This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.
In public rhetoric, at least, the UAE government confronts head-on the threat of global warming and acknowledges its role as part of the climate change problem.
The UAE was one of the first countries in the region to ratify the UN’s 2015 Paris Agreement, which was designed to galvanize the global response to the threat of climate change with a commitment to limit the temperature increase this century to at least 2 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels – and preferably less.
In 2016 it reorganized the Ministry of Environment and Water as the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment. In 2017 it published its National Climate Change Plan, setting out an ambitious series of targets to be achieved before 2050.
The UAE, says the government website, is “among the categories of countries with the highest rate of vulnerability to the potential impacts of climate change in the world. This will result in warmer weather, less precipitation, droughts, higher sea levels and more storms.”
At the same time, it acknowledges that the nation’s “economic boom and population growth increase the demand on energy, water and natural resources, which indirectly contribute to the levels of carbon dioxide emissions and climate change in general.” It adds that the UAE “plays a central role in the world’s energy economy as a supplier of fossil fuels, which gives the country an important stake in finding solutions to cutting emissions while still providing the world with the energy it needs.”
On paper, then, the UAE is leading the regional charge in the battle against climate change and, despite the obvious hurdles it faces, aims to have 30 percent of its energy needs met by renewables by 2030.
But will it?
Although the country can point to all kinds of signs that it has been taking the problem of climate change seriously for some time, what is it actually doing that will either reduce its dependence upon oil and gas or significantly alter the fact that it remains one of the world’s largest producers of fossil fuels?
In 2009 the UAE outbid a number of European countries to host the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), an intergovernmental organization set up to support countries transitioning to a sustainable energy future.
It wasn’t the first sign that the threat of climate change – and the need to be seen to be doing something about it – had appeared on the UAE’s radar. IRENA was to be based at Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, a large-scale experiment set up by the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company in 2006 to pioneer “a ‘greenprint’ for how cities can accommodate rapid urbanisation while dramatically reducing their energy and water needs and waste production.”
At the time, it was easy to dismiss both of these initiatives by one of the world’s largest producers of fossil fuels as little more than cynical virtue signalling, but over the intervening years Masdar and the UAE as a whole have flexed their environmental muscles.
In addition to the creation of Masdar City – a living, working community of businesses and homes serving as a testbed for all kinds of environmentally friendly initiatives, from electric autonomous vehicles to buildings made from low-carbon cement and 90 percent recycled aluminum – the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company is in the business of developing commercially viable renewable energy projects at home and around the world.
Overseas, Masdar has been instrumental in a number of key projects, including the UK’s London Array offshore wind farm, the largest in the world; the three large Gemasolar solar power plants in Spain and the Tafila Wind Farm in Jordan, the first commercial utility-scale project of its kind in the world.
Other similar projects are in the pipeline and Masdar has brought renewables technology to some of the world’s most remote rural communities in Afghanistan, Mauritania and the Seychelles, while ensuring clean energy plays a key role in plans for rural electrification in Egypt.
Meanwhile, Masdar has been far from idle on the home front.
Its flagship domestic initiative to date is Shams 1. One of the world’s largest Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) plants, the first of its kind in the Middle East and North Africa region and one of the biggest renewable energy projects in the world, the 2.5 square-kilometer plant near Madinat Zayed in the emirate of Abu Dhabi came online in 2013 and is capable of generating 100 megawatts of power.
There is also the Carbon Capture, Usage & Storage project, a joint venture between Masdar and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. This captures up to 800,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year in emissions from Emirates Steel plants and transports it via a pipeline network for use in Abu Dhabi’s oil fields. There it is injected into reservoirs for enhanced oil recovery and safely stored.
Of course, Masdar isn’t the only organization responsible for a series of renewable energy initiatives in the UAE. In Dubai, the government has boldly announced it intends the city to have the lowest carbon footprint in the world by 2050, and wants 10 percent of all cars to be either electric or hybrid by 2030.
Probably the country’s biggest commitment to moving beyond reliance on fossil fuels was the formation a decade ago of the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC). In 2009 ENEC took on the vast and complex task of delivering the first nuclear power plant in the Arab world in the UAE. The US$24 billion Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant has yet to come onstream (the latest anticipated date is some time this year) but three more plants, all of them well under way, are due to follow in the next few years.
But no matter how genuinely well-intended, what real impact will any of these initiatives have?
The national demand for power is escalating as rapidly as the country is developing. Over the past decade the UAE’s thriving economy has driven up electricity consumption by 60 percent. Despite the economic slump induced by the coronavirus, it is forecast that consumption will continue to rise – and at such a pace that, even with all four nuclear plants pumping out power by the time they are all online, the increase in demand will have far exceeded their contribution to the national grid.
It was all laid bare by BP’s latest Statistical Review of World Energy, an annual global review that has been tracking energy trends since 1965: the region as a whole has the poorest record in the world when it comes to generating renewable energy. In 2018 only 0.3 percent of energy in the Middle East came from renewables, compared with 40.2 percent in the Asia-Pacific region, 30.7 percent in Europe and 21.2 percent in North America.
Progress in much of the region, of course, is compromised by economic difficulties and ongoing conflicts, but even the more prosperous nations, including the UAE, have failed significantly to alter their reliance on fossil fuels. This suggests a deep-seated reluctance to sabotage or even significantly scale back a sector that has transformed the fortunes of the Gulf states and the lives of their citizens, all within living memory.
In 2018 the UAE’s primary energy demand, including the generation of electricity, was equivalent to 112 million tonnes of oil. The bulk of this, 65 million tonnes, was generated by natural gas, with oil accounting for most of the rest.
Renewables? Despite all the talk, conferences, summits, commitments and multiple initiatives, in 2018 renewables accounted for just 0.2 of the UAE’s energy needs.
Like the rest of the developed world, the UAE must find a way to curb its consumption of fossil fuels if it is to play its part in the battle to limit global warming.
The global coronavirus crisis is showing that only by putting a brake on runaway development can the world hope to manage the threat of global warming. As economies in lockdown grind to a halt and traffic on the ground and in the skies disappears, the air and the seas are clearing of pollution.
This will, of course, be only a temporary reprieve; as horrendous as it is now, the Covid-19 crisis will pass. What the world must not do in the meantime is lose sight of the truly existential threat that not only remains present but will return with a vengeance once the world economy gets back to business as usual.
Before it does, the UAE, which relies on imported foodstuffs and the fuel and water it takes to grow and ship them, which is home to the world’s busiest air hub and utterly dependent upon fossil fuels, must face some harsh truths.
If it is truly serious about global warming, as one of the world’s leading producers and per-capita consumers of fossil fuels it must stop fiddling around the edges of the problem and start to think – and act – more radically and courageously.
If it does not, if the UAE continues to expand and develop at a rate that can only be sustained by consuming more and more fossil fuels, then all the fine talk and all the examplar initiatives will amount to little more than so much hot air.
Jonathan Gornall is a freelance British journalist who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.