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A Green Recovery

Navigating climate change challenges amidst ambitious green policies in the Gulf countries

11 December 2023

The United Arab Emirates is hosting COP28 in Expo City Dubai from November 30 to December 12, 2023, the largest yearly gathering dedicated to tackling the phenomena of climate change, an urgent global crisis that transcends national borders and necessitates resolute international cooperation to prevent the harm it causes.

Undoubtedly, the UAE's hosting of the conference, which has a long track record of efforts in combatting the effects of climate change and investing in clean energy, will provide momentum for Gulf states to lead climate action efforts at the regional and international levels. However, it is untrue that the issue of climate change has risen to the top of the Gulf states' priority list solely because of the COP28 summit. This has received much attention for over a decade because Gulf nations are among the countries most affected by climate change, so they must be at the forefront of countries fighting to prevent it.

Climate Challenges

There is proof that climate change is posing threats to the Arabian Gulf region, especially as it is regarded as one of the most vulnerable to climate change in the world:

1. High temperatures

Leading experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology warned this year that if significant reductions in carbon emissions are not achieved, the Arabian Gulf region's daily temperatures could rise significantly and that climate change could severely affect the region's habitability in the future. Several estimates provide evidence confirming that the region's temperatures are rising in a way that threatens its safety:

- According to one estimate, the region will rise by 1-2 degrees Celsius by 2050 and by 4-6 degrees Celsius by 2100.

- According to one 2018 study, a 3°C increase in temperature might cause considerable losses in the GDP of GCC countries, ranging between 0.2% and 0.5% annual fall after 2027 and 1.5% to 3% annual decline beginning in 2067.

- The region is expected to become uninhabitable by 2075 due to a temperature rise of 4 degrees Celsius, with the number of deaths from heat waves increasing from 5,000 in the first decade of the twenty-first century to 15,000 by the 2050s. 

2. Sea level rise

Low-lying coastal areas in Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE are at risk. More than two-thirds of the GCC population resides in coastal urban areas; consequently, it is estimated that approximately 12% of the Gulf population could face mass displacement from their homes due to increasing sea levels caused by climate change.

3. Increasing frequency of extreme weather events

Dust storms, hurricanes, and flooding are common in the region. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Yemen have been hit hard by floods in recent years. For example, in October 2021, Oman was hit by Hurricane Shaheen, killing seven people and displacing hundreds more. Furthermore, the region is prone to severe dust and sandstorms, typically caused by high winds, lack of plants, and shortage of rainfall.

4. Food stress and nutritional poverty

Water scarcity is a key concern for Gulf countries, especially since all six countries are among the 17 in the world that suffer from water stress. Currently, all GCC countries fall below the water poverty criteria of 500 cubic meters of available water per capita per year. There is little doubt that severe and frequent heat waves, along with water constraints, have a negative impact on agricultural output, undermining food security.

Ambitious Goals

It is possible to shed light on the most prominent programs, strategies, initiatives, and projects highlighting the Gulf countries' transformation toward meeting their green pledges to combat climate change. The following are some of the more notable among them:

1. Renewable energy projects

Saudi Arabia has set ambitious renewable energy goals, aiming to generate 50% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. Similarly, the UAE intends to generate 44% of its energy from renewable sources by 2050, with Oman aiming for 30%, Kuwait 15%, and Qatar 20% by 2030. 

In this context, Arabian Gulf countries have seen an unparalleled surge in clean and renewable energy projects. The UAE, for example, is home to large-scale solar energy facilities such as the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, which produces 5,000 megawatts, and the Noor Abu Dhabi plant located in Abu Dhabi's Sweihan area and is one of the largest solar photovoltaic power stations with a capacity of 1,177 megawatts. This is in addition to Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, one of the world's most sustainable urban communities, with a growing low-carbon complex based on clean technologies. 

Similarly, Saudi Arabia has massive renewable energy projects, with five new renewable energy projects announced in 2022, including three wind energy projects with a total capacity of 1,800 megawatts in Yanbu, Al-Ghat, and Waad Al-Shamal and two solar energy projects with a total capacity of 1,500 megawatts in Al Henakiyah and Tubarjal. On the other hand, Qatar has not been left out of the advances in renewable energy projects. Shortly before hosting the FIFA World Cup, it inaugurated the first large solar power station in Al Kharsaah, with a capacity of 800 megawatts.

2. Accelerating the pace for carbon capture and storage

Carbon capture and storage technology continues to be an essential factor in the transition to a world free of fossil fuels. As a result, Gulf decision-makers recognize the need to depend on such technology to reach net zero emissions - carbon is stored or repurposed by being converted into solid minerals or alcohol products. Accordingly, Saudi Arabia intends to boost its capture and storage capacity to 44 million tons per year by 2035, while the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) intends to improve its ability to capture CO2 for use in natural gas processing plants. All carbon capture and storage initiatives in the Middle East are centered in the Gulf region, notably the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, and these projects account for around 10% of the 40 million tons of CO2 captured globally.

3. Strong institutional structures to manage climate action

The governments of Arab Gulf countries did not confine climate action to the ministries of environment and energy. Rather, other institutions were established to enhance the institutional structure, which aids in implementing the ambitious aims of combatting climate change. The National Committee on Ozone and Climate Change, chaired by the Environment Public Authority in Kuwait, and the National Committee on Climate Change, chaired by the Supreme Council for Environment in Bahrain, are two of the most notable institutional frameworks. In the UAE, the UAE Council for Climate Change and Environment was established in 2016 with the mission of increasing private sector participation in climate change efforts. There is also the Zayed International Foundation for the Environment, which promotes sustainable development by launching environmental initiatives to raise public awareness and address sustainability issues and organizing conferences, workshops, scientific seminars, and other regional and worldwide events. In 2021, Qatar formed the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change to handle climate-related challenges, and the National Climate Change Plan was adopted to guide decision-making processes.

4. Climate diplomacy to achieve an equilibrium of climate and energy

There is no doubt that the UAE's selection to host COP28, as well as Qatar's selection to host the same conference in 2012, reflects the Gulf states' tireless diplomatic efforts at the international level in the field of climate action. Through ambitious Gulf visions for combating the effects of climate change, the transition to renewable energy, and efforts to achieve net zero emissions, the Gulf has gained international trust and credibility for its role in bearing the responsibility of combating climate change and, as a result, it was qualified to host international/UN climate conferences, thanks to its diplomacy. In general, the Gulf's move toward "climate diplomacy" reflects its leaders' interest in striking a balance between environmental issues and climate change on the one hand while not undermining the oil and gas markets to achieve global energy security on the other, given that the Gulf states are among the major producers and exporters of hydrocarbon materials. Over the last few years, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain have assigned "Special Envoys for Climate Affairs" to find a balance between energy and climate security requirements. 

5. Ambitious green initiatives

The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman have all established a goal of reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century. This aligned with the global community's efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030 and attain net zero emissions by 2050. In this context, the UAE launched the Net Zero 2050 strategic initiative, making it the first country in the Middle East and North Africa to declare climate neutrality as a goal. Riyadh began the "Saudi Green Initiative" in 2021 with three broad goals in mind: lowering carbon emissions, reforesting Saudi Arabia, and conserving land and marine areas. Conversely, Manama aspires to achieve carbon emissions neutrality by 2060, launching the National Plan for Afforestation and the Green Cities initiative. In an effort to minimize emissions, Saudi Arabia and Qatar joined the US, Norway, and Canada to form the Net-Zero Producers Forum. The forum will establish realistic ways to reduce methane emissions, promote a circular carbon economy strategy, and develop and disseminate renewable energy technology and carbon capture and storage. Experts predict that it will be successful, given that its members represent 40% of the world's oil and gas producers.

6. More regional cooperation:

The Gulf green initiatives were not limited to national initiatives but extended to reflect apparent regional cooperation, as evidenced by the launch of the Middle East Green Initiative, with its first summit launched in October 2021. The conference acted as the first regional climate discussion, bringing together all leaders from the Middle East and North Africa. The program seeks to plant 50 billion trees across the area, reducing carbon emissions generated by oil by 60%.

Beneficial Returns

Observers feel that the vitality of Gulf policies addressing climate change cannot be confined to organizing international conferences on climate change and clean energy, but rather that these policies benefit the Gulf countries in the following ways:

1. Promoting economic diversification

The Gulf's efforts in climate action not only achieve the goals of global climate conferences or are formally consistent with the UN's sustainable development goals, but they also aim to promote economic diversification in the energy field. Thus, these ambitious and bold policies have created more job opportunities in the energy sector. Many jobs have been created in renewable energy and carbon capture and storage, with major energy firms also providing training courses and apprenticeship curricula for young engineers in fields such as renewable energy or hydrogen. Environmental and climate education has become unavoidable, and combatting climate change has thus become a question of social and economic existence. Climate action and the energy transition have evolved into profit-generating industries.

2. International momentum and credibility in climate action

The UAE's hosting of COP28 qualifies it to position itself as a global champion against climate change. At the same time, Saudi Arabia's eagerness to expand green hydrogen production makes it a regional center for its production in the region. Governments must send regular and transparent updates on implementing and attaining their national climate goals, as required by the Paris Climate Agreement. Despite being the most important oil and natural gas exporting countries, the Gulf countries are uniquely positioned to pursue ambitious programs to mitigate climate change while attempting to achieve carbon neutrality.

3. The region's unity despite the political crisis and security issues

The Middle East's strategic and security frameworks and regional alliances are very complex, given the region's state of regional and international competition and conflict of interests, as well as the continuation of the Gaza war between Hamas and Israel, which has claimed the lives of thousands of victims, turning attention to climate action at the regional and international levels, particularly with COP28, unites all countries in the region and pushes the search for common ground on how to confront the effects of climate change.

Gulf countries were the first to recognize the critical need for planning for the effects of climate change, and this was the driving force behind their adoption of ambitious plans, strategies, and policies to achieve carbon neutrality and shift to clean energy sources. There is no doubt that these ambitious goals would improve the Gulf states' position and contribute to three benefits. The first is combating the consequences of climate change, which threaten the Gulf's environmental and societal security. The second is that it will boost the Gulf states' reputation and confidence among countries in the Global South, which are wary of Western "green colonialism" ideas. As a result, Gulf experiences will be passed on to developing-world countries in a way that achieves climate justice and prevents the so-called green takeover. The third and final is that it broadens the Gulf countries' economic horizons, nourishing all aspects of development without relying solely on oil profits, but rather more comprehensive and diverse economies with endless abundant sources of clean energy.