The Drive Away from Hydrocarbons: How the UAE is Tackling Climate Change
by Sophie Smith
The United Arab Emirates has recently made several strides in two ambitious projects that focus on sustainable energy sources. On 26 July, the Emirates Water and Electricity Company (EWEC) awarded contracts for the Al Dhafra Solar Photovoltaic (PV) project, which will become the world’s largest solar power plant. A week later, officials declared that the Barakah Nuclear Plant, the Arab world’s first nuclear energy plant, has begun operating. Both projects will contribute to achieving the goals of the National Climate Change Plan 2017-2050, which aims to diversify the economy in favour of renewable and alternative energy sources to create a climate resilient green economy, ultimately mitigating the impact of climate change.
Al Dhafra Solar Photovoltaic Project
Set to operate in 2022, the Al Dhafra Solar PV project is expected to reduce CO2 emissions by more than 2.4 million metric tonnes per year, providing electricity to approximately 160,000 homes nationwide. It will be located in Abu Dhabi, alongside the Noor Abu Dhabi solar plant, currently world’s largest operational single-project solar PV plant, more than doubling Abu Dhabi’s total solar power generation capacity to circa 3.2GW. Responsible for the development are the Abu Dhabi National Energy Company (TAQA) and the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (Masdar), in partnership with the French Électricité de France (EDF) and Chinese JinkoPower, after winning the bid for the project with one of the most cost-competitive tariffs for solar PV energy globally. The Group CEO and Managing Director at TAQA, Jasim Husain Thabet, described the plant as ‘a benchmark project for [the UAE] and the global energy sector.’
The Barakah Nuclear Plant
More controversially, the UAE also began nuclear fission in one of the four reactors of the Barakah Plant on 1 August 2020. After completion, the plant will provide around 25 percent of the country’s electricity, reducing CO2 emissions by 21 million tonnes annually, which roughly equals to the amount of emissions produced by 3.2 million automobiles. This is particularly relevant given that in 2018 five of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries ranked among 10 countries with the highest CO2 emissions per capita in the world, led by Qatar (1st), followed by Kuwait (4th), the UAE (5th), Bahrain (7th), Saudi Arabia (9th) and Oman (16th). Whilst UAE leaders hailed the start-up as a milestone for sustainable development, questions around the need for a nuclear power plant have persisted given the UAE’s huge potential for solar energy and regional tensions. However, the plant’s developer, the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC), remains adamant that the plant is necessary to provide clean electricity on a continuous basis as solar and wind energy cannot achieve this, adding that it is committed to the highest standards of safety and security.
The National Climate Change Plan 2017-2050
Both projects are part of the government’s broader efforts to modernise and diversify the economy and fulfil the National Climate Change Plan objectives, launched in 2017. The plan builds upon existing policies concerning green growth and sustainable development, including the UAE Green Agenda 2015-2030 and the UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030. Its three main objectives are to (1) manage greenhouse gas emissions whilst sustaining economic growth, (2) increase climate resilience through stronger climate adaptation and flexibility and (3) advance the UAE’s economic diversification agenda through innovative solutions. This will enable the country to increase the portion of clean energy in the total energy mix from 25 percent to 50 percent by 2050, decrease its power generation carbon footprint by 70 percent and enhance power consumption efficiency by 40 percent, in line with the National Energy Strategy 2050.
To achieve these targets, the government plans to invest AED600 billion (almost 140 billion EUR) towards sustainable and clean projects by 2050. One of its most ambitious developments is Masdar City, a low-carbon, sustainable city, in Abu Dhabi that is set for completion by 2030. Other significant projects under construction include the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park in Dubai, which will be the world’s largest single-site solar project set to achieve 5GW capacity by 2030, as well as the 2.4GW Hassyan clean coal power plant in Dubai, the first of its kind in the GCC.
Why is the UAE pushing renewable energies?
The drive away from hydrocarbons comes as the urgency to address climate change rises; the UAE is classified as highly vulnerable to the potential impacts of climate change. These effects, including warmer weather, less precipitation, higher sea levels, storms and droughts, will disrupt every aspect of society, worsening public health and human security, placing entire cities under water and harming its biodiversity. This shift to renewable and clean energies therefore intends to mitigate these disruptive consequences.
Aside from the aforementioned objective, investing in renewable energies has several other benefits for the UAE. In terms of the economy, economic diversification facilitates economic growth whilst enabling the state to satisfy the increasing domestic energy demand. It will create new, high-paid employment opportunities in the renewable energy sector, providing new prospects for the growing youth population. In addition to this, it will enable the country to export, rather than consume, its hydrocarbons, maximising its potential export revenues, which can fund further renewable power projects. Such a cycle will not only aid economic growth but also facilitate a self-sufficient economy. Decreasing its reliance on other nations will help insulate the UAE from the volatility of the oil market and the ever-changing geopolitical situation in the region. Last, championing renewable energies will improve the UAE’s international standing, enabling the country to brand itself as a leader in technology and tackling climate change.
How successful has the UAE been?
Whether such investments will effectively mitigate climate change and allow the UAE to reach its climate targets remains to be seen. To date, the UAE remains heavily reliant on hydrocarbon resources for energy provision. However, there are positive trends; the country’s total renewable energy production has increased by 7,206 percent, from 18 GWh in 2010 to 1,315 GWh in 2018. Correspondingly, annual CO2 emissions have dropped, albeit slowly, by 7.6 percent from their peak in 2014 to 2018. Projects like Al Dhafra Solar PV project and the Barakah Nuclear Plant will merely contribute to this trend.
On top of this, the UAE has become the frontrunner in the production of renewable energy sources compared to its GCC counterparts. Although the Gulf states are launching initiatives to tackle climate change, the UAE’s production of renewable energy was six times higher than the runner up, Saudi Arabia, and 146 times higher than the lowest ranking country, Bahrain, in 2018.
Therefore, although the UAE still has some way to go to reducing its reliance on hydrocarbons, it appears to be on the right track, taking the regional lead. The diversification to renewable and alternative energy sources through initiatives such as the Al Dhafra Solar PV project and Barakah Plant will not only mitigate the impact of climate change but also stimulate economic growth and boost the UAE’s soft power.
 United Arab Emirates Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, “National Climate Change Plan of the United Arab Emirates 2017-2050,” p. 24.
 United Arab Emirates Ministry of Energy and Industry. “Vice President unveils UAE energy strategy for next three decades.” January 10, 2017. Ministry of Energy and Industry. محمد-بن-راشد-يعلن-استراتيجية-دولة-الإمارات-للطاقة-للعقود-الثلاثة-المقبلة.aspx#page=1.
 Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA). “Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park.” Dubai: Dubai Electricity and Water Authority, 2016, p. 16. ; Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA). “DEWA begins construction of 2,400MW Hassyan clean coal power station.” Dubai Electricity and Water Authority, November 10, 2016. .
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 Global Carbon Atlas, “Country Emissions: United Arab Emirates.”
 International Renewable Energy Agency, Renewable Energy Statistics 2020.