Somewhere in the world, Greta Thunberg is yelling “blah, blah, blah.”
As the U.N. climate talks, COP26, wrapped up in Scotland last November, officials announced that in 2022 and 2023, the annual conferences would be hosted by – surprise! — Egypt, and then the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.). It made the already disappointing climate summit seem even more futile. How could the oil-rich U.A.E., or the heavy-handed authoritarian government of Egypt inspire progress and drive ambition towards a sustainable world?
Can these upcoming COP meetings be anything but a giant greenwash? Or is there a way they could use the opportunity to make a real difference globally?
To be sure, playing host to COP is partly just a game of musical chairs, rotating among member countries in different regions of the world. And there is no guarantee that the host will make a decisive difference in this battle or climate action. Just months after the U.K. closed COP26, the government is considering new oil and gas drilling licenses for the North Sea, a move critics assure us is “incompatible” with the spirit of Glasgow.
See our related story by Professor Jeremy Moss: COP26 leaves too many loopholes for the fossil fuel industry –– here are five.
Nonetheless, the COP meetings are one of the best forums to act as an organizing force for addressing climate change.
So consider the U.A.E., sandwiched between Saudi Arabia and Oman on the Persian Gulf, it is a traditional society with a gleaming futuristic overlay. The country’s leaders take great pride in its prosperity and modernism, paid for with the wealth from its oil and gas industry. The country now boasts some of the world’s most lavish attractions — the world’s tallest building, largest mall, biggest aquarium and even an indoor ski resort. The Emirate is patrolled by police driving Bugattis and Lamborghinis.
And now, the U.A.E. is burnishing its environmental profile. Underway right this moment in Dubai is Expo 2020, exhibiting sustainability technology and systems from around the world. At its center is the U.A.E.’s massive Terra Pavilion built with thousands of solar panels and technology that make it 100% energy and water self-sufficient despite its location in the desert. It looks truly fantastic.
Even as the country aims for a net zero goal within its borders, it is expanding its oil and gas production.
The U.A.E. is also the first country in the Middle East and northern Africa region (MENA) to commit to a net zero by 2050 goal (23.5% by 2030) through a wide array of initiatives — green building standards, efficiency improvements, building out wind and solar energy and developing carbon capture and green hydrogen capacity. No small feat given its high-octane lifestyle. But here’s the rub: Even as the country aims for a net zero goal within its borders, it is among the biggest carbon emitters in the world — about 50% more than the U.S. on a per capita basis. And it is expanding oil and gas production. The country is pouring billions of investment into upstream and downstream operations, including pipelines and oil terminals to get more of their hydrocarbons to market. The state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) — the 12th largest oil and gas company in the world — is making investments to expand crude oil production to 5 million b/d, or about 20%, by 2030.
U.A.E. is among the biggest carbon emitters in the world — about 50% more than the U.S. on a per capita basis.
And there is no answer in sight. The problem for the U.A.E., and many of its fellow OPEC nations, is that they have created entirely subsidized societies built on oil pumped from the ground for pennies, and then sold for between $40-$100 a barrel. Even with efforts in recent decades to diversify its economy, the U.A.E. still relies on the oil and gas industry for about 30% of its GDP.
The transition away from the status quo is not easy, threatening a minority ruling elite who have used subsidies to buy social stability.
So when it comes to COP28 in 2023, which the U.A.E.’s leadership is touting as a “solutions” summit, it’s a big case of we shall see.
How do you build a new economy without this gargantuan annual royalty? No one knows. Saudi Arabia is hoping massive investments in non-fossil fuels will create a portfolio of investment returns that, over time, along with diversifying the economy into everything from celebrity golf to turning deserts into resorts, will make up for the oil royalty shortfall. The U.A.E. is seeking to do the same on a smaller scale. Mostly though, its plan is to pump away until a better solution is found.
Egypt, which is slated to host this year’s COP27 is another interesting location for the summit, but for different reasons. The northern African nation is densely populated and not a leader in the green transformation, but not a major contributor to greenhouse gases, per capita, given the relatively low standard of living. It has only recently started tapping into green bond markets and other forms of green debt for building out solar and wind power, and President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has touted the nation’s commitment to green hydrogen.
Egypt is working with global oil majors to exploit newly discovered oil and gas reserves in the west.
But at the same time, Al-Sisi is pursuing investment in Egypt’s oil sector, as suggested by his patronage at a major oil and gas conference in Cairo this week. Egypt is working with global oil majors to exploit newly discovered oil and gas reserves in the west.
“Egypt still has the opportunity to be a regional and even global leader in the race to create efficient, competitive, ‘green’ economies.”
If there is one thing Egypt could highlight for COP participants it is what its country’s challenges are when faced with the existential threat of climate change. About 95% of Egypt’s 100 million people live in the Nile River delta, a place at severe risk of rising sea levels, drought and extreme heat. The desert nation is at persistent and increasing risk of water shortages and food insecurity due to climate change.
“Egypt still has the opportunity to be a regional and even global leader in the race to create efficient, competitive, ‘green’ economies,” according to a recent World Resources Institute report. “In fact, if it does not choose this path, future prospects for the country are difficult to put into optimistic terms.”
But most of this will be lost on the gathering COP27 delegates. Most won’t even know they are in Egypt. The conference is being held in Sharm el-Sheikh, a resort town on the southeast end of the Sinai Peninsula, that is a diving destination known for its clear waters, sandy beaches and coral reefs, and streets lined with palm trees, nightclubs, restaurants and luxury hotels – all far removed from the gritty reality of a climate crisis that is on its way to make North Africa and the Middle East a hot zone of extreme, escalating climate damage.
Featured image: Terra Pavilion, Expo 2020 Dubai