Narratives about the right path to a climate-safe world differ, and none has so far proved correct. This dynamic was a major theme running through the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Sharm el Sheikh, COP 27. On one side were those countries that felt the “cover decisions” from this COP, which summarize the main outcomes and convey a series of political messages, were weak and left the target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius on “life support.” Others claimed these countries were either being hypocritical or not realistic. At the same time, the major outcome from COP 27, a dedicated fund for “loss and damage” arising from the adverse effects of climate change does little to address the root cause.
A Difficult COP at a Difficult Time
COP 27 in Egypt delivered few outcomes with immediate, real-life impact. This was not a major surprise, as it was not expected to be a milestone COP but, rather, as the hosts dubbed it, “an implementation COP.” The conference took place at a complicated junction: Negotiations in Glasgow in 2021 had finally concluded on the so-called rulebook for implementing the 2015 Paris Agreement. This includes things such as how countries are expected to report on their emissions or the climate finance they provide, or how international cooperation on carbon markets should be set up to support emission reductions rather than undermine it. There was little regime building left on the negotiating agenda for 2022.
Similarly, there was little new left to announce in 2022. In the run-up to COP 26, most countries submitted the first major updates to their national climate action plans, known as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs, which contain medium-term emission reduction targets, generally for 2030. A large number also set mid-century net-zero or carbon neutrality targets. All Gulf Cooperation Council countries submitted revised NDCs, some of which contained more ambitious emission targets, and Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia made net-zero pledges for 2050 or 2060. The next NDC updates are formally due by 2025.
At COP 27, countries were expected to show how they are now converting their NDCs and net-zero targets into actionable implementation plans, and how they are scaling up clean energy and other technologies to reduce emissions. Developed countries were further expected to demonstrate how they would bridge the glaring gap in the $100 billion per year they promised to deliver in climate finance by 2020.
Although COP 27 provided a major win for vulnerable countries worldwide through a dedicated fund to help them cope with already occurring effects of climate change, actual financing at a meaningful scale is still far away, as the fund still needs to be operationalized and its sources of funding defined. Little was also delivered in terms of new emission reduction pledges. From the Gulf, new announcements in 2022 included a more ambitious NDC from the UAE and net-zero targets by Oman and Kuwait.
A Narrative Whose Time Has Come?
Multiple global crises and tensions in 2022, including high energy and food prices and supply concerns, wars, and economic slowdowns, demanded many countries’ policymakers’ short-term attention and led to energy policy decisions that stood in stark contrast with the 2021 climate pledges. Climate finance for developing countries was also not forthcoming: The U.S. administration pledged in September 2021 to contribute more than $11 billion per year by 2024, however Congress has reportedly so far only approved $1 billion.
In the Gulf, high oil revenue provided a very different backdrop for 2022 compared to that seen in net energy importing countries. However, the U-turn made by many importers in their attitudes toward oil and natural gas translated into a less pressing sense of urgency to accelerate energy transitions in the Gulf economies as well. Some Gulf countries felt the European energy crisis in particular introduced a much-needed sense of “pragmatism” to the global discourse on climate change and energy.
Through 2022, Saudi Arabia has continued to promote its vision of net zero, in which continued oil supplies from the Gulf region provide stability over the coming decades as the world gradually shifts to a “circular carbon economy.” In this vision, poor countries gain energy access, forest-rich developing countries generate revenue from large-scale reforestation, and hydrocarbon exporters are able to convert their natural endowments into valuable products, such as blue hydrogen or carbon dioxide cured concrete, and store any remaining emissions underground. Critics of this vision have labeled it “a renewed push for technologies to remove and store” carbon dioxide but miss the point that the circular carbon economy also embraces renewable energy and energy efficiency, which Saudi Arabia itself is actively working to leverage.
The UAE, which will host the next COP in Dubai in 2023, has similarly been pitching its main objective as contributing to “practical, pragmatic and commercially focused” solutions to emission reductions and climate change adaptation and has described climate action as an “opportunity to diversify economies by creating new growth sectors in clean energy and new jobs for the future.” The task that remains ahead for both Saudi Arabia and the UAE is to demonstrate how these visions translate into rapid action that also aligns with the region’s – and world’s – mid-century net-zero ambitions.
A New Era of Gulf Climate Diplomacy?
At COP 27, Saudi Arabia and the UAE each made their presence felt, albeit for different reasons: Saudi Arabia organized in parallel with COP the 2022 editions of its Middle East Green Initiative Summit and Saudi Green Initiative Forum, which launched a regional center to advance emission reductions, alongside a flurry of other regional and domestic initiatives and announcements.
The UAE, which will host COP 28 in 2023, also had a visible presence in Egypt. Preparations for the event are in full swing and, demonstrating the seriousness with which the country is taking its role, according to the provisional list of participants, the UAE’s delegation to COP 27 totaled more than a thousand people. Emirati and Saudi negotiators were also actively facilitating negotiations on the Global Stocktake (a collective assessment of progress toward the Paris Agreement’s goals, which will be one of the main items on the COP 28 agenda), gender and climate change, and cooperation on nonmarket approaches.
The final COP 27 plenary November 20 divided opinions: On one side were those developed and developing countries that felt the conference barely reconfirmed the promises made in Glasgow and failed to go beyond in demanding further ambition through, for example, a global peak in emissions before 2025 or phasing out all fossil fuels, instead of reiterating a call for the “phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” On the other side were developing countries and emerging economies that feel stuck in between: These countries are generally not “vulnerable enough” to be first in line for receiving climate finance, yet they do not feel “developed enough” to be shouldering rapid and deep emission reductions. Some are climate finance recipients while others provide climate finance to other developing countries. Yet, they view the principles of the climate convention clearly establish their right to pursue their national development priorities, which in turn set the pace for how fast they can move to net-zero emissions.
The Gulf countries fall in this latter camp. While they have signed up to the net-zero transition, they believe they have a more convincing, and inclusive, narrative to guide the world there than those that see a rapid transition away from fossil fuels as the only solution. The fundamental challenge is that, on the one hand, those promoting rapid emission reductions are not fully recognizing developing countries’ needs and priorities, but, on the other, those promoting more “pragmatic” and “holistic” solutions to tackling emissions have also yet to prove their vision delivers action in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement. COP 28 will bring new opportunities to leave a lasting legacy, which could include identifying a way to weave these two approaches together and putting inclusive and ambitious cooperation on climate action at the center of the global agenda.