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I covered the climate crisis and COP28 from an oil-rich nation — here's what I learned and why I'm hopeful for the future

Catherine Boudreau   

I covered the climate crisis and COP28 from an oil-rich nation — here's what I learned and why I'm hopeful for the future
  • At COP28, the UAE set out to tackle the climate crisis' root cause: fossil fuels.
  • During the summit, the UAE pledged to contribute $30 billion to a climate investment fund.
  • Advocates didn't get everything they wanted, but it was a realistic end given the geopolitics.

Dubai was a surreal location for the most important climate event of the year.

Like most rich countries, the United Arab Emirates is rife with climate contradictions that spilled into the UN summit, known as COP28. That clash felt tangible in Dubai, a city shrouded in the kind of opulence that oil money can buy. Just look at the superyachts parked in the man-made marina.

But the fact that a futuristic metropolis sprang up in the desert within a few decades also makes you feel like anything is possible — like solving the climate crisis. And for the first time at a UN summit, the UAE set out to tackle the crisis' root cause: fossil fuels.

That was notable, given that oil and gas production is the backbone of the UAE's economy. The young country is a climate pioneer in the Middle East because its future depends on it: both to support itself financially and to ensure people can keep living in one of the hottest parts of the planet.

"The world is moving away from fossil fuels, and that's a real risk to their economy," said Karim Elgendy, a climate consultant and an associate fellow at the London think tank Chatham House whose work focuses on the Middle East and North Africa. "So there's this frantic race to decarbonize internally, but also wean themselves off those revenues."

The UAE was the first country in the region to pledge to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and invest in renewable energy at home and abroad. During the summit, the UAE pledged to contribute $30 billion to a climate investment fund with big asset managers like BlackRock. Dubai set a more aggressive goal to cut greenhouse-gas emissions this decade.

In contrast, its state-owned oil company, Adnoc, last year said it would spend $150 billion on its oil and gas production, putting the country far off track to reach its climate targets.

Reminders of the UAE's oil dominance are visible everywhere. On the metro ride out to Expo City, the sprawling venue for the summit, you can see industrial power and desalination plants lining the coast. These plants produce most of the electricity and drinking water for Dubai's 3 million residents. Air pollution clouded the skyline.

During one of my trips, I saw flames from the top of a smokestack at the power plant, a practice known as flaring. Common in the oil and gas industry, it emits a lot of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that became a focus at this year's UN summit.

Within the first few days, at least 50 oil and gas companies agreed to zero out methane emissions from their operations under a plan announced by COP28's president, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber. As the CEO of Adnoc, Al Jaber has the influence to corral such a coalition. He's argued that the world can't meet its climate goals without bringing the largest corporate emitters on board.

It was no surprise that fossil-fuel lobbyists showed up to COP28 in record numbers. As the summit went into overtime, climate advocates' worst fears about Al Jaber presiding over the event looked as if they'd come true.

In the end, global leaders for the first time agreed to start moving away from fossil fuels this decade. Climate advocates didn't get everything they hoped for, but it was likely the most realistic ending given the location and geopolitics.

If the UAE can advocate a shift away from oil and gas, maybe the world isn't far behind.


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