doubts climate change anymore. So oil producers are trying to play catch-up."
To meet its net zero goal, the UAE is considering carbon capture and storage, direct air capture and “ocean-based solutions” to store carbon back into the Earth.
With depleted oil and gas reservoirs and suitable geology, Gulf countries have some of the highest potential for storing carbon dioxide underground. A group of experts is campaigning to get the concept of “geological net zero” recognised in the UN climate space and endorsed by Gulf’s oil producers – starting with Cop28 host UAE.
At Cop27, proponents of the concept met with the UAE presidency. It could be just what they need to square the circle.
Yet emissions capture technology remains expensive and never 100% effective, after decades of development. Campaigners widely view it as a "false solution".
“[UAE] want to be seen as being part of the public debate while protecting their interest. They are walking a tight rope,” said Ulrichsen.
Despite repeated requests, the UAE's Cop28 team did not make anyone available to Climate Home for interview.