Why the UAE is well positioned to go beyond its net-zero targets by 2030

Hydrogen and its derivatives will become common and familiar fuels

Solar power plants, such as this one in Seville, Spain, will form part of the the UAE's bid to curb climate emissions. Ryan Carter / Crown Prince Court - Abu Dhabi
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Net-zero is not only a destination but a journey. The UAE has just made the first third of its climb steeper, which should make for an easier ascent later and more chance of reaching the summit. With the eyes of the climate world on the country as November’s Cop28 conference draws near, the next seven years will be decisive.

Under 2015’s Paris Agreement, each country is supposed to submit a “Nationally Determined Contribution”, explaining how it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and otherwise limit climate change and deal with its effects. This NDC should be updated every five years with greater levels of stringency. The UAE issued a second NDC in September, and has just released an update with major increases in ambition and detail.

With its latest announced targets, the UAE aims to show that a major oil and gas-exporting country, with an economy still largely powered by hydrocarbons, in a hot, arid region, a federal system of government, with rapid population and economic expansion, can make rapid progress on decarbonisation.

Credible plans and solid progress to date will increase the chances for successful negotiations in November and blaze a trail for other states with similar issues.

Overall emissions from a significantly larger economy will be 182 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, down from 208 million tonnes in the earlier version of the second NDC, 225 million tonnes in 2019, and 301 million tonnes in 2030 in a “business-as-usual” case with no climate action.

The population is expected to grow by 14 per cent and the economy by 24 per cent between 2019 and 2030. The reduction target is therefore more ambitious in per-person or per-GDP terms and compared to countries with stable or shrinking populations.

The targets cover every major emitting sector. Electricity generation will double but carbon dioxide emissions per kilowatt-hour will halve. Industry will see major expansion, but its emissions will drop 5 per cent. Transport kilometres travelled will also go up, but total emissions will drop slightly. Emissions from waste will rise a little.

So, the major burden of cuts falls on buildings, where emissions should fall 56 per cent, and agriculture, down 22 per cent.

To achieve these ambitions, the UAE will have to pull every worthwhile lever. Key elements include decarbonising electricity and water generation with nuclear, solar, batteries and the use of more efficient reverse osmosis desalination instead of thermal methods. In fact, with all but 3.8 gigawatts of clean generation accounted for already, it is likely the UAE will go well beyond its existing target of 19.8 gigawatts by 2030.

This lower-carbon power sector reduces the emissions assigned to industries such as oil and gas, and aluminium, which have signed up to zero-carbon electricity supplies. Cement plants will switch inputs, and employ carbon capture and storage. Iron and steel plants will run on hydrogen, and the government will preferentially procure low-carbon steel and cement. The government will offer “contracts for difference” to pay companies for the increased cost of carbon capture facilities.

Public transport will expand, with metros in Abu Dhabi and some cities of the Northern Emirates, more focus on the “last mile”, walkability and cycling, and the expansion of the Etihad Rail national network for freight and passengers. Interestingly, the NDC suggests financial incentives for users of electric battery vehicles.

Waste will be reduced by a “circular economy” approach, recycling and waste-to-energy to reduce landfill. Building energy use will be cut with retrofits, new cooling methods, tighter standards for appliances and stronger codes for new construction. Agriculture will see reductions in water use through new technologies.

The capture of atmospheric carbon dioxide will also increase via an increase in planting mangroves in coastal environments, and a pilot for direct air capture by 2030.

Although not strictly a required part of an NDC, what the UAE will do beyond its borders is also important. International aviation and shipping have their own targets through their global governing bodies, and the UAE will produce hydrogen-based fuels such as methanol, ammonia and e-kerosene to drive them.

Clean energy company Masdar will deploy more than 100 gigawatts of renewables by 2030, most of which will be outside the UAE, including its existing investments and partnerships in the US, UK, Africa, Central Asia and elsewhere. As is known elsewhere, Adnoc plans to increase its oil and gas production to meet international market demand, which has to fit within the global carbon budget.

Three points in particular are novel and important: financial support for carbon capture, incentives for electric vehicles, and the trial of direct air capture.

A national carbon dioxide pipeline network will likely be needed to support carbon capture on numerous different industries. Hydrogen and its derivatives will become common and familiar fuels. The expansion of public transport and walkability will make living, working and holidaying in the UAE quite different.

The plan offers business possibilities of all kinds, from expanding renewable energy, upgrading building, introducing new technologies for water-saving and cooling, to selling and charging electric cars, making and using hydrogen, and many more.

This will be most successful when it gives opportunities to as wide a range of companies as possible, from the national giants such as Adnoc, Dewa and Masdar, to small businesses and start-ups.

The world of climate tech is increasingly competitive. Regional neighbours face many similar challenges – being a trailblazer may be tough and risky, but offers the greatest rewards. Some things will not work out, while other unexpected opportunities emerge.

2030 is not far away for such an ambitious plan – but for the sake of a liveable country and planet, it is one foothill to conquer on the way to the net-zero summit of 2050.

Robin M. Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis

Updated: July 17, 2023, 4:14 AM