MBZ’s hot climate leadership since the Paris Agreement

  • Mohammed bin Zayed, the President of the UAE, has successfully set himself apart as a regional climate leader through his pioneering environmental projects in the MENA.  
  • While pledging net zero, MBZ continues to ramp up oil production to achieve energy security and generate financial resources for the clean energy transition. 
  • MBZ’s efforts are driven by an inevitable oil depletion harming the foundation of his family’s legitimacy and power in the UAE.
Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ)

Why is MBZ’s temperature hot?

Answer: MBZ has stepped up the clean energy transition as a major part of his environmental agenda. 

Since joining the Paris Agreement in 2016, MBZ has been increasingly vocal about his ambition to transform the UAE from a petro state to a major renewable powerhouse in the world. The Emirati president mainly focuses on renewable energy and nuclear energy projects as major parts of the energy transition.

Solar power is a predominant source of renewable energy and hence the primary focus of the UAE in the energy transition, with three of the world’s largest solar power plants located there. The Al Dhafra Solar PV project, expected to be one of the world’s largest solar power plants, is currently under construction in Abu Dhabi and will be in full operation at the end of 2022. The Al Dhafra Solar PV plays a key role in fulfilling the UAE’s ambition of having 44% of its power sourced from clean energy by 2050.

Masdar City project is another grand effort of MBZ to accelerate the clean energy transition. It is expected to be the first community in the world where the carbon emission is zero with no vehicles powered by fossil fuels. The full carbon neutrality of Masdar city with a focus on solar power and other renewables will play a major role in curbing air pollution in the country, acting as a catalyst toward sustainable cities and green technologies in the UAE and in the MENA region. 

MBZ also focuses on nuclear energy programs as another instrumental part of the UAE’s energy transition. At the heart of its nuclear journey is the construction of the Barakah nuclear power plant. The Barakah power plant is a landmark development for MBZ as it elevates his standing in the MENA region when he managed to launch the first operational nuclear reactor in the Gulf. Domestically, Barakah is capable of providing up to 25% of the electricity for the country upon completion. Regionally, the successful operation of the Barakah plant is a test run for the potential nuclear energy industry of the entire region and provides a huge incentive for other neighbouring countries to develop similar nuclear programs. 

What is changing MBZ’s “heat level”? 

Answer: Despite remarkable success in the renewable and nuclear energy sector, MBZ is still criticized for a lack of strict compliance with the Paris Agreement. 

MBZ has shown notable success in the clean energy transition, with significant growth in renewable and nuclear energy generation. Although the UAE launched clean energy projects more than 15 years ago, renewable energy generation was only accelerated after the ratification of the Paris Accords in 2016: the proportion of renewables increased from well below 0.5% in 2015 to over 3.5% in 2020. MBZ has turned the UAE into one of the regional frontrunners in renewable energy development. 

On the other hand, Masdar City has failed to achieve its goal of creating a self-sustaining zero-carbon city. Firstly, although the project is still underway, it shows stagnant progress when in 2020, only one out of seven phases of the project were finished. Secondly, the project will exert negligible impacts on curbing GHG emissions in Abu Dhabi which has one of the highest per capita carbon footprints in the world. Finally, the project has scaled back its environmental ambition by reducing the initial aim of being “zero-carbon” (no carbon dioxide emission) to “carbon-neutral” (no net release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere).

In terms of nuclear energy programs, the Barakah nuclear power plant project has strictly followed the timeline, sometimes even ahead of the schedule since the start of construction in 2012. Apart from playing a central role in the energy diversification of MBZ, the success of the Barakah project has produced great incentives for other countries in the Arab world to adopt their own nuclear programs. Egypt has applied for the construction permit for the El-Dabaa nuclear power plant and Saudi Arabia currently has established the Nuclear Holding Company early this year to develop nuclear programs. 

Despite success in renewable and nuclear energy programs, MBZ and the UAE are still criticized by the Climate Action Tracker for being inconsistent with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C temperature limit. In order to reduce the gas reliance on Qatar, Dubai launched the construction of the coal-powered Hassyan power plant in 2020, which is contradictory to the need to phase out coal from electricity production in order to meet the net zero targets by 2050. In addition, the UAE’s decision to ramp up oil production in March 2022 also met with criticism for not advancing its commitment to reducing global warming. In short, there is still a gap between the UAE’s government’s planned production of coal, oil and gas and the production levels consistent with meeting the Paris Agreement temperature limits.

What is driving MBZ? 

Answer: MBZ’s environmental agenda is mainly driven by an inevitable oil depletion harming the foundation of his family’s legitimacy and power in the UAE. 

As a country with the seventh largest oil and natural gas reserves in the world, the UAE generates nearly four million barrels of oil per day and derives approximately 30% of its GDP from its oil production. A world moving away from fossil fuels would bring about severe economic and political implications for the UAE.

Firstly, oil depletion would cause economic stagnation in the country. The oil industry has been the backbone of the UAE’s economy and played a central role in the economic boom since the first commercial oil was discovered in 1958. With about one-third of the jobs in the energy sector, decreasing oil revenues is a significant long-term challenge for the country’s economy. 

Secondly, the oil depletion will adversely affect the position of the UAE as a global energy provider and hence reduce the political influence of the country in the international community. The position of a leading oil manufacturer has granted the UAE and MBZ leverage over the importing countries. As one of the primary members of OPEC with large per capita oil reserves, the UAE can influence global oil prices. To illustrate, oil prices witnessed the sharpest decline to $16.84, or 13.2%, at $111.14 a barrel in two years after the Gulf country expressed its support for pumping more oil into the market disrupted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Thirdly, the depletion of oil has severe implications for MBZ regarding his presidency and Abu Dhabi’s leadership in the UAE. Oil exhaustion would deprive MBZ of significant financial capabilities to enact his policies and employ a majority of Emiratis in very well-paying government jobs. It would also undermine the power of his royal family in the federation as the oil wealth has granted them more leverage over the other emirates, which is exemplified in Abu Dhabi’s bailout loan to Dubai in the 2008 financial crisis

The 2014-2016 oil prices crisis was therefore a wake-up call for MBZ, pushing him to counter the implications of potential oil depletion by stepping up the energy transition and economic diversification. The subsequent ratification of the Paris Accords is a pivotal moment in MBZ’s environmental agenda. It made the UAE the first state in the Gulf to accept the Paris climate deal and pledge to net zero by 2050, signifying MBZ’s commitment to accelerate economic diversification and combat climate change, motivated by his own personal political survival.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: MBZ’s pioneering environmental agenda encourages other countries in the region which have been slow in climate measures. 

In the MENA region where many oil-producing countries used to resist the tough agreement on curbing carbon emissions, the Paris Agreement ratification is regarded as a leadership move of MBZ as it urges other petrostates to reconsider their outlook on climate change. Consequently, there has been a surge of new net zero pledges from major countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, and Iraq. 

MBZ’s determination to step up his environmental agenda kicked off a race to attract foreign investment for green development. MBZ’s ambition of building the first zero-carbon city in the world has incentivized Saudi Arabia to build a similar megacity NEOM in 2017, a grand effort which aims to boost foreign direct investment (FDI) in green technologies and sustainable development in the country. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have been in fierce competition, trying to turn themselves into one of the most attractive regional business hubs for green tech investment. This competition is creating a ripple effect, motivating other MENA countries to step up their energy transition and green tech development.

This article is based on a report on MBZ’s climate leadership that students from IE University’s School of Global and Public Affairs have researched under RAIA supervision and with RAIA’s methodology ahead of the COP27 and is part of the pan-European 1Planet4All project that empowers young visionaries to make an impact in the ongoing climate crisis.

1Planet4All is a project that seeks to promote the active participation and commitment of European youth in the fight against the climate emergency. It is part of the DEAR program of Education for Development and Awareness, an initiative of the European Commission Commission and with the support of 14 development and humanitarian aid NGOs—including Ayuda en Acción (Aid in Action)—the 1Planet4All project seeks to bring together young individuals to help achieve the 2023 objectives.

Quynh Dinh

Writer & editor