UAE receives praise and skepticism after revealing first net-zero pledge in the region

Workers photographed walking past a section of solar panels at the Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Solar Park in Dubai on March 20, 2017.
STRINGER | AFP | Getty Images

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The United Arab Emirates will invest more than $160 billion to become the first Gulf state to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, as part of a significant but detail-light climate initiative revealed Thursday. 

“We are committed to seize the opportunity to cement our leadership on climate change within our region… as we pivot our economy and nation to net zero,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai.

The announcement, while lacking specifics, still makes the UAE the first Gulf state to commit to a national drive to eliminating carbon emissions. The 2050 target aligns the UAE with most major global climate commitment pledges, and comes ahead of the United Nations COP26 climate talks in November.

“Big step forward, major challenge,” tweeted Robin Mills, CEO of Qamar Energy, a UAE based energy consultancy. “Will face welcome, also some skepticism, ahead of COP26. But may be more doable than some expect,” he added.

The UAE initiative is in line with the Paris Agreement, which calls on countries to prepare long-term strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit the rise in global temperature by 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. 

The decision will likely elevate the UAE’s standing as it seeks to distinguish itself as a global climate leader in a region still dominated by fossil fuels. The government has also been lobbying to host the COP28 global climate summit in Abu Dhabi in November 2023. 

“As the first net zero carbon commitment in the Gulf, this is an historic announcement,” tweeted Alok Sharma, President of COP26. “I look to others in the region to also announce ambitious climate action commitments,” he added. 

The regional first move will also likely add significant pressure on other major fossil fuels producers, such as Saudi Arabia, to raise domestic ambition to be part of the solution.

Competing priorities

Despite efforts to diversify and build its green credentials, oil and gas exports remain the lynchpin of the UAE economy, making up 30% of national gross domestic product.

The country also has one of the highest per capita carbon emission rates, despite investing over $40 billion in clean energy sectors in recent years in anticipation of the energy transition. 

With oil set to remain critical for the future of its economy, policymakers will be pressed for details on how the plan can realistically be achieved. The Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, known as ADNOC, still plans to invest heavily to increase oil production capacity to 5 million barrels a day in the coming years. 

Becoming carbon net zero while expanding oil production may well fall within the UN rules, which only factor in emissions generated within a country’s borders.

Nawal Al-Hosany, the UAE’s permanent representative to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), pointed to the $40 billion that she said her country has already invested in domestic clean energy projects, as well as contributions to renewable energy projects in 70 other countries. 

“We cannot, however, be content to rest on our laurels,” Al-Hosany told CNBC. “Now is the time to up the ante. While we strive to reach net zero emissions by mid-century at home in the UAE, we must also, as a responsible member of the international community, constantly seek novel, innovative and collaborative ways to make clean energy more accessible especially for climate-vulnerable communities.”

“Today’s announcement of the UAE Net Zero by 2050 strategic initiative epitomizes the vision and foresight of our wise leadership and continues the UAE’s tradition to contribute progressive solutions to global problems,” said Sultan Al Jaber on Thursday, minister of industry and advanced technology and special envoy for climate who also serves as chief executive of ADNOC.

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