How UAE's decarbonisation road map can help solve the big carbon conundra

Although the Emirates is not a huge emitter on the global scale, its plan is important for addressing key carbon questions

A person in a dugong costume stands near a sign that says CCS. Carbon capture and storage featured prominently in the Cop28 decision. AP
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Cop28 ended in achievement and relief, tinged with some disappointments. The final text twice mentions “hard-to-abate” sectors, usually considered to include vital but carbon-intensive heavy industries such as steel, cement and aluminium.

But what turns hard-to-abate into easy-to-abate into abated? The decarbonisation road map of the UAE’s Ministry of Industry and Advanced Technology seeks to answer that question.

The strategy was unveiled during Cop28.

Abdulla Al Shamsi, assistant undersecretary for Industrial Growth at the Ministry of Industry and Advanced Technology told the Middle East Economic Survey: “This road map is going to be practical … These are not only things that you need to do in terms of lower emissions, but these are also opportunities, because if your production has a lower carbon footprint, you will get access to markets, you will pay less on carbon taxes.”

Although the UAE’s non-oil industrial sector is not a huge emitter on the global scale – about 70 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent annually, barely 0.1 per cent of the global total – its plan is important for answering three conundra.

Who will pioneer the technologies and policies required to decarbonise these challenging assets? Where will global hubs for clean industries site themselves? And how can major oil and gas exporters hasten to a lower-carbon future, not with fear but with optimism?

Cop28 delegates react to 'historic' climate deal

Cop28 delegates react to 'historic' climate deal

Dubai is not all about Mission Impossible and climate conferences.

Driving to Abu Dhabi along Sheikh Zayed Road, after Dubai Marina, you have on your right hand one of the world’s largest electricity and water production complexes. After that comes the sprawling Dubai site of Emirates Global Aluminium (EGA), which, from 1975, has performed the alchemy of turning natural gas, not into gold, but into the silvery, light metal, via the electrolysis of alumina. But since 2021, EGA has learnt a new feat – making aluminium from the sun.

EGA, the country’s largest non-oil industrial player, accounts for about 4 per cent of the world’s output of aluminium via the plants at Jebel Ali, and Taweelah in Abu Dhabi. It began using solar power two years ago.

The UAE is also an important maker of steel, cement, fertilisers and chemicals, and seeks to develop downstream chemicals and plastics. And it wants to grow new industries: hydrogen, AgriTech, space technology, drones, additive manufacturing, nano materials.

The UAE’s latest Paris Agreement commitment sets its road map to midcentury net-zero: industrial emissions should drop 5 per cent by 2030, 63 per cent by 2040, and 93 per cent by 2050. Without action, emissions could instead more than double to over 180 million tonnes.

There is no silver bullet – but there is a silver magazine with seven shots.

Some of these opportunities have momentum already – improved efficiency, saving 12 per cent of total emissions to 2050, fuel-switching from coal (used in the cement industry) and oil to lower-carbon gas and electricity, and renewable energy.

The Gulf region has several times set the world record for the lowest-cost solar power. Teamed with batteries, it can also have the cheapest 24-hour, year-round zero-carbon electricity.

The massive new nuclear plant at Barakah in the country’s far west provides essential, if more costly, baseload. More processes can be electrified, while on-site solar panels are increasingly popular for UAE industries. Clean electricity alone will provide 41 per cent of the total emissions reductions to 2050.

Aluminium and steel are almost infinitely recyclable. Plastics and concrete can also be re-used, recycled or broken down to make new inputs. Alternative bases to cement reduce the amount of input limestone.

Heat, today made mostly from burning gas, is used everywhere in industry from cooking soup to melting steel. Waste heat can be piped to users with lower-temperature needs. Solar thermal technologies using concentrating mirrors, geothermal wells, and increasingly capable and highly efficient industrial heat pumps, will provide low- and medium-temperature heat.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) featured prominently in the Cop28 decision. This was not a giveaway to fossil fuel producers, but a recognition that for many industrial processes, it is today the most practical and cheapest option. Cement production and some chemical processes yield carbon dioxide as an inescapable part of their manufacture – so CCS is essential.

The Emirates Steel plant outside Abu Dhabi city has operated since 2016 with CCS, making it one of the lowest-carbon such facilities in the world, while Fertiglobe, a fertiliser maker based in the Ruwais industrial hub of western Abu Dhabi, announced in October intent to use modular capture technology from UK start-up Carbon Clean.

Finally, there is the glamour fuel: hydrogen. Whether “blue” (made from gas with CCS) or “green” from electrolysis of water with renewable energy, it will have several key roles, especially later on. It provides low-carbon, high-temperature heat. It is a reducing agent to turn iron ore into iron. And it makes low-carbon ammonia, an essential component of fertilisers, and an important basic chemical in its own right.

Shipping large amounts of pure hydrogen between continents is likely to be expensive, energy-inefficient and difficult. Using hydrogen in favourable areas such as the Gulf and North Africa to make low-carbon steel, synthetic fuels and chemicals is a more promising path.

Sunny and/or windy regions with available land and suitable geology should be able to apply all these techniques to their own industries. Some such as Saudi Arabia and Oman, Australia and Chile, and parts of North Africa, are already stepping out as trailblazers. The remaining part of the puzzle is policy.

The EU’s carbon border adjustment mechanism, which started operating in October, will eventually charge importers of high-carbon goods to the bloc. The UAE is considering its own carbon market. Specific policies to create infrastructure and regulations for carbon capture and hydrogen will lay the foundations for these to be major businesses in their own right.

No doubt even better technologies will emerge. A coherent set of methods that exist today with acceptable costs can still deliver a very low-carbon UAE industrial sector as early as 2040.

The real world, with legacies of vested interests and carbon-intensive equipment, may not be so smooth. But turning an oil-exporting nation into a clean industrial powerhouse would answer the three big carbon conundra.

Robin M Mills is chief executive of Qamar Energy and author of ‘Capturing Carbon’

Updated: December 25, 2023, 3:00 AM