Evaluating the UAE’s COP28 Leadership Role

December 12, 2023 Topic: COP28 Region: Global Tags: COP28UAERenewable EnergyFossil FuelsClimate Change

Evaluating the UAE’s COP28 Leadership Role

Despite the absence of a fossil fuels “phase out” from the final agreement, Abu Dhabi has succeeded in committing the world to triple renewable energy capacity. 

COP28 is coming to a close amid efforts to clinch a global climate agreement. Much of the media’s focus has centered on COP President Dr. Sultan Al Jaber. Of course, being a key hydrocarbon producer is what makes the role of the United Arab Emirates so crucial in steering complex international negotiations involving 198 nations. The role of fossil fuels is coming to a head as countries including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and India have been vocal against the COP Presidency agenda of phasing down fossil fuels. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has expressed strong opposition to any language in a deal that would even mention fossil fuels.

This dispute highlights the obvious: No global climate deal can be complete without onboarding major oil producers. Here is where the UAE’s close relationship with not only the Saudi kingdom and the Gulf countries but also other major oil producers could be instrumental. In addition to these close ties, the UAE’s decision to have Dr. Al Jaber lead the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), as well as its renewable energy company Masdar, shows how to balance between the economic imperatives of oil exports with the urgency of renewable energy adoption. While the subject of controversy, this dual responsibility offers a pragmatic model for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as well as many similar economies.

On the other side of a growing divide are the United States and Europe, which, despite backing calls for a full fossil fuel “phase out,” have failed to provide anywhere near the trillions needed to finance such a thing—prompting many developing nations to balk. And it’s American, European, and Chinese companies that have the biggest plans for fossil fuel expansion this decade. In these circumstances, Abu Dhabi’s approach to phasing down fossil fuels stands as the only viable and realistic economic model for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region and other countries around the world, particularly Central Asian nations such as Kazakhstan, which is trying to expand its energy exports capability at the same time as it is developing its renewables sector.

Centered around a balance between continuing fossil fuel use and aggressively ramping up renewable energy sources, the UAE strategy recognizes the inevitability of a fossil fuels phasedown, dependent on the pace at which zero-carbon alternatives are scaled up​​. This involves substantial investment in renewable energy to shift the power generation mix towards renewable sources by 2050. The UAE plans to generate 44 percent of its domestic power from clean energy, 38 percent from gas, 12 percent from coal, and 6 percent from nuclear power by 2050, with an aim to reduce the carbon footprint of its power generation by 70 percent.

In many ways, this journey is exemplified by the milestones that have already been achieved at this year’s COP. For instance, 118 nations agreed to triple global renewable energy capacity and doubling energy efficiency by 2030—the first time such a target has been set at a COP summit. The UAE’s leadership was pivotal in securing this commitment. This is crucial for decarbonizing the energy sector responsible for three-quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions. The International Energy Agency (IEA) emphasizes that these efforts are vital to achieving the 1.5°C climate goal. Tripling renewable energy and doubling energy efficiency could pave the way for nearly three-quarters of the required CO2 emissions reductions by 2030.

Separately, the Oil and Gas Decarbonization Charter (OGDC) emerged as a core initiative, uniting over fifty major companies in a commitment to achieving net-zero operations by 2050 and significantly reducing methane emissions. This initiative represents major progress towards achieving the aims of the Paris Agreement while talks continue for stronger regulatory frameworks. Furthermore, the UAE’s unveiling of Altérra, a $30 billion climate fund aiming to mobilize $250 billion for clean energy investments by 2030 and focused on emerging markets, is a major step in addressing the gap in climate financing. There is also the historic Loss and Damage Fund agreement secured on the first day of COP, amounting to approximately $429 million annually for the most climate-vulnerable nations.

Ironically, the COP28 Presidency’s actions so far provide far more tangible support for phasing out fossil fuels than those of countries loudly focused on including such language in the COP28 text. The significance of these developments extends beyond COP and the potential for a breakthrough with GCC nations to U.S. strategic interests. From the American point of view, an energy transition in the Middle East is pivotal to regional stability, which is vital for Washington’s security, counter-terrorism efforts, and economic ties. A balanced energy transition approach can contribute to a stable and economically diverse GCC, reducing regional conflict risks and global oil market fluctuations. Abu Dhabi’s leadership at COP can also help foster U.S.-GCC collaborations in renewable energy technologies, offering opportunities for American businesses and enhancing U.S. technological and economic interests.

COP28 also represents a convergence of U.S. interests in economic stability, geopolitical security, climate goals, and technological innovation. Washington’s active participation, marked by showcasing its climate leadership and initiatives like the Department of Energy’s clean energy achievements, aligns with its strategic interests in driving global energy transitions and emission reductions. These efforts are in line with U.S. domestic climate goals and legislation aimed at significant emission reductions by 2030, reiterating the U.S. commitment to net-zero emissions.

This means that whatever the final text at COP28 says about fossil fuels, Abu Dhabi’s role in shepherding COP28 has demonstrated that the global discourse has begun to move beyond the binary arguments that pit fossil fuel producers against global efforts to transition to renewables. The proverbial needle has substantially moved to where hydrocarbon exporting states have been brought into the conversation, which is a prerequisite to establishing an international climate regime. Moving forward, the UAE—as a key global actor straddling both sides of the debate—has an extremely important role to play in bringing major producers and consumers to the table and influencing progress toward a global consensus on this critical issue.

Kamran Bokhari, Ph.D., is the Senior Director of Eurasian Security and Prosperity at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington. Bokhari is also a national security and foreign policy specialist at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute. He has served as the coordinator for Central Asia Studies at the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute. Follow him on X at @KamranBokhari.

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