How UAE can achieve net zero despite growing population

Prof Mercedes Maroto-Valer says a focus on renewable energy and technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, can help to reduce carbon emissions

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Countries such as the UAE can still aim for net zero, even though their populations and economies are growing fast, a leading decarbonisation expert has said while on a visit to the country.

A focus on renewable energy and technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, can aid efforts to cut carbon emissions, according to Prof Mercedes Maroto-Valer.

Net zero can be achieved when the greenhouse gases being released are balanced out by removing them from the atmosphere.

We’re developing a portfolio of solutions. In the UAE … they can use those best for them. There’s no single bullet
Prof Mercedes Maroto-Valer

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) offers huge rock formations kilometres underground that can safely store centuries worth of CO2.

Prof Maroto-Valer, who is director of the UK Industrial Decarbonisation Research and Innovation Centre (IDRIC), visited the UAE this month to highlight efforts to reduce the impact that industry has on the climate.

Speaking to The National, she said whether countries could achieve economic growth while decarbonising their economies “was a question we asked ourselves probably starting 10 to 12 years ago”. It concerned whether economic growth could be decoupled from CO2 emissions.

“In the UK [since 1990] we’ve grown our GDP [gross domestic product] by 70 per cent. Our emissions have gone down by 45 per cent. It’s possible to do that,” she said.

“The biggest single opportunity you have in terms of transformation is renewables. It’s for decarbonising electricity.

“There are other sectors, particularly industry, that even if you go with renewables, it won’t help all the way to decarbonisation.”

For such heavy industry and manufacturing, Prof Maroto-Valer said technological solutions, such as CCS, could be employed.

Among the UAE companies focusing on CCS is Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc), which said it aims to increase CO2 storage.

While the UAE population has tripled since 2000, it is forecast to grow further. In Dubai, for example, the population is forecast to grow from 3.5 million to 5.8 million, according to the Dubai 2040 Urban Master Plan.

As its population grows, the UAE has committed to limiting net carbon emissions, with the country having announced in October last year, shortly before the Cop26 UN climate change conference in Scotland, that it aimed to reach net zero by 2050.

Prof Maroto-Valer said she was “very impressed” with the UAE’s commitment to decarbonising, something that was held at “a very high level”, including from ministers and companies.

“I think of the range of technologies – CCS, hydrogen, renewables – these are going to be used in many, many countries,” she said.

“We’re developing a portfolio of solutions. In the UAE … they can use those best for them. There’s no single bullet.”

As well as being director of IDRIC – which is funded by £20m (Dh96.87m) from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a British government organisation – Prof Maroto-Valer is director of the Research Centre for Carbon Solutions at Heriot-Watt University. The university has three campuses in Scotland, one in Dubai, and one in Malaysia.

Prof Maroto-Valer, who is also UKRI’s industrial decarbonisation champion, is helping to lead efforts to decarbonise six key UK industrial clusters – in Scotland, Teeside (in north-east England), Humber (also in north-east England), Southampton (on England’s south coast), north-west England and south Wales, which together are responsible for about half the UK’s industrial emissions.

Sectors represented include chemicals, iron and steel, ceramics, glass, paper and pulp, food and drink, and oil refining.

“We’re working with them and we provide the research and innovation needed so all these clusters will move to net zero,” she said.

The aim is to have one of the world’s first net-zero industrial clusters by 2040 and, in the meantime, to develop low-emission clusters.

Prof Maroto-Valer is keen to share lessons from academic research and from these industrial clusters with other parts of the world, including the UAE. The aim is to set up international partnerships promoting decarbonisation.

“Such knowledge can be taken to other countries,” she said.

“All these sectors are facing the same challenges. The solutions may be a little bit more specific to the locations.

“There’s a huge demand for cement in the UAE. We see a lot of the same sectors which need to transition. It’s how we drive creative solutions together.”

During her trip to the UAE, Prof Maroto-Valer took part in a panel session at the UK pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai that discussed hydrogen and Scotland’s efforts to achieve net zero.

She also delivered a distinguished lecture at the Heriot-Watt Dubai Campus on how collaborative research and innovation can help achieve net zero after Cop26. She said the UAE’s hosting, in 2023, of Cop28, was highly significant.

“There’s really a very important message: it’s not just something for the western countries,” she said.

“We need every single player and country to be committed.”

What is decarbonisation?

Decarbonisation is the removal or reduction of CO2 being released into the atmosphere with the end goal of eliminating it completely.

This is achieved by using low-carbon energy sources.

The Paris Agreement, which was signed by 196 parties in December 2015, promotes "zero-carbon solutions" and has spurred countries and companies into setting carbon neutral targets.

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Updated: March 25, 2022, 12:22 PM