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Once again, the UAE is attempting to prove its detractors wrong. The world has just six years to bring global carbon emissions to half of 2010 levels, UN Climate Change says – but this hydrocarbon-based economy believes it can lead the change.

The region’s first country to commit to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the host of the ongoing COP28 climate change talks has embraced the energy transition head on, launching renewables projects and embracing industrial decarbonisation with a view to building a green economy – all well before it even bid to convene COP28, the climate change talks currently underway in Dubai.

After all, if one engine of growth must be wound down, why not build the one that will take its place?

“Our rapid evolution into a regional renewable energy powerhouse is no coincidence,” says Dr Nawal Al-Hosany, Permanent Representative of the UAE to the International Renewable Energy Agency, and Assistant Undersecretary on Climate Change and Green Development at the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment.

“Constant investments into advanced technologies, talents and the [energy] transition has seen the UAE become home to three of the world’s largest and lowest-cost solar power plants, with Al Dhafra inaugurated just last month,” she adds.

The 2-gigawatt (GW) Al Dhafra Solar Photovoltaic Independent Power Project, unveiled in November, already supplies clean, emissions-free electricity to the national grid. The single-site solar power plant will power almost 200,000 homes and eliminate over 2.4 million tonnes of carbon emissions every year. The plant is 200 times the size of the country’s first solar project, the 10-MW Masdar City Solar Photovoltaic Plant, which was switched on in 2009.

Dr Nawal Al-Hosany, Permanent Representative of the UAE to the International Renewable Energy Agency, and Assistant Undersecretary on Climate Change and Green Development at the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment

In less than 10 years, the country has outpaced many others in solar energy installation and consumption. The new project initially achieved the world’s lowest tariff at financial close.

The UAE now ranks second globally in terms of per capita solar energy consumption, according to the latest data from The Energy Institute Statistical Review of World Energy. The results can be framed as the outcome of a series of comprehensive national strategies to enhance climate mitigation efforts.

The 2017-2050 National Climate Change Plan seeks to manage greenhouse gases, improve adaption to climate change and enhance economic diversification into green economic sectors.

In July, as part of the third update to its Nationally Determined Contribution, a countrywide climate pledge, the UAE said it would cut carbon emissions 40 per cent by 2030, raising its target from 31 per cent.

Leadership in climate resilience

Overall, the nation has invested over $40 billion in clean energy projects, His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, said in July. The aim is to put up to $54 billion into renewable energy by 2030 to meet the country’s energy demands.

Last month, the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR) granted a 60-year operating licence for the fourth and final unit of the Barakah nuclear power station, the Arab world’s first commercial nuclear facility, to Nawah Energy Company.

As a whole, Barakah will produce enough electricity to cover 25 per cent of the nation’s energy needs by the time it is fully operational.

“The UAE has been at the forefront of climate action with visionary initiatives like Masdar City, record breaking low solar IPP prices (in Dubai and Abu Dhabi) and breakthrough achievements in nuclear, which is remarkable for a nuclear newcomer, where even well-established nations like France and UK are grappling with time and costs overruns on nuclear new build,” says Adnan Merhaba, Senior Partner and Energy and Utilities practice lead at the Middle East arm of the global strategy management firm Arthur D. Little.

Adnan Merhaba, Senior Partner and Energy and Utilities practice lead at the Middle East, Arthur D. Little

“Well before climate action started to gain momentum globally, the UAE, through its visionary leadership and targeted policy instruments, emerged as a regional leader. It has created a virtuous cycle by bringing together technology players, funding institutions and government entities to reinforce its ambition in climate action,” he adds.

Another example is in hydrogen, where the UAE has committed billions of dollars towards new facilities to meet its net-zero goals. Under the National Hydrogen Strategy, the country will create hydrogen production hubs with a view to generate 1.4 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) of low-carbon hydrogen around its 60th anniversary in 2031. More than half – one million tonnes – is expected to be green hydrogen.

In July, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) began constructing what is billed as the region’s first high-speed hydrogen refuelling station at Masdar City. The project will create clean hydrogen from water using clean grid electricity.

Dubai-based Emirates National Oil Company (ENOC) has piloted the use of hydrogen in mobility in partnership with the Dubai Electricty and Water Authority (DEWA). The project will leverage DEWA’s existing green hydrogen production facility at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park and ENOC’s knowledge of the fuel market and customer base.

“Since the UAE became the first Gulf country to commit to net-zero emissions by 2050 and the first in the region to commit to reducing emissions in all economic sectors by the year 2030, it has continuously ensured climate action is at the core of its strategy. As a result, the country is investing significantly in clean and renewable energy projects, green technology, and sustainable infrastructure – all in its pursuit of alternative means for producing power to fuel its economy,” said Saif Humaid Al Falasi, Group CEO at ENOC.

Saif Humaid Al Falasi, Group CEO at ENOC

“The country’s continued efforts to reduce carbon emissions for the greater good of its people and the environment demonstrate its progressive mindset and cement its position as a regional leader in climate action,” Al Falasi said.

ENOC has also been involved with other green energy projects. Earlier this year, it secured, blended and loaded sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) for Emirates airline’s first flight in the MENA region to be powered by 100 per cent SAF. The group recently opened its Service Station of the Future to the public. It harnesses solar and wind energy.

“[As] a first mover in climate action, the UAE has rapidly transformed its energy landscape. Since 2015, we have increased our renewable energy capacity from 100 MW to 6.5 GW today. And we are on track to reach 14 GW by 2030,” Al-Hosany said.

That 14 GW represents triple the nation’s current renewable energy capacity, as outlined in the National Energy Strategy, updated earlier this year.

Overall, the aim is for clean energy to comprise 30 per cent of the nation’s total energy mix by 2031, with up to Dh200 billion over the next seven years towards growing energy demands. The hope is that 44 per cent of the country’s energy mix will be clean energy by 2050.

In Abu Dhabi, green energy now meets 80 per cent of the emirate’s total power demand, the Emirates Water and Electricity Company said in March, including renewable and clean sources such as solar and nuclear, that represents 6.2 GW of 7.7-GW total system power demand. EWEC is also working to decouple water production in the emirate from power generation by investing in the development of low-carbon intensive reverse osmosis (RO) water desalination projects.

Tatiana Antonelli Abella, founder and managing director, Goumbook

It’s a strategic approach similar to the kind that took the UAE’s GDP from $2.8 billion in 1973 to $507.83 in 2022 (World Bank data).

“The country has been taking a proactive approach to climate action since signing the Paris Agreement back in 2015 and its commitment to climate action is underpinned by leadership transformation, which requires vision, trust, credibility, and transparency,” says Tatiana Antonelli Abella, a regional conservation leader who is founder and managing director of Goumbook, the social enterprise promoting sustainability and climate resilience across the UAE. The nation’s proactive approach to climate action extends beyond the energy transition.

But the road to net-zero may well be bumpy, with potential challenges on several fronts.

Transition to net-zero emissions

“The UAE has set itself an ambitious net zero target by 2050 and while it has set a strong foundation for the same, some sectors like energy intensive industries, aviation and heavy transportation are notoriously difficult to decarbonise,” Merhaba cautions. “Innovation and forward-looking policies are key to overcoming these challenges.”

In November, Mariam Bint Mohammed Al Mheiri, the UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment, outlined the UAE Net Zero 2050 Strategy, a detailed nation-wide action plan to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.

The strategy is designed to drive economic and social advancement by leading the transition to net-zero emissions and contributing to global mitigation efforts. It covers more than 25 programmes across six core sectors: power, industry, transport, buildings, waste and agriculture. “It will create extensive new employment opportunities, with some 200,000 new roles predicted, including high-skilled sustainable jobs across the solar, battery, and hydrogen sub-sectors,” Al Mheiri said.

The minister said the nation could update its climate targets – and potentially its NDC – after COP28 concludes.

“As the host of COP28, the UAE is building global consensus, convening the international community to unite, act and deliver impactful climate solutions,” Al-Hosany says.

“That includes fast-tracking the energy transition, fixing climate finance, and putting people from all walks of life at the heart of an inclusive climate action agenda.” ●