US and UAE seek Middle East climate alliance for green push

Diplomatic success will depend on oil markets’ future in a post-pandemic world and countries’ willingness to accelerate the renewables uptake, writes Anca Gurzu.
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By Anca Gurzu

Anca Gurzu is Politico Europe’s former Climate and Energy Reporter.

08 Apr 2021

The United States and the United Arab Emirates pledged in early April to help finance decarbonisation across the Middle East and North Africa through investments in clean technologies - a sign of renewed climate diplomacy, whose success will hinge on the region’s fossil-fuel dependent economies putting words into action.

The announcement, in the form of a joint statement, follows US Climate Envoy John Kerry’s visit to Abu Dhabi on 4 April, where he participated in a regional climate dialogue convened by the UAE, which also brought together nine other Mid-East nations.

Officials discussed how to step up the deployment of renewable energy and hydrogen production in the region, reduce emissions from hydrocarbon fuels and spur investments in innovative solutions, such as capturing and storing carbon.

In a separate statement, signed by all participating countries, they “committed to accelerate climate action,” and emphasised the link between investments in low-carbon solutions and job creation.

In an interview with The National, Kerry highlighted “the importance of an oil and gas-producing nation [the UAE] bringing together a group of nations that many people might think were improbably committed to dealing with [the] climate crisis.”

Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter and the de facto leader of the OPEC group, was not at the table.

Kerry’s UAE visit, followed by a trip to India where climate was also top of the agenda, is part of the US’ efforts to reassert itself on the international climate stage and seek deeper international emission-cutting commitments just weeks ahead of the Leaders’ Summit on Climate on April 22. This is a Biden-led event bringing together 40 world leaders aimed at boosting climate action ahead of COP 26 in November.

The road won’t be easy - especially across MENA, where oil and gas are primary energy supply sources. The carefully worded joint statement from the US and UAE hints at that.

The two countries stated they will “intend to take steps to decarbonise our economies in line with our national circumstances and economic development plans” — and those circumstances could be tricky.

Abu Dhabi is home to the 1.2-gigawatt Noor solar park, the world’s biggest single-site solar project with 3.2 million solar panels covering an area of 8 kilometres. Capitalising on low solar prices due to the region’s high temperatures, the UAE is now also working to build the world’s largest and cheapest solar power plant - the 2-gigawatt Al Dhafra, expected to be capable of powering 160,000 homes from 2022.

At the beginning of this year, the UAE also announced a flurry of initiatives to develop hydrogen fuel, a promising zero-carbon fuel for transport and aviation. Oman also announced during the Abu-Dhabi meeting its plans to boost their clean energy plans, specifically solar and wind, while Bahrain and Morocco said last month they want to collaborate on renewable energy.

“Our region has great and distinct capabilities that allow it to contribute to facing the common global challenge of climate change,” said Sultan Al Jaber, UAE climate change envoy and Kerry’s Emirati equivalent, according to Arab News.

However, the UAE is also the seventh biggest petroleum producer in the world, with fossil fuel exports accounting for 25 percent of all export revenue in 2019, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The country also plans to increase oil and gas production over the next years. Iraq and Kuwait are also in the top 10 of the world’s biggest oil-producing and exporting nations.

Several of the other countries that participated in the climate dialogue share similar profiles when it comes to fossil fuels - but also when it comes to their promising renewable energy potential.

Choosing how deeply to tap into that green potential may come down with how society will look like post-pandemic.

While the global economy and oil markets are recovering from last year’s historic collapse, “there may be no return to ‘normal’ for the oil market in the post-Covid era,” the International Energy Agency wrote in its March fuel report.

Global efforts to accelerate the energy transition “have created a high degree of uncertainty that is testing the oil industry” and are “forcing hard decisions on oil-producing countries and companies,” it added.

Beyond joint statements and climate diplomacy, it is those hard decisions that will determine how quickly the Middle East and North Africa region will decarbonise their economies. The roundtable is a good start, but it’s the action that comes next that matters.

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