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Carbon emissions: how will the Gulf get to net zero?

UAE and Saudi Arabia publish net zero carbon emissions plans
Planta fotovoltaica de 10mw en Masdar City, un desarrollo urbano sostenible alimentado por energías renovables en Abu Dhabi, Emiratos Árabes Unidos

AP/KAMRAN JEBREILI  -   10mw photovoltaic plant at Masdar City, a sustainable urban development powered by renewable energy in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

As world leaders in politics and business continue to meet in Glasgow to discuss environmental issues as part of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), some of the world's most fossil fuel-dependent countries have launched plans to achieve net zero carbon emissions. 

On 7 October, the United Arab Emirates became the first Gulf country to commit to achieving net zero. At Expo 2020 in Dubai, the government announced that it would aim to reach the target by 2050, in line with major industrialised markets such as the EU and the UK. 

Although the country has not yet published a detailed plan, officials said they would invest 600 bn dirhams ($163.4 bn) in renewable energy to help achieve the target. This will build on the more than $40bn that the UAE has invested in the sector over the past 15 years. 

The government predicts that renewable energy production capacity, including solar and nuclear, will reach 14 GW by 2030, up from 100 MW in 2015 and 2.4 GW in 2020. If successful, officials say implementation should increase the share of electricity from renewables from current levels of 7% to 20% by 2030, and 44% by 2050

In addition, the country seeks to develop hydrogen as a low-carbon energy source, reduce consumption and increase carbon capture capacity. 

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PHOTO/ Dubai Government Strategy and Communications via AP - Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, about 50 kilometres south of Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Saudi Arabia's net zero plan 

This development was followed on 23 October by the launch of Saudi Arabia's own net zero plan, announced at the first Saudi Green Initiative Forum, which it hopes to achieve by 2060. 

Similar to the UAE, Saudi officials have highlighted significant investment in renewable energy as key to achieving the goal. The country aims to generate 30% of electricity from renewable sources by 2030, up from current levels of less than 1%. 

Saudi Arabia said it will invest a total of 700bn Saudi rials ($186.7bn) as part of its "circular carbon economy" approach, which includes strategies such as planting 450 million trees and rehabilitating large tracts of land by 2030, as well as increasing investment in carbon capture technology. 

The measures are expected to reduce carbon emissions by 270 million tonnes per year, more than double the country's previous target of 130 million tonnes. The plan was also accompanied by a commitment to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030

Following the lead of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain's cabinet on 24 October announced plans to bring carbon emissions to net zero by 2060, while days later Qatar launched a national climate change plan that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent by 2030. 

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AFP/ KARIM SAHIB - 10 megawatt solar farm on the outskirts of Masdar City, on the outskirts of the wealthy emirate of Abu Dhabi.
Oil and gas to remain in future plans 

While making significant efforts to reduce net carbon emissions, Saudi Arabia and the UAE see a continued role for oil and gas in their respective net zero futures

Although not finalised, their plans did not include information on reducing investment in oil and gas or reducing fossil fuel production. 

This has raised concerns among some environmental activists, who fear that continued hydrocarbon production and reliance on carbon capture technology may not be as effective in reducing carbon emissions as many suggest. 

Others were more optimistic and stressed the importance of one of the world's largest oil producers committing to a net zero plan

"I welcome Saudi Arabia's announcement of a net zero target. Countries will get to Net Zero in different ways, but the threat of climate change is universal. Commitments by major fossil fuel producers and their implementation are vital to reach international climate goals," Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, wrote on Twitter. 

Meanwhile, in releasing their plan, Saudi officials said too rapid a shift away from fossil fuels would leave many emerging markets without reliable sources of energy, and that the transition to net zero carbon emissions "will be carried out in a way that preserves the Kingdom's energy. leading role in enhancing the security and stability of global energy markets"

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AFP/ IAN TIMBERLAKE - Shaybah, the base for Saudi Aramco's natural gas liquids plant and oil production in the surrounding Shaybah field in the remote desert neighbourhood of Empty, Saudi Arabia, near the United Arab Emirates.
Net zero challenges for the Gulf 

The path to net zero is a particularly complex issue for the Gulf, where many countries still rely heavily on the hydrocarbon industry

For example, Saudi Arabia is the world's second largest oil producer, supplying about 10 per cent of the world's oil, while Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait are in the top ten. 

Although most Gulf countries have embarked on long-term programmes aimed at economic diversification, hydrocarbons remain an important part of economic activity and are crucial to the overall economy. 

Despite falling from 65% in 1991, oil's share of total GDP in Saudi Arabia was still 42% in 2019. The relative figure is around 50% in Oman, 40% in Kuwait and about 20% in Bahrain, despite the latter being one of the most diversified economies in the region

With many countries in the region still recovering to some extent from the twin challenges of last year's coronavirus and falling oil prices, the hydrocarbon sector remains key to economic security