Five Things the UAE Should do Before COP28 Part 1
Updated: Apr 18, 2022
As the dust settles after the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, and world leaders continue to reckon with the reality of climate change, the UAE has two years to move itself, and the world, towards a low carbon pathway before it hosts COP28 in 2023.
While the UAE will not be the first Middle Eastern oil producer to host the talks – Egypt will host COP27 next year and Qatar hosted in 2012 – it will take up the mantle amidst ever-greater skepticism of countries’ net-zero plans.
Action, rather than ambition, will be rewarded. Pressure groups will pounce on the first sniff of greenwashing. For the UAE can emerge from COP28 not only with credibility intact, but as a leader and innovator for the post-carbon age, it needs to act fast, and be creative and consistent with unambiguous climate goals.
Here are five things the UAE can do to make COP28 a success:
1) Have a clear narrative backed up by communications and diplomacy
Embark on a program of engagement, communications, and diplomacy that leaves no question as to what the UAE wants to achieve as the host of COP28. It’s the difference between being a host and being a leader.
Boris Johnson used the phrase “cash, coal, cars, and trees” to outline the UK’s four-prong climate approach. The catchy phrase both showed off the UK’s specific action to combat climate change and motivated other countries to follow its lead. It backed this up with a pre-COP26 diplomatic blitz, followed by carefully orchestrated announcements at COP26 aligned to each of the priorities.
The UAE’s COP28 narrative should play to the country’s strengths and reflect global priorities while also getting ahead of the curve by elevating critical issues that aren’t getting enough attention. For example, COP28 could focus on
mobilizing real money for adaptation and resilience, something in which the UAE itself will need to substantially invest. It could bring atmospheric carbon removal into the conversation, launching specific plans to reverse climate change rather than just slow it down. It could leverage its position as a global seaport hub and the owner of two major global airlines (Etihad and Emirates) to lead on greening shipping and aviation. It could elevate water scarcity, an issue relevant to its arid climate and a looming threat for billions of people, especially in developing countries. Does “resilience, removal, wings and water” have a ring to it?
2) Use the UAE’s unique position to bridge divides
The UAE’s meteoric economic rise, geography and politics allows it to mediate often-competing perspectives. Geographically and diplomatically, it sits between the great powers in the West (US and EU) and the East (China and India). Straddling North-South, the UAE is the 7th richest country by per capita GDP and has one of the world’s fastest growing economies, yet is officially considered a developing country by the UN.
As part of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and MENA, the UAE has influence throughout Asia, Africa, South America, and parts of Eastern Europe. It bridges continents and carbon-based economies through OPEC. And it’s home to the International Renewable Energy Agency and the World Green Economy Organization.
The UAE should integrate climate-compatible agendas into these organizations and platforms over the next two years to start building consensus on multiple levels in the lead-up to COP28. There are many divides – economic, diplomatic, and developmental – that are impeding faster and more effective action on climate change. The UAE has an opportunity to leverage its multifarious identities to bring together diverse groups and moderate different viewpoints.
3) Show what transition looks like
With its endowment of hydrocarbons, the UAE has transformed itself from an economy centered around pearl fishing to a gleaming hub of international commerce. And while it faces a monumental challenge in reaching its goal of net-zero by 2050, in the Gulf region it has made the biggest strides in diversifying towards a knowledge and service-based economy.
As it approaches its 50th national anniversary, the UAE’s towering ambition and ability to rapidly enact reforms means it has the opportunity to illuminate a new sustainable path, especially for resource-based economies. This includes promoting its considerable focus on R&D–Research and development, and encouraging other countries to focus on cleantech, such as direct air capture and hydrogen, that will be essential to keeping the goal of a rise of 1.5C alive and ensuring a smoother economic transition.
To show what transition looks like, the UAE’s sovereign wealth funds should strengthen their social and environmental investment criteria to ensure investments support low carbon development. It should show how ‘transition finance’ can bring big polluters into the climate conversation by offering alternatives to winding down or going bankrupt. It should influence its state-owned enterprises to be active players in accelerating the transition to low carbon.
4) Be radically transparent, including being open about needing help
While many would argue the UK’s carefully choreographed announcements on deforestation, finance and coal helped maintain a sense of momentum throughout COP26, the UK was also accused of trying to distract from a lack of global agreement with less effective and exclusionary sidebars. This led to a loss of trust among a handful of influential stakeholders including Greenpeace, who accused the host of “dampening transparency and integrity.”
Because the Gulf region is so associated with fossil fuels, the UAE will be going into COP28 with a huge amount of skepticism among international stakeholders. Some will be fast to accuse the UAE of trying to use flashy announcements and PR to mask a lack of genuine commitment.
The best way to combat this is with complete transparency. This includes opening-up data on emissions and other environmental indicators over the next two years and persuading others to follow.
The UAE can also show leadership – and fend off criticism – by being open about which aspects of its NDC plans are less defined and require more work and support from international expertise. It can then facilitate platforms for collaboration on the critical challenges facing different economies. We can intercept skepticism and change “gotcha” to “we’re all struggling, so let’s work together.”
5) Focus on cities as COP moves towards implementation
While the theme at COP26 was ambition, COP28 will center on implementation. Cities will be critical for turning national-level ambition into on-the-ground action. It is at the local level that big policies translate into homes to retrofit, factories to retool, and streets to pedestrianize. And, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres rightly points out, “Cities are where the climate battle will largely be won or lost.” It’s a sentiment that encapsulates the urgency of effective climate policies at the city and county level, rather than attention solely on the national government. Cities also benefit from climate action through cleaner air, more green jobs, safer and faster transport, and better health.
Cities can also be test beds for new solutions and share best practices through twin towns and sister cities. Abu Dhabi’s 2030 Urban Plan has nature, clean energy, and economic diversification at its heart. Dubai’s new 2040 Urban Masterplan focuses on active transport, resource efficiency, and sustainable housing. Dubai is a member of the city-focused C40 Climate Leadership Group and can persuade leaders of the world’s metropolises to encourage stronger national action. The UAE’s cities can be another diplomatic leverage point before and during COP28.
Two years is just enough time to pull on all available levers and make COP28 a substantive success. With planning, coordination, creativity, and specific action plans, 2023 will be a breakthrough year with the UAE at the helm.