The time for lecturing the Global South about climate change is over

Apart from the hypocrisy displayed by some in the US and Europe, recent criticism of the UAE in particular is misplaced

Madinat Zayed, United Arab Emirates, March 16, 2013: 
Last minute preparations for the tomorrow's inauguration are in full swing at the Shams1 solar power plant on Saturday, March 16, 2013, near the Madinat Zayed in Western Region, UAE.  Shams, the Middle EastÕs largest renewable energy project, will begin feeding power to the Abu Dhabi national grid after its official inauguration on March 17, 2013.
Silvia Razgova / The National
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Who should take the most responsibility for climate change? The answer, surely, is those who have most contributed to the perilous state we are now in, with the World Meteorological Organisation warning earlier this month that for the first time ever, global temperatures are now more likely than not to heat up by 1.5°C within the next five years.

We hardly need telling who is most answerable. As Navdeep Suri, a former Indian ambassador to the UAE, wrote in these pages over the weekend: “The science on climate change is unequivocal about who is responsible for the present state of affairs.”

“The industrial revolutions in Europe and the US were powered by coal in the 19th century and by oil in the 20th century. That is why the US has contributed 24 per cent of global emissions and Europe makes up for 17 per cent.” One could add that the process of accumulating those emissions also included huge deforestation, displacement of native peoples, and resource extraction from empires in the Global South on such a scale that the politician and diplomat Shashi Tharoor has argued that, as a result of British colonisation, India’s share of world GDP was reduced from 27 per cent in 1700 to a mere 3 per cent by the time it achieved independence in 1947.

The Sun sets above the mangrove forest on Jubail Island, Abu Dhabi. The UAE has been expanding its mangrove cover with a plan to plant 100 million by 2030. Khushnum Bhandari/ The National

A group of politicians in America and Europe, including US senators Bernie Sanders, Richard Blumenthal and Elizabeth Warren, and MEPs Manon Aubry, Philippe Lamberts and Carles Puigdemont, appear to think differently, however. They seem to regard the UAE, and the decision to nominate Dr Sultan Al Jaber, Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology, as President-designate of Cop28 in November, as the problem instead – and have written a letter to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, US President Joe Biden, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change calling for his removal. Their objection is framed as being over Dr Al Jaber’s role as head of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

One’s instinctive reaction is that it is pretty rich for representatives of countries that polluted and looted for centuries to object so strenuously that an official from a state that was only founded in 1971 should preside over the world’s flagship climate conference. Younger countries – by which I mean those that only took full control of their own destinies in the second half of the 20th century – also have the right to develop, and most have contributed little in terms of emissions compared to the long-industrialised Global North.

But quite apart from the hypocrisy, the criticism of the UAE in particular is misplaced, for a number of reasons.

First, it ignores the fact that the UAE and all the GCC countries are on the frontline of climate change and could not take this issue more seriously. The letter’s signatories fail to mention, for instance, that Dr Al Jaber is also head of Masdar, a government-owned company that has developed and invested in renewable energy projects in 40 countries and is on track to become one of the world’s largest players in this field.

They appear to have no idea about the numerous sustainability initiatives in the region. The UAE manages one of the world’s largest single-site solar energy farms, as part of its effort to harness renewable energy, and, having made a commitment to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, is investing Dh600 billion in clean energy sources. It is expanding its mangrove cover with a plan to plant 100 million mangroves by 2030. And on the economic front, the Gulf is working to grow a sustainable finance sector. Indeed, when I think about the effort and expertise that went into growing the ingredients that went into a magnificent lunch I enjoyed at a friend’s farm in an arid plain in the Gulf in January, I’m tempted to suggest that the region takes sustainability far more seriously than do Europe and the US.

The UAE and some other Gulf countries have the capital to invest in the low-carbon economy of the future – and have been doing so for a long time

Second, the world simply cannot do without oil, gas and coal, and demonising producer-countries is just childish. At Qatar Economic Forum in Doha last week, one presenter laid out forecasts for the different shares of the energy economy over the next few decades. Fossil fuels were predicted to make up a huge portion for way into the future as we do not as yet have sufficient viable alternatives – and we have no idea when, or if, we will.

Third, meaningful action on climate change will not come for free. During a session at the forum on “building a net-zero economy”, panellist after panellist emphasised the importance of investment in order to try to reach that goal. “Let’s get the capital flowing for the transition,” said Amirul Feisal Wan Zahir, managing director of Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund Khazanah Nasional.

The UAE and some other Gulf countries have the capital to invest in the low-carbon economy of the future – and have been doing so for a long time. Perhaps the letter’s signatories are unaware of this; but in fact, this makes the region perfectly placed to host Cop28. The Gulf is fully aware of the urgency of the issue and is actively engaged with it.

Perhaps the letter’s signatories would do better to look at their own countries’ track records and current practices. In March, the Biden White House approved a huge oil drilling project in Alaska. CNN reported that “by the administration’s own estimates, the project would generate … pollution a year – equivalent to adding 2 million gas-powered cars to the roads”. On the other side of the Atlantic, the World Wildlife Fund states that “the most recent data indicates that the EU is responsible for at least 10 per cent of forest destruction worldwide”.

The words “physician, heal thyself” come to mind. These American and European politicians should also consider that their public call for a highly qualified Emirati official to be removed as president-designate of Cop28 will strike many around the world as not just rude, but as a neo-colonialist overreach. The time for lecturing the Global South and its leaders is over – especially over an issue for which America and Europe are primarily responsible.

Published: May 28, 2023, 2:18 PM