UAE at COP28 Crossroads: From Petrostate to Climate Leader

With the 28th edition of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) now within touching distance, scrutiny on its host is intensifying. Taking place at the Expo City in Dubai from 30th November until 12th December, the UAE is facing disquiet over its handling of the event as well as facing down tough accusations of whether it is up to the job given its history as a petrostate.

If the UAE and the charismatic COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber were at all frustrated by the raft of criticism, they haven’t outwardly shown it. The UAE’s hosting of a UN climate COP conference is not the first instance of a petrostate or even an autocratic regime hosting this event. Likewise, Al Jaber, is not the first figure in this position to have dedicated years to furthering his nation’s fossil fuel interests. Yet as the CEO and Managing Director of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Adnoc, Al Jaber’s day job looms large over proceedings. Particularly as Adnoc has recently sped up its plans to increase its oil production.

However, in 2021 the UAE’s leaders realised something had to give. As a country with one of the world’s highest emissions rates per capita (ahead of Australia and the US) the UAE became the first of the Persian Gulf’s petrostates to commit to eliminating planet-warming emissions within its borders and to being net zero by 2050.

This bold decision was able to be taken thanks to a series of earlier investments in alternative energy sources. These investments were made to meet the country’s increasing energy demands which have come about as a result of a rapidly growing economy. It goes without saying that in a country where there are on average 11.5 hours of sunshine per day (84% of the time) that solar energy is one of the key alternative energy sources. One such example of this was the Noor Abu Dhabi Solar Power Plant, which was completed in 2019 and is one of the world’s largest single-site solar power plants.

As COP28 approaches, the UAE finds itself at a crossroads, balancing its history as a major oil producer with its newfound commitment to sustainability. While scepticism and concerns persist, the UAE’s efforts to invest in renewable energy sources and set ambitious emissions targets demonstrate a genuine desire for change. The world will be watching as the conference unfolds, eager to see how the UAE navigates these challenges and communicates its commitment to a cleaner, more sustainable future.

In this context, effective communication strategies will play a crucial role; as will the need to avoid crises and navigate the array of reputational challenges. This includes the revelation reported by the Guardian that Adnoc had gained access to COP28-related emails. Scandals like these create the perception of a conflict of interest, potentially undermining trust in the summit’s ability to address climate issues impartially. Moreover, the decision to switch email servers after the disclosure also damaged the UAE’s reputation in terms of transparency and responsible hosting of global climate events.

So, in the final run-up to the 30th of November, the UAE needs to be laser focused on transparently reporting on its progress, adhering to international climate agreements as well as actively engaging with stakeholders, both locally and internationally, in order to help reshape the UAE’s global image.

The nation now faces an opportunity to not only address its historical associations with fossil fuels but also set a new course towards a greener and more sustainable future. But by being bold enough to host, credit should be given to the UAE’s dedication to diversifying its energy mix and reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

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