Cop28's secret sauce? Call it the UAE effect

Three lasting transformations are set to push progress at the climate conference, and well beyond it

The Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai, where Cop28 will be held later this year. EPA
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The stakes could not be higher for progress at this year’s Cop28 in the UAE. This expectation is driven not only because this will be the first Global Stocktake to check on the Paris Agreement goals, but also because the UAE is pursuing an ambition of hosting the most consequential Cop since Paris.

I call this the UAE effect – the potential for a game-changing transformation with Cop28 that will last long past December and fundamentally change the direction of climate change progress – and action – going forward. The momentum is building towards a transition from policy talk to business action for three reasons: a realigned North Star that focuses on results and outcomes; redefining climate action as an opportunity, not a risk; and recentring public-private partnership to achieve progress near and long term.

For too long, we have not moved the needle far enough or fast enough on climate action. The universe of policy debate is frequently the crux of inaction while decision-makers focus more on how to build the road as opposed to getting to the destination.

The UAE is upending this type of rhetoric with an outcomes-focused approach. For climate action, it is focused on what matters: reducing emissions and making decarbonisation progress towards established net-zero goals. Does deploying a technology or innovation take us forward today and position us for further progress in the future? If “Yes”, then it should happen.

The UAE will be the first to run Cop like a business. That means operationalising commitments in a way that leads to measurable and accountable metrics, key performance indicators, and targets. Once this accountability for the outcomes is set, an “all of the above approach” will drive the technology mix that will deliver the best path forward for each country. Innovation and technology – of all types – need to be front and centre, with their value driven by their ability to foster action on decarbonisation.

Britain's King Charles III with Dr Sultan Al Jaber, the Cop28 President-designate, at the Climate Innovation Forum in London last month. Getty Images
For too long, we have not moved the needle far enough or fast enough on climate action

The world is large. Resources and requirements are different, and progress requires all types of technologies and approaches, includes solar, wind and hydro, nuclear, carbon capture and low-carbon hydrogen. It includes electrification, decarbonisation and efficiency upgrades, and fuel switching from higher to lower carbon fuels such as natural gas.

This is a pragmatic, results-focused approach, and it is the most efficient way to achieve the best outcomes today and tomorrow. Cop28 can thus accelerate progress exponentially compared to past decades by focusing on the outcomes, and the full suite of options to succeed.

The UAE is setting an example where countries invest in climate innovation and investment as their next “Silicon Valley”. This is a fundamental transformation from complaints about climate as a competitive risk, to climate now an essential driver of jobs, supply chain, education and economic development.

Led by Dr Sultan Al Jaber, President-designate of Cop28, the UAE years ago began reorienting its economy around climate innovation and technological development. With Masdar leading the way, this understanding of the climate response as a powerful driver of economic growth and diversification delivered results not only in the UAE but in countries around the world, as Masdar has grown to become one of the world’s largest renewable energy development companies.

Importantly, no one country or company need have a monopoly in this space. The right incentives and policy frameworks will lead to opportunities globally and, importantly, for emerging economies – a point of emphasis for the UAE. Policies such as the tax credits in the US Inflation Reduction Act or economic incentives and regulatory certainty can create demand drivers to build factories, train workforces, and expand innovation and technology around the globe, which is fitting given climate change is a global challenge demanding global solutions.

From emission reduction and efficiency improvements that lower fuel costs to production of lower-carbon and ultimately zero-carbon materials such as steel or aluminium, the benefits to business are clear. Along the way, these investments not only lead to climate benefits, but also electrification in driving more affordable, reliable and sustainable energy in emerging economies. The UAE is setting an example at Cop28 in ensuring all nations are not only part of the discussion in addressing climate impacts, but also part of the solution when it comes to the economic opportunities of the energy transition.

The UAE has always approached its own development with humility, literally inviting the world – including individuals, entrepreneurs and companies – to come and help build what has become one of the world’s most dynamic economies. That cosmopolitan approach has created workforces with diverse views that generate insights, innovation and decision-making that helps power business success.

That embrace of diverse views also is crucial to achieving climate progress. This includes embracing partnerships with a wide range of private sector players, including companies and industries – such as heavy industry and conventional energy companies – that on the surface might seem incompatible.

As the UAE has demonstrated with its open approach to both its own development and to climate action, we need a re-think about who should be at the table and who makes a good partner. We understand that climate technology requires an all-of-the-above approach. The same applies to climate partners and climate negotiation.

We can see the UAE’s success in taking this approach, as it builds the right partnerships between government and the private sector so that both sides contribute what they do best. This ensures partnership-driven outcomes are far superior to what is possible without the collaboration.

The private sector is essential to climate progress. The UAE has fostered broad company engagement in climate action, with many setting clear goals and following that with business-level metrics to hold them accountable in areas such as performance outcomes and investment flows.

The UAE is an object lesson in the power of these three transformations to make rapid progress. The country’s remarkable growth and economic diversification and maturation are a testament to this approach, which also can help move the world towards more progress more quickly at Cop28 and beyond.

The stakes are high, but with a global commitment and the UAE’s leadership, the opportunity to make critical progress at Cop28 is higher still.

Published: July 21, 2023, 7:00 AM