When I first came to the UAE, flying across the deserts at night offered an apocalyptic vision of fires lighting up the landscape. In the oilfields, the associated gas then being produced alongside the crude oil was considered to be of little commercial value. It was just flared off.
Today, that would be inconceivable, not just because the gas can now be used in a variety of ways, but also because the environmental impact of flaring is widely recognised. More than 40 years ago, Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, instructed that the practice be ceased. The UAE, having emerged as one of the world's major producers of hydrocarbons, would henceforth adopt an environmentally responsible approach.
Today, only tiny amounts of gas are flared, while the UAE has become a leader in a process known as carbon capture and storage, capturing carbon dioxide for use in enhanced oil recovery.
While seeking to follow a sustainable policy at home, the UAE has for many years also played a role in global efforts to tackle the challenges posed by climate change.
In 1994, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change came into effect, with the UAE swiftly joining. In 1997, the parties to the convention, including the UAE, met in Japan to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol on the reduction of the emission of greenhouse gases that contribute to the heating of the atmosphere. Over the years, we have made major commitments with more to follow, recognising the constraints upon us, yet determined to contribute to tackling this global challenge.
A quarter of a century after Kyoto, the country is now set to host the 28th Conference of Parties – or Cop28 – in 2023. That is an acknowledgement of the constructive role the UAE has played.
Working to ensure a successful Cop28 will be a considerable challenge, not least because of the outcome of the Cop26 that ended in Glasgow, Scotland, last week. One vignette from there stands out in my mind – the image of the UK’s conference president, Alok Sharma, announcing the final resolution, apologising because more was not achieved and then appearing to break into tears. Although Cop26 may have failed to make some of the steps that many observers believed to be necessary, it has, at least, kept alive the target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C and set new momentum going forward.
That places even more pressure on the countries hosting the conferences that lie ahead, first Egypt next year, and then the UAE.
At Cop28, it will be a senior Emirati official on the podium for the opening and closing sessions; an Emirati speech that will tell us whether the necessary commitments have been finalised and whether the requisite concessions have been made. I hope that the closing remarks will signal the completion of a more successful conference.
As the preparations begin for Cop28, there will be lessons to be learned from Glasgow and from Cairo, both in terms of the highly demanding diplomatic exercise that lies ahead and in terms of the logistics required.
I am confident that our officials and diplomats will perform admirably in the run-up to Cop28 and at the event itself. They have already shown their mettle. Whether other countries will make the commitments that scientists believe to be necessary is, of course, yet to be determined. One can only hope that they will.
At a local level, another task will be the tackling of the logistical challenges of hosting such an enormous event, with perhaps 40,000 or more visitors. Here, the experience gained from Expo 2020 Dubai will be of help. We can be confident that sufficient beds will be available, and one is reasonably hopeful that there will be none of the price-gouging tendencies that were reported in Glasgow. To help out, perhaps something like the Cop26 Homestay Network, which linked visiting delegates up with city residents with spare bedrooms, could be organised. If such a system can be devised, perhaps it could be of long-term value in terms of further development of our tourist industry once the event is over.
A suitable conference centre? Locations for other meetings, on special topics or with interesting speakers? That shouldn’t pose too much of a problem.
Arranging the formal meetings, in collaboration with the UN, should be relatively straightforward. A wide range of unofficial meetings, organised perhaps by coalitions of visiting non-governmental organisations, is for the most part normal fare at Cop meetings, though we may, perhaps, need to look at ways to deal with fluid partnerships of special interest groups.
There will be much to learn as the preparations get under way. Cop28 will provide the UAE with the opportunity to prove its ability to handle not just a large conference, attended by virtually all the nations of the world, but also large numbers of interested lobbyists, observers and activists.
It will be an interesting process to observe, and I am confident we can do it.