Gulf Arab states’ climate change policies and responses have evolved since the adoption of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, and the coronavirus pandemic has raised questions as to what the implications will be on climate change agendas. This paper provides an updated account of six Gulf Arab states’ climate change policies and their evolution over the past two decades through the end of 2019. It examines the immediate related impacts of the coronavirus and identifies the main external and internal factors that are likely to determine the direction of climate change policies and actions going forward, as the Gulf recovers from the economic devastation caused by the pandemic’s countermeasures.
- The Gulf Arab states have always had a challenging relationship with climate change. The growing pressure to decarbonize the global energy system is a challenge for, and a further reason to decrease, hydrocarbon reliance. The six countries have worked to address climate change in varying degrees of depth and breadth, reflecting the diversity of their political economies and broader policy priorities.
- Climate change policy planning in the region has been largely driven by international reporting obligations and carbon monetization opportunities. Therefore, the Gulf countries’ international-level climate change policies have been characterized by an absence of strong domestic strategies.
- Since the 2010s, the Gulf countries have found a way to present their domestic actions in an international context that is acceptable to them, which emphasizes their special circumstances as countries highly dependent on the exportation of fossil fuels. This has consisted of framing climate action as something to be streamlined with economic diversification plans and subject to their success.
- An evaluation of Gulf countries’ existing climate change-related plans reveals growing activity around exploring mitigation co-benefits in energy efficiency and demand-side management, renewable electricity generation, carbon capture and storage, water management, urban planning, agriculture, and marine conservation. Some governments continue to place a heavy emphasis on the negative consequences of international climate change response measures.
- The coronavirus pandemic has had well documented, deep impacts on social and economic activity worldwide. Based on initial estimates and proxy indicators, the Gulf states are likely to see temporary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
- As elsewhere, the region’s emissions will rebound as economies recover in the absence of targeted reduction measures. To achieve a permanent peak and fall, they must be addressed at the source. A return to past global emission trajectories would signify catastrophic levels of warming of more than 3 degrees Celsius. Government economic stimulus packages and recovery policies therefore have a historic and significant role in deciding humanity’s future trajectory: more unsustainable incrementalism or a transformative shift.
- Renewable energy has thus far withstood the pandemic well. Renewable electricity capacity expansions remain the area where most climate change policy developments can be expected in the near future in the Gulf Arab states. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have several gigawatts of renewable capacity in the project pipeline and are set to lead.
- The region’s governments have so far remained silent on whether or how economic recovery policies and accelerated climate action could be combined. Choices made now will leave a lasting legacy for the economic future of the Gulf Arab countries but also the region’s emissions.
Deciding to incorporate climate change considerations as an integral element in coronavirus economic recovery strategies and expanding the scope of climate change policy beyond the co-benefits of economic diversification and adaptation would help set the Gulf Arab countries on more sustainable, low-emission, and climate-resilient trajectories.
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