This section provides an impact assessment of MBZ’s policy solutions to the major environmental challenges in the UAE.
Clean energy transition
Since joining the Paris climate deal, MBZ and the UAE have been increasingly vocal about its ambition of transforming from a petrostate to a major renewable and hydrogen powerhouse in the world. Although the Gulf state launched clean energy projects more than 15 years ago, the renewables generation was only accelerated after the ratification of the Paris Accords: indeed, the proportion of renewables jumped from well below 0.5% in 2015 to over 3.5% in 2020 (Figure 1). In breakdown, most of the renewable energy was used for residential and commercial purposes, each of which accounted for 44% while the industrial sector consumed only 9% in 2019 (Figure 2).
Figure 1. UAE renewable power generation percentage (1990-2020) and power generation mix in 2020.
Figure 2. Final renewable energy demand by UAE economic sector 2019.
In addition, after pledging for net zero emissions by 2050, the Gulf country declared to increase the contribution of clean energy in the total energy mix from 25% to 50% by 2050 in the UAE Energy Strategy 2050. In particular, the country set the target of an energy mix including: 44% clean energy, 38% gas, 12% clean coal, and 6% nuclear.
The UAE has become one of the most active countries in the clean energy transition in the region by aiming for a decrease in emissions of 23.5% below business as usual (BAU) in 2030. Similarly, Qatar targets a 25% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 under the climate plan and Saudi Arabia aims to generate half its domestic energy sustainably by 2030. By contrast, Oman claims to reduce only 7% in emissions by 2030, which is far short of the 50% reduction proposed by scientists; Iraq, the OPEC’s second-largest oil producer, commits only 1-2% emissions reduction.
After the ratification of the Paris Accords, there was a remarkable growth in the installed capacity of solar power in the UAE, from around 100MW in 2015 to more than 2500MW in 2020 (Figure 3). Noor Abu Dhabi, the largest single-site solar power plant in the world using 3.2 million solar panels, generates nearly 1.2 gigawatts of power which covers the needs of 90,000 people. Considered a landmark in the energy transition of the UAE, Noor Abu Dhabi is significant in reducing gas-based electricity generation and resulting in a carbon footprint reduction of 1 million metric tons per year, which is equivalent to taking 200,000 cars off the road. Noor Abu Dhabi and the Al Dhafra Solar PV project, which will be another world’s largest solar power plant to be in full operation by the end of 2022, play a critical role in fulfilling the UAE’s ambition of having 44% of its power sourced from clean energy by 2050.
Figure 3. UAE solar energy generation installed capacity (2011-2021).
In addition to large-scale solar power plants, minor solar facilities and programs are also pushed forward as a part of the grand plan of reducing reliance on fossil fuels. The solar rooftop plan, which was launched by the Abu Dhabi government, led to an annual electricity output of 4.025 GWh and mitigation of 3220 tons of CO2 emissions in 2017. The parking lot solar canopy installations, which include 105 parking places, generate 343 MWh/year with 300 units of CO2 savings per year. The domestic solar water heating facilities in such places as the Aloft Hotel and the Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi provide a capacity of 4 MW solar power.
Thanks to technological innovation and favorable geographical position, the Gulf country has managed to generate cheap solar energy, driving down the cost from 5.84 US cents in 2015 to 2.94 US cents in 2017 (Figure 4). As the cheapest operational solar plant in the world, Noor Abu Dhabi provides solar power at a cost of 2.94 US cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to fossil fuels with 4-6 US cents per kWh. This demonstrates the cost competitiveness of solar power over fossil fuels which will encourage people to switch to solar power for residential and commercial purposes.
In short, the UAE has become one of the regional frontrunners in renewable energy development. In 2019, the UAE pioneered the development of concentrated solar power (CSP) as the only country to have the CSP technology in the Gulf Cooperation Council. With one of the world’s largest solar power plants, coupled with other small-scale projects within the country, the UAE has managed to achieve the world-record solar prices and maintain its leading status in the region. The completion of the Al Dhafra Solar PV project as another largest solar power plant at the end of 2022 will further consolidate the UAE’s position in the renewables sector in the MENA region.
Figure 4. Solar PV prices in the United Arab Emirates from 2015 to 2017.
In 2020, Unit 1 of the Barakah nuclear power plant was successfully started, making the UAE the first country in the Arab world to operate a nuclear power plant. Following that, March 2022 marked the start of commercial operations of Unit 2 at the Barakah plant which provides another 1,400 megawatts of zero-carbon emission electricity to the national grid. In total, the operation of the Barakah nuclear power plant now generates 2,800 megawatts of electricity, which further enhances energy security and advances the UAE’s commitment to the Paris Accords. Unit 3 and 4 are in the final stages of commissioning and expected to be in full operation in the next two years. Since the start of the construction in 2012, the Barakah nuclear power plant project has strictly followed the timeline, sometimes even ahead of the schedule. This clearly demonstrates MBZ’s determination in diversifying the energy sources and advancing the UAE’s sustainability goals over the past decade.
The Barakah nuclear power plant is a landmark development in the clean energy transition of the UAE. When the two remaining units are in full commercial operation, the energy capacity of the Barakah plant will be raised to 5,6000 megawatts, accounting for nearly 25% of the electricity needs in the country. This full operation of the plant will remove 22.4 million tons of carbon emissions annually, equivalent to the emissions of 4.8 million cars. The official Emirates News Agency estimated that the Barakah plant will supply well over 85% of Abu Dhabi Emirate’s clean electricity and be the biggest contributor to reducing Abu Dhabi’s carbon emissions by 50% by 2050.
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. Turkey started the construction of their first nuclear power reactor at the Akkuyu nuclear power plant in 2018. Egypt has applied for the construction permit of the El-Dabaa nuclear power plant. Saudi Arabia currently has no nuclear power capacity but the country has established the Nuclear Holding Company early this year to develop nuclear programs.
Assessment of the UAE’s compliance with the Paris Accords
Despite an array of renewable and nuclear energy programs to reduce the use of fossil fuels, MBZ and the UAE have been criticized for being inconsistent with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C temperature limit. In 2020, Dubai launched the construction of the coal-powered Hassyan power plant, which is contradictory to the need to phase out coal from electricity production in order to meet the net zero targets by 2050. The reason behind the emergence of this coal-fired plant is the UAE’s heavy reliance on gas imports from such countries as Qatar, which can be interrupted by the soured relationship between the two countries. Therefore, the UAE wants to diversify its fuel supply and build its own coal plant to bring down the costs, which signifies its priority of energy security over meeting climate goals. In addition, the UAE’s decision to ramp up oil production in March 2022 also met with criticism for not advancing its commitment to environmental sustainability. According to the 2021 Production Gap Report, by leading research institutes and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), global coal, oil and gas production must start declining immediately and steeply to be consistent with limiting long-term warming to 1.5°C. In response, Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, the UAE’s climate envoy, said “We can’t just switch off the energy system, as current events show”, referring to rising fuel prices driven by the Russian invasion in Ukraine. He continued to emphasize that “Weaning the world off hydrocarbons will be gradual and needs sober planning; it cannot be rushed”.
In short, apart from the operation of three world’s largest solar power plants and the development of nuclear programs, there is still a lack of information regarding the UAE’s concrete plans to carry out the clean energy transition. Despite MBZ’s efforts in accelerating the transition with a strong focus on renewables and nuclear energy, the UAE continues to heavily rely on fossil fuels, with the majority of energy produced still being oil and gas. There is still a gap between the UAE government’ planned production of coal, oil and gas and the global production levels consistent with meeting the Paris Agreement temperature limits. From MBZ’s perspective, the UAE could not transition to net zero unless they continued to produce oil. MBZ believes that oil and gas will remain the spinal cord of the UAE to meet energy requirements in the future and provide major financial resources for the country to carry out the clean energy transition. The president places importance in balancing fossil fuel production, which is the base of the UAE’s economy and international power, with environmental projects that will accelerate alternative energy generation; in other words, the energy transition is not feasible without the hydrocarbon industry. This reflects MBZ’s desire in maintaining the UAE’s position as a major energy supplier in the region, whether it is hydrocarbon or alternatives. This vision of MBZ means that the UAE’s net zero commitment doesn’t signify a significant movement away from fossil fuels, which will remain crucial in decades to come. Therefore, the continued expansion of fossil fuels-based sources of electricity is a hindrance to the UAE’s climate goals by 2050.
“Greening the desert” or turning natural desert into productive agricultural land stands out as a major approach in combating desertification in the UAE, which was originally driven by the founding father Sheikh Zayed and furthered by MBZ later on. In order to implement the greenification policy, MBZ and the UAE have been focusing on agricultural land development which is complemented by soil resources management and water resources management (See Part 4: “Policy Outlook”).
The Global Forest Resources Assessment reported that the UAE witnessed a remarkable increase of forest area from 245,000 hectares in 1990 to 322,600 hectares in 2015, which is considered a major achievement of the country in pushing back encroaching desert. In June 2022, a study was released with surprising findings: the satellite images showed that there had been a constant growth in vegetation cover in the UAE from 1972 to 2021.
At the same time, some costly real estate projects are reported to hinder the country’s attempts in mitigating desertification. In 2016, Dubai Holding planned the construction of Jumeirah Central on the site of the One Million Trees initiative which was launched in 2010 to promote afforestation and mitigate desertification. The massive, unsustainable and costly real estate developments are reported by the Guardian to have wrecked the One Million Trees initiative, with the perish of nearly 80% of the trees.
In general, although there are some studies indicating the increase in agricultural land and vegetation cover in the UAE, there is still a lack of research that provides a comprehensive evaluation of the country’s combat against desertification. It is recommended that there should be further research focusing on integrated data collection related to desertification assessment in the UAE.
This section provides an impact assessment of the Masdar City project and the Mangroves plantation, both of which play important roles in the UAE’s efforts in curbing air pollution.
Masdar City project
The initial goal of Masdar City was to create a self-sustaining zero-carbon city powered exclusively by renewable energy while exhibiting the highest levels of energy efficiency, which in full operation is expected to curb air pollution significantly in Abu Dhabi. There are three main reasons why the Masdar City project has failed to achieve its goal of promoting urban environmental sustainability: stagnant progress, expected marginal impacts, and goal scale-down.
Stagnant progress: The completion of the city was originally intended to be in 2016 but has been pushed back to between 2025 and 2030. Although the project is still underway, it shows stagnant progress when in 2020, only one out of seven phases of the project was finished. Conceived to be a residence for 50,000 people, there were only 1,300 dwellers who were barely visible in the city in 2020.
Marginal impact: Research suggests that “the carbon debt of Masdar City in the form of greenhouse gas emissions will be high, primarily through the offsite planning, design and commissioning of the city and further through procuring solar panels, wind and geothermal energy equipment and technology required”. In other words, the project’s aspiration of creating the first world’s zero-carbon city could only be achieved through excluding contributory factors from outside the city. In 2016, the Guardian reported that “Masdar City is nowhere close to zeroing out its greenhouse gas emissions now, even at a fraction of its planned footprint. And it will not reach that goal even if the development ever gets fully built, the authorities admitted”.
Even upon completion, Masdar City is anticipated to yield a marginal impact in mitigating greenhouse gases (GHG) in Abu Dhabi. The emirate’s population in 2022 is 1,5 million, which is predicted to climb to 1,8 million by 2035. The Masdar City project was conceived to host 50,000 people upon completion. As a result, 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.
Goal scale-down: The financial crisis in 2008 led to a fundamental change in the project, reducing Masdar City’s initial aim of being “zero-carbon” (no carbon dioxide emission) to “carbon- neutral” (no net release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere). This indicates Masdar developers have scaled back their environmental ambitions.
Apart from serving as natural habitats for wildlife and recreation grounds for people, mangroves also act as green lung for major cities such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The UAE government has engaged in the restoration and protection of mangroves forests as major carbon sinks for the country. A clear illustration of the UAE’s efforts could be seen in the establishment of eco-reserves such as Al Wathba Wetland Reserve and Mangroves National Park and the country’s commitment to accelerate mangroves plantation at COP26.
As a result, there has been a steady growth in mangroves cover in the UAE, with an estimated 800-1200 ha of mangroves planted since 1972. Covering roughly 180 square kilometers in the UAE, mangroves are estimated to capture 43,000 tonnes of CO2 per year.
In general, in an effort to curb air pollution, the Gulf country has engaged in a wide range of projects, notably the clean energy transition, the Masdar City project, and the mangrove plantations. However, research that comprehensively evaluates the UAE’s efforts in alleviating air pollution is still limited. More studies therefore need to be conducted to provide a clearer idea about the UAE’s fight against air pollution.
The Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund is one of the most important tools for MBZ to promote species conservation on a domestic, regional, and international level. By providing microfinancing without bureaucracy and red tape, the fund seeks to empower conservationists in the fight against the extinction crisis; up to now, it has awarded over 2,300 grants to a diverse range of species in over 160 countries. These grants are essential in supporting over 1500 species and subspecies in the world. The MBZ fund also entered into a partnership with Mubadala Investment Company, the Abu Dhabi-based sovereign investor, which provides the fund with $1.5 million annually to be directed towards supporting endangered flora and fauna in Africa and Asia.
In addition to the fund, MBZ also initiated the Arabian Oryx reintroduction programme, following his father’s directives in protecting the animal. The programme’s activities mainly revolve around breeding and protecting the wild animals from extinction, while reintroducing them back into their natural habitat. The programme has been critical in protecting the Arabian Oryx, preserving it from extinction and increasing its numbers in the wild. As a result, the Arabian Oryx’s status on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature was changed from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable to extinction’ in 2011. This is regarded as a significant moment in the field of the reintroduction of species on a global level, which empowers other conservationists to continue to work in the field. Acting as the largest environmental regulator in the Middle East, the Environmental Agency – Abu Dhab is another important agent carrying out the environmental agenda of MBZ. One of the most significant achievements of the agency is the establishment of the Sheikh Zayed Protected Areas Network, recording 100 unknown invertebrate species and leading the region in banning gargour fishing nets. In addition, the agency also works closely with other regional and international organizations in the conservation field. In 2021, the agency announced that, in collaboration with The Middle East’s largest aquarium, the National Aquarium located at Al Qana in Abu Dhabi, it has successfully treated and pre-released a Loggerhead turtle.