Ahead of COP27, there is a lot of work to be done to hit UAE’s sustainable goals

For the last few years, the Middle East has been witnessing extreme weather events. Raging sandstorms, record high temperatures, wildfires, and dried-up rivers have been the main issues affecting the region.

With both UAE and Saudi Arabia recording temperatures well above 50°C in the last decade, it has become evident that the region is already in the midst of a climate crisis. Besides, the UAE is one of 17 countries facing “extremely high water stress” according to a report published by the Water Resources Institute (WRI) in 2019. This means that 80% of available surface and groundwater in an average year is being consumed.

With COP27 being hosted in Egypt – a country that is edging towards a serious water crisis – and the UAE seeking to host COP28 next year, what is the Middle East doing to prevent further crises? The answer, it turns out, is both hopeful and uncertain.

Arab governments have recognised how much the climate crisis can wreck the future of their population. In its 2021 report, Climate Centre detailed what governmental organisations were set up in the Middle East to assess the impact of climate change. Focus on renewable energy has also soared, with the UAE now being home to Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, the world’s largest solar park. It aims to have a total capacity of 5,000 megawatts by 2030.

In fact, data from IRENA shows that the Middle East as a whole almost doubled its renewable energy capacity in the last decade. In 2011, the region had a total capacity of 12,538 MW through renewable energy. By 2021, it had increased to almost double its previous capacity, standing at 23962 MW.

In 2015, the UAE was among the first countries to ratify the Paris Agreement on Climate Change Action. Since then, the government has implemented the National Climate Change Plan, which calls for ‘green’ energy to meet 27% of the country’s energy needs by 2021 and 50% by 2050.

Yet, energy from fossil fuels continues to be the main producer of electricity in the country. IRENA’s data shows that in 2020, only 4% of electricity came from renewables, far from the original ambitious goal.  

It is not just the government that is focusing on sustainability. Businesses and schools are doing their best too.

At a private school in the emirate of Ajman in the UAE, an educational supervisor said that in the past decade, more and more UAE schools have become conscious of teaching environmental studies. She said that organising clean-up drives have become a regular scholastic activity for school children. Each school might differ in their approach, but the idea of instilling environmental awareness is the main idea. “Priorities vary from school to school, you see. But they’re still green at heart.”

However, Gulf sociologist Mira Al Hussein is not satisfied with this. “There are no instructions in schools about this pressing topic beyond band-aid recycling…neighbourhoods lack recycling facilities, and are not incentivised to adopt sustainable practices, such as separating trash.”

Hussein also says that “civil society is also absent.”

“This is an area in which civil society organisations and NGOs can play a significant educative and preventative role…” she explains, but also worries that UAE laws make the development of such grassroots initiatives very difficult.

Meanwhile, the UAE government’s focus on sustainability has also meant that businesses are racing to make themselves more sustainable as well. In March 2017, First Abu Dhabi Bank issued the region’s first green bond, a five-year $587 million (Dh2.16 billion) green bond, and has set aside $10 billion for financing green businesses over a 10-year period. Masdar, an Abu Dhabi-based clean energy firm, established the Middle East’s first green revolving credit facility in October 2019. Green bonds allow investors to invest in environmentally friendly projects while also providing issuers with low-cost financing for these projects.

But there’s still a lot of work to be done in this sector. According to KPMG’s most recent corporate responsibility (CR) survey in 2017, only three of the country’s top 100 companies by revenue met the scoring criteria of understanding, prioritising, and measuring the SDGs.

Hussein is also concerned that recent episodes of flooding are being viewed positively, without fully understanding the effects these events are having on the environment. “…the UAE has had an unusual amount of rain and flooding recently. Instead of being alarmed, many seem to view these changes in climate and environment positively. The idea is that excess water will change the ecology and ‘green the environment’.”

Perhaps, says Hussein, “as a requisite to the UAE hosting COP28, it would be quite useful to involve UAE residents – citizens and noncitizens – in collective brainstorming sessions to draft an actionable pact of commitment and care towards our environment.”

Image Credit: World Meteorological Organization