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The United Arab Emirates, currently hosting the 28th edition of the Conference of the Parties United Nations climate summit, COP28, is well on the way to meeting or even exceeding its greenhouse gas emission reduction targets before 2030. But attaining the net-zero target it has set by 2050 requires prioritizing energy efficiency and reducing reliance on hydrocarbon revenue.
These were among findings drawn from a review of the UAE’s energy transition trajectory, presented in a UAE-focused “barometer” by the United Kingdom’s Energy Institute and presented during COP28, which opened November 30 in Dubai. “Energy Barometer 2023: The UAE in Transition,” incorporates the views and perspectives of energy professionals based in the UAE across various sectors of the energy business from oil and gas to renewables, carbon management, hydrogen, and carbon capture.
With the UAE in the spotlight as host of COP28, the Energy Institute chose this year to focus on the UAE for its barometer rather than on the U.K. as it normally does. The results were a mixed bag of positive views on the UAE’s energy transition trajectory while identifying risks to the UAE economy associated with dependence on fossil fuel revenue and a higher energy intensity than the global average.
More than 60% of respondents believe that, based on the current pace of development, the UAE will meet or surpass its 2030 emissions reduction target. A similar number believe that the UAE will exceed its energy diversification target by 2050, when renewables and nuclear power are expected to meet 50% of total energy demand.
The UAE has made huge strides in diversifying its energy mix and was the first Gulf Cooperation Council state to announce its ambition to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The country was an early starter in tapping into its solar potential and today boasts some of the biggest solar parks in the world, yet renewables made up just 1% of primary energy consumption in 2022, according to the Energy Institute 2023 “Statistical Review of World Energy.” Nuclear power takes the share of clean energy up to 5% of the total, but oil and gas dominate, making up 43% and 50% of the mix, respectively.
While not short on ambition in its energy diversification policy, the UAE faces a particular set of challenges along the pathway to carbon neutrality not least the threat of climate change to its semidesert environment.
More than half of the survey respondents believe that, by 2050, the UAE will be “disproportionately adversely affected by climate change” compared to other regions globally. Key concerns include rising temperatures and shorter winters, leading to harsher working conditions.
The estimated 80,000 delegates attending the climate summit in Dubai experienced warmer-than-normal December temperatures, with a high of 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) forecast for the rest of the week. Even before the year has come to an end, the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization has declared 2023 the hottest year on record.
“Greenhouse gas levels are record high. Global temperatures are record high. Sea level rise is record high. Antarctic sea ice is record low. It’s a deafening cacophony of broken records,” World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said. “These are more than just statistics. We risk losing the race to save our glaciers and to rein in sea level rise. We cannot return to the climate of the 20th century, but we must act now to limit the risks of an increasingly inhospitable climate in this and the coming centuries,” he said.
The message was reinforced at the start of COP28 by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. He said, “Polar ice and glaciers are vanishing before our eyes, causing havoc the world over: from landslides and floods, to rising seas,” He added: “Earth’s vital signs are failing: record emissions, ferocious fires, deadly droughts, and the hottest year ever. We can guarantee it even when we’re still in November.” In a video message at the World Meteorological Organization report launch, Guterres said, “We are living through climate collapse in real time – and the impact is devastating.”
The survey conducted by the Energy Institute identifies water scarcity as a risk factor for 41% of respondents, while 38% cite climate change-related pollution from dust and sand particles generated from vehicles and fossil fuel power plants as posing a high risk to health.
Water scarcity emerged as a prevalent concern within the broader context of climate change risks in the survey results. The report noted that per capita water consumption in the UAE is approximately 50% higher than the global average.
The survey responses did not rank highly the threat of rising sea levels. “It is perhaps somewhat surprising that, in a country where most of the urban development is coastal, either on existing or reclaimed land, the threat of rising sea levels only ranked fifth with desertification sixth,” the Energy Institute mentioned in a summary of the findings.
The UAE, no doubt mindful of its role as host of COP28, was the first Gulf state to submit the third update of its second nationally determined contribution under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in which it set out stricter greenhouse gas emission targets. In its submission, it listed artificial islands that have been built on reclaimed land in recent years as being at risk from rising sea levels due to global warming: “The UAE has multiple artificial islands that are particularly at risk of flooding due to sea level rise. Rising water temperatures may also permanently damage crucial eco-systems such as corals and wetlands which serve as carbon sinks, thus further exacerbating climate change. Given its awareness of the devastating impact of climate change and of the cost of inaction, the UAE is committed to reducing its GHG emissions and enhancing its climate adaptation efforts to ensure climate resilience.”
The UAE has the highest proportion of renewable and clean energy of the GCC countries at around 7% of the GCC’s total renewable energy capacity. This percentage is set to grow with the launch of operations at Abu Dhabi’s 2 gigawatt Al Dhafra solar photovoltaic facility, officially inaugurated November 16 ahead of the climate summit.
Billed as the “world’s largest single-site solar power plant,” Al Dhafra’s start up aligns with the UAE’s commitment to environmental sustainability. This was reinforced by the UAE’s decision to power the COP28 venue at Dubai’s vast Expo City for the two weeks of the event exclusively by renewable energy from Dubai’s expanding solar facilities.
The Dubai Electricity and Water Authority announced November 22 that “Expanding on Expo City’s current on-site renewable energy capacity, DEWA will now permanently provide solar energy to the entire site through International Renewable Energy Certificates (I-RECs) sourced from the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park. This initiative aligns with the central mission of COP28.”
Dubai has been pressing ahead with an expansion of its solar power capacity in recent years and the share of renewables is expected to make up 16.7% of total installed power generation capacity by the end of 2023, according to MEES calculations. But natural gas is still the baseload fuel for power generation in the UAE, accounting for more than 90% of total electricity generated in 2022.
Gas consumption would be higher were it not for the Barakah Nuclear Power Plant, which has displaced some gas and will at full capacity meet 25% of the UAE’s electricity demand by the end of 2024.
One of the “key insights” that came out of the Energy Barometer is that “the UAE is seen as well-funded to make the necessary investments in clean energy, including financing renewable energy and low carbon hydrogen, though there are calls for greater clarity around the policies, regulations and market mechanisms required.” The UAE has announced plans to invest up to $54 billion in renewables between now and 2030 in pursuit of its net-zero target.
Other challenges cited by respondents were the country’s high per capita energy intensity and reliance on fossil fuel export revenue, which will need to be tackled to avoid the worst effects of rising temperatures and safeguard the economy.
Respondents singled out energy efficiency “as an opportunity area that needs the most focus and investment.” This included demand management in air conditioning, water consumption and desalination and the adoption of less carbon-intensive methods in oil and gas production and utilization. Air conditioning alone contributes to about 70% of peak electricity load in buildings, a figure expected to rise with increasing temperatures. Proposed measures include enhancing the efficiency of buildings and implementing minimum efficiency standards.
“Despite this low contribution today, 65% of respondents still believe that, given the current pace of development, the goal to reach 50 percent of clean energy (nuclear and renewables) in the energy mix, as expressed in the country’s Energy Strategy 2050, will be met or exceeded by 2050.” At the same time, “high dependence on oil and gas resources and revenues” and “lack of a clearly laid out action plan and associated regulatory frameworks” as well as the omission from the target of “Scope 3” emissions, which are associated with the end use of a product, were listed as the biggest barriers to achieving net zero.
The UAE is among the world’s top 10 oil producers, and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company is set to increase its oil production capacity from slightly over 4 million barrels per day to 5 mb/d by 2027. ADNOC is investing in new gas production capacity to attain self-sufficiency by 2030. It has also set a 2030 target to eliminate emissions of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas, and a 2045 goal to achieve net-zero emissions.
“Beyond COP28, the UAE must continue to demonstrate leadership and influence the global energy transition. It has an opportunity to create the template of how other oil and gas producing nations fulfil their parts,” the Energy Barometer concluded.
Kate Dourian is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, the regional manager for the Middle East and Gulf states at the World Energy Council, and a fellow at the Energy Institute.
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