The Opec state that clears its own, greener path

Friday, 26. February 2010     0 comment(s)
Mari Luomi
International Politics of Natural Resources and the Environment research programme
The United Arab Emirates, led by its wealthiest emirate Abu Dhabi, is finally taking the steps necessary to align its domestic and international policies in the field of climate change. Who would have thought just three years ago that the UAE would stand out as the only Opec state to associate itself to a controversial climate change accord, have a Climate Change Envoy, dub nuclear as clean energy, and, most importantly, set international climate change mitigation ahead of oil industry interests.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) recently became the first Opec member state to associate itself with the disputed Copenhagen Accord. It is also establishing a Directorate of Energy and Climate Change and has flirted with the possibility of announcing emission cuts in comparison to business-as-usual levels. What are the implications of these simultaneous moves for the country and, most interestingly, for the Opec bloc?

The Association

The UAE’s association letter, sent to the UN Climate Convention (UNFCCC) on Valentine’s day, was designed to be a clear message to the international community that the UAE is concerned about the negative impacts of climate change and is willing to do its fair share in mitigating climate change. This comes despite the fact that the UNFCCC places no commitments on the country to cut its emissions. The UAE is exempt from emission cuts because, despite its GDP per capita rank placing it in the global top-15, it is classified under the Convention as a developing country.

The association letter notes that the UAE has initiated ‘numerous domestic programmes’ that would reduce the UAE's emissions to below business-as-usual levels. It also promises a more detailed follow-up on the issue. One would hope that this means that the UAE is planning to set a similar goal as, for example, Singapore, a high-income developing country, which has pledged to cut emissions by 16% in relation to BAU emissions by 2020.

Three issues are highlighted in the letter:
- The common but differentiated responsibilities principle;
- The economic impacts of climate change and its mitigation on oil exporting states and
- The importance of promoting carbon capture and storage, as well as nuclear energy technologies, under the international climate negotiating regime.

The importance of countries associating with the Copenhagen Accord is still contingent on the form and direction that the currently disarrayed international negotiations take over the coming months. Also, the content of the UAE letter has only a few surprises, including the potential emission target and the mention of nuclear energy.

What is significant, however, is that no other Opec state has so far associated itself with the Accord. Kuwait has explicitly rejected it. Saudi Arabia, which took part in the group of 25-30 countries that drafted the Copenhagen Accord, informally representing the voice and interests of the OPEC group, has not associated itself so far. Rather, in a submission to the UNFCCC in mid-February, the country states that the Accord ‘has no legal status within the UNFCCC, and thus can’t be used as basis or reference for further negotiations’.

If any Opec country should back the document, it is Saudi Arabia, given that it participated in negotiating the text, especially since the issue of the impacts of the so-called response measures (policies and measures taken to cut greenhouse gas emissions) and the need to assist countries vulnerable to them, which is one of the key demands of Saudi Arabia and the OPEC group, is included in the Accord.

Climate Change Directorate

Abu Dhabi’s major English newspaper The National reported today on the setting up of a new Directorate of Energy and Climate Change under the UAE's Foreign Ministry. To understand the significance of this move, one must take a quick dive into the national context.

Abu Dhabi, owner of over 7% of the world’s proven oil reserves and nine tenths of the total oil reserves of the seven-emirate federation it presides over, has for roughly three years now been building itself an image of a ‘future energy giant’. It has declared itself to be the ‘green energy leader of the region’ and, to earn the title, it has built up an impressive list of alternative energy initiatives, most of which converge under the umbrella of the Masdar Initiative, an alternative energy and technology venture by the Mubadala Development Company. What is best, international media and governments have bought the brand: from the President of Maldives to Ban Ki Moon, the world is praising Masdar and Abu Dhabi for their efforts.

The reality is of course not so green and rosy. The United Arab Emirates still ranks near bottom in several international rankings of environmental sustainability: world’s largest ecological footprint and high per capita CO2 emissions, to mention just two examples. When it comes to development, economic sustainability still trumps environmental sustainability. However, there are a number of important individuals in Abu Dhabi and elsewhere, who would like to see this change, at least to some extent. As a sign of this, Abu Dhabi announced in January last year a 7% renewables target for 2020.

Interestingly, it is Masdar's CEO, Sultan Al Jaber, who has become the main voice in Abu Dhabi in promoting climate change mitigation during the past couple of years, that will be leading the Directorate with the titles of Assistant Foreign Minister and Special Envoy on Energy and Climate Change, according to The National.

With potentially wide implications for the UAE's international climate policy positioning, the establishment of the Climate Change Directorate is a tour de force from those elite members in Abu Dhabi who have been pushing for the emirate (and with it the federation) to promote development that takes account of environmental sustainability in addition to the usual economic sustainability.

These two moves – the association with the Accord and the new Envoy - might mainly have been taken for branding purposes, but what is important is that they will potentially have far-reaching implications for Opec's negotiating dynamics that have so far been dominated by a very different tone. They are also finally bringing the ambitious national projects of Abu Dhabi and the UAE’s international climate policy closer to each other.

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