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U.A.E. pushes its ‘green’ ambition as COP28 gets underway in Dubai

Hosting the UN's biggest climate talks allows the United Arab Emirates to showcase its transition from petrostate to emerging green-energy powerhouse. But as COP28 opens in Dubai, its national oil company is also rushing to expand oil and gas production, leading some to question its commitment to meeting climate targets.

Gulf state is touting renewable energy projects, but skeptics question if its shift away from oil is for real

Man wearing a traditional Emirati white robe and head scarf with a yellow safety vest walks away from the camera, toward rows of solar panels

In the vast Arabian desert, 35 kilometres south of Abu Dhabi, nearly four million solar panels shimmer in the blazing sun. Al Dhafra PV is touted as the largest single-site solar plant in the world, covering 21 square kilometres.

It's a highlight of the United Arab Emirates' green energy ambition — one its leaders say is bringing new energy to a petrostate.

"What's unique about this plant is it's allowing us to showcase the ability and capability of scaling up," says Abdulaziz Alobaidli, the chief executive officer of Masdar, the U.A.E.'s renewable energy company.

"When we started building similar projects in 2009, we built a 10 megawatt plant — that was the largest in the Middle East," he says. "This plant is 200 times bigger."

Al Dhafra is designed to produce enough energy to power 160,000 Emirati homes with high air conditioning demand in this hot climate.

It was officially opened earlier this month — just in time for the U.A.E. to host COP28, the world's largest UN-sponsored climate talks, attracting an estimated 70,000 delegates to Dubai. The conference opens on Thursday.

WATCH | The state oil executive leading COP28:

How an oil CEO ended up in charge of COP28

2 days ago

Duration 6:16

Featured VideoThe president of this year’s COP28 climate summit in Dubai is also the CEO of the United Arab Emirates national oil company. CBC international climate correspondent Susan Ormiston breaks down how Sultan Al Jaber ended up in the seemingly contradictory role and why some are skeptical he’s the right person to negotiate critical climate targets.

Hosting COP28 is a key diplomatic strategy of the U.A.E., allowing it to showcase its message that it can transition away from oil and gas, which has made this country rich.

The Emirates has a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, and Al Dhafra will help it reach that target, Alobaidli says.

"Phasing out from fossil [fuels] is something that will happen," he says. "No one can question that fact; the question is, at what pace?"

The U.A.E., part of the OPEC bloc of oil-producing countries, is building a parallel energy track to establish itself as a green energy powerhouse. Masdar has operations in 40 countries with deals worth about $30 billion USD.

But its national oil company is also rushing to expand oil and gas production, hoping to pull out five million barrels of oil per day — an uptick from 4.6 million now.

The International Energy Agency says there should be no fossil fuel production increases if the world is to keep global warming below 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels. Harmful carbon dioxide emissions are already causing catastrophic climate emergencies and spiralling global heat.

Man in yellow safety vest and white helmet stands amid field of solar panels

Ambition meets skepticism

Alobaidli, an energy engineer who's risen up the ranks at Masdar, is sharing the message the U.A.E. wants the world to hear: that the focus should be on the Emirates' green ambitions, not on its oil-producing history or its reserves of oil and gas.

But critics say those ambitions don't square with reality.

"When it comes to actually transforming into a clean-energy economy, we've seen very little progress," says Lisa Fischer, an analyst with the independent think-tank E3G.

"The U.A.E. has been leading a pledge going into COP28 saying the world needs to triple renewable energy capacity," she says. "But when you look at their plans at home, at the moment they have four gigawatts [of renewable energy] and they're planning to get to nine gigawatts by 2030. So they're barely more than doubling.

"Other than that, the economy is still very, very reliant on oil and gas, domestically."

The U.A.E. is a leader in the Gulf when it comes to investing in renewables. But about 30 per cent of its GDP still comes from oil and gas, and its CO2 emissions per capita are among the highest in the world.

"Currently, they display themselves a bit better than they are," says Niklas Hohne, co-founder of the New Climate Institute, a European NGO focused on climate change.

"The emissions that would come from the oil and gas that they export are three times as high as their own emissions at home. So currently, they still have a long way to go to be really transitioning towards zero greenhouse gas emissions."

The Al Dhafra solar plant, claims Masdar, will remove emissions equivalent to taking 470,000 cars per year off the road, and it's one of several massive plants to come. Masdar is also working on wind energy in a region not known for wind speeds.

"This for us here in the country will change the landscape of energy mix, where not only solar will play an important role, but other technologies such as wind [and] also green hydrogen," says Masdar's Alobaidli.

Masdar was founded by Sultan Al Jaber, who is now its chair. He is also the head of the national oil company ADNOC — and the man handpicked by the U.A.E. to lead the world's climate negotiations at COP28.

Al Jaber's supporters argue he's well placed to convince more of the oil and gas industry to move away from fossil fuels, but his critics accuse his leadership of greenwashing.

They also say that, as the CEO of an oil company, he's in a glaring conflict of interest.

Large array of solar panels with desert hills in background

"What we really need to do for the climate is to phase out fossil fuels … And that would basically eliminate the basis of his business," Hohne says.

Hohne is waiting until the end of COP28 to see if Al Jaber "really can convince the oil industry to agree on phasing out oil, gas and coal," he says. "Then I think he has made a good step."

It all makes for tension as the conference prepares to open. Leaked briefing documents this week suggest the U.A.E. planned to use COP28 to promote deals for ADNOC and Masdar in high-level meetings with foreign countries.

At a small news conference late Wednesday, Al Jaber denied ever seeing or using the "talking points" contained in these documents in discussions leading up to the climate talks.

"I'll be very clear, crystal clear," Al Jaber said. "These allegations are false, not true, incorrect and not accurate. And it's an attempt to undermine the work of the [COP28] presidency.

'The story of renewables in this country'

Sixteen years ago, as a student, Masdar's Alobaidli decided to go into renewable energy rather than the oil and gas industry.

"My professor called me and said, 'Listen, there is a new company which will invest in the future, which will be established in the U.A.E. Why don't you join them?'" he tells CBC News.

"I'm very proud about that decision. My children are very proud about that.

"I used to bring them to the plants," he continues. "Now they are grown up and see themselves as kids being part of the story of renewables in this country. So I will continue working on this."


Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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