Even a year ago, the idea of an Opec member and leading Middle East oil and gas exporter declaring a net-zero carbon target was nearly unthinkable. But speculation grew from the start of this year that such a goal was plausible, likely, even preferable. Last Thursday, the UAE announced it would reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
The UAE joins the EU, UK, Norway, the US and several other countries in setting a mid-century date; China aims at 2060. This does not mean that the UAE will cease producing or exporting oil and gas by then, or that its emissions will drop to zero. But it does mean that release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases should fall precipitously and any that remain will be compensated by directly drawing carbon from the atmosphere.
The announcement may draw scepticism from some quarters. Numerous countries are already falling well short of their goals or have little credible plan to get there. The UAE, with a large per-capita carbon footprint today because of its high income, climate, petroleum resource endowment and path of industrial development, may seem to have further to go than most.
Yet the UAE could find its path to net zero easier than many others. The pattern of emissions is relatively simple, unlike for instance the US, Europe or China, with their huge and disparate geographies, cultures, farming and legacy buildings and infrastructure.
Taking Abu Dhabi as an example, about 27 per cent of greenhouse gases come from electricity generation, 22 per cent from the petroleum industry, 25 per cent from other industries, 17 per cent from transport, 7 per cent from waste and 2 per cent from agriculture.
Balancing the UAE’s electricity grid with solar power is much easier than for Europe’s renewables, the continent currently struggling into an impending winter crisis. The sun’s energy here is abundant, predictable, and most available when most needed – in the summer midday, for air-conditioning. Instead of weeks’ worth of storage, batteries with enough capacity to run overnight are good enough. Beefed-up grid connections with neighbours will take advantage of different weather and sunset times.
So, electricity can be cleaned up entirely with a mix of the new solar and nuclear facilities, batteries, and gas-fired plants fitted with carbon capture and storage or adapted to burn hydrogen. That clean electricity can then be used to power battery cars, metro and rail systems. Electricity also drives the new reverse osmosis desalination plants, more efficient and flexible than thermal methods.
Industries can run on a combination of hydrogen and electricity. Adnoc’s “Project Lightning” is connecting its offshore platforms to use grid electricity.
Shipping, with Fujairah the world’s second-biggest port for refuelling, can look to hydrogen-based synthetic fuels. The trickiest sector is long-range aviation, with the UAE being a global air travel hub. Again, probably hydrogen is the answer, with Airbus hoping to have a hydrogen plane in commercial service by 2035.
This clear path to net-zero presents the country with three big opportunities. The first is to make the domestic economy carbon-frugal. This will protect its local environment and global reputation. It will also save on energy waste. It can open a whole suite of opportunities for local businesses that then go global: energy efficiency and smart buildings, architecture and agriculture for hot, arid climates, renewable desalination, local solar installation and many more.
The second is to become a centre for producing low-carbon goods for the world. The energy-intensive aluminium industry already concentrates in locations with low electricity prices, such as the Gulf, Iceland and Siberia, but also in coal-heavy China. The UAE can replicate that in a low-carbon way, using its abundant cheap solar power and gas with carbon capture to manufacture not just aluminium, but also steel and chemicals.
The production of low-carbon hydrogen and derivatives has attracted rapidly-growing interest in the UAE, with Dewa’s green hydrogen demonstration at the Dubai Expo now joined by large planned sites at Ruwais and Khalifa Port in Abu Dhabi. Europe and east Asia can be ready customers.
The third is to make the UAE a locus for carbon capture and storage. The well-known geology offers huge rock formations kilometres underground that can safely store centuries worth of CO2. As well as trapping its own emissions, the country can offer a service to others such as Japan or South Korea. And most exciting is the potential to extract CO2 directly from the atmosphere, compensating for residual emissions, and reversing the effect of two centuries of global fossil fuel combustion.
Far-off targets are all very well, but they need to be matched with concrete progress, year by year, to show that a country is realistically on-track.
Customers abroad create some business imperatives. Most notably, the EU plans to impose tariffs on high-carbon imports. Companies such as Microsoft, Google, Amazon, British Airways, Ford and Cemex, many heavy users of electricity, fuel, cement, steel and aluminium, have their own net-zero commitments.
UAE state-owned companies can be directed to move towards carbon-neutrality. Private businesses need clear guidance, sensible regulations, and the opening of opportunities to contribute. Individuals can be helped with systems such as home efficiency retrofits, electric vehicle charging and waste recycling. An economy-wide carbon price would save on other taxes and help make low-carbon options profitable.
The UAE has taken a bold and praiseworthy step. Now it needs to show that it can deliver, while seizing the business potential of the transition.
Robin M. Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis