On his opening trip to Asia as the Biden administration's special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry's first stop was Abu Dhabi, where he attended the Regional Climate Dialogue in April. It was not your usual diplomatic visit. Rather than being confined to reception rooms, Mr Kerry was given a helicopter tour of the emirate's Noor facility, the largest single-site solar plant in the world, as well as trips to the first university dedicated to AI, MBZUAI, with curriculums focusing on sustainability, and even a mangrove park. This packed and varied itinerary made one thing clear: solving the climate crisis will require every technology and discipline that countries can harness.
Mr Kerry's trip to the climate dialogue highlighted an emergency that threatens the globe. More than 190 leaders will be discussing it again at the UN's 26th Climate Change Conference, Cop26, which is taking place this November in Glasgow, Scotland. On Sunday, the UAE launched its own bid to host Cop28, scheduled for 2023, in Abu Dhabi.
The Cop meetings are arguably the most influential of their kind, having led to the establishment of the Paris Agreement in 2015, when nearly every nation on Earth agreed to work together to stop the world’s temperature increasing more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
Climate change poses the same threat to all nations. But the Mena region is an early frontline. Droughts are affecting farmers from Sudan to Syria. And it is not just the natural environment under threat. Regional economies are in jeopardy, too. The World Bank highlighted in a recent report that water scarcity related to climate change could cost the Middle East as much as a 14 per cent knock to GDP by 2050. When more than 80 per cent of water used in the region goes towards agriculture, dwindling supplies threaten not only those reliant on the earth for work, but the food security of everyone.
This urgency has led to increasing concern within GCC governments, who for years have been planning for a post-carbon future that redirects the oil revenues that were the driving force behind the region's rapid development in the 20th century.
In the UAE, officials have been arguing for some time that a greener future is also a major opportunity for growth. Announcing the bid on Sunday, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, said, "We have seen first-hand that there is now an unprecedented business case for the highest level of climate ambition – especially when it advances gender equality and empowers youth.” A series of major environmental projects are providing the proof; the Emirates now has among the lowest solar energy costs on the planet.
It will take more than the cold, hard facts to change longstanding polluting habits. The Gulf has been a major commercial centre of the global carbon industry for decades. Now it is committed to taking the lead on creating a greener future, and hosting Cop28 in the UAE would show that commitment on the world stage. If the Gulf can lead conversations for real, global progress on sustainability, then reluctant countries elsewhere in the world will find it harder to make excuses for inaction.