The race is on as the major Middle East powers up their climate ambition after many years of slow progress. Healthy competition could help drive genuine action.
Leaders of four Middle East and North African (MENA) powers took part in the US Leaders Summit on Climate - Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Turkey, and Israel - representing 40 per cent of the region's greenhouse gas emissions and just under 3.5 per cent of global emissions, as well as being the most influential states in the region along with Iran which was not invited.
Although the political significance of the summit is clear with the new US administration trying to chart a new course and make up for lost time, long-term geopolitical moves by the US have cast a long shadow over dynamics in the MENA region. Its declared pivot to Asia and partial withdrawal from MENA encourages several regional powers to now engage in a geopolitical competition to fill a perceived vacuum.
While it is clear that competition for climate leadership in the MENA reflects wider intra-regional dynamics and geopolitics, if actions match ambitions then the greatest winner will be the environment itself
In the past, this usually manifested as states vying to expand their influence using diplomatic, financial, and military means but the new US administration's focus on climate action has opened a new arena for regional leadership and global status. US president Joe Biden had urged invited leaders to use the summit as an opportunity to 'outline how their countries will also contribute to stronger climate ambition' but some MENA responses to his invitation came well before the meeting.
Forging a greener world
Only days after receiving its invitation, Saudi Arabia released plans for two ambitious climate initiatives - the Saudi Green Initiative and the Middle East Green Initiative - with the declared purpose of transforming Saudi Arabia into 'a global leader in forging a greener world'.
The Saudi Green Initiative promises to reduce emissions by the equivalent of four per cent of the global total, a remarkable target which is equivalent to three times Saudi Arabia's own annual emissions and suggests an unprecedented aspiration for carbon negative development.
The announcement provides little detail of how the target could be achieved but it does highlight three components likely to underpin its approach - increasing the share of renewable energy in electricity generation from 0.3 per cent to 50 per cent by 2030, planting ten billion trees over the coming decades with clear carbon sequestration benefits, and implementing 'clean hydrocarbon' projects.
The Middle East Green Initiative - the region's first action-oriented climate initiative - promises to go even further in reducing global emissions by ten per cent which exceeds the Middle East's share. It also outlines plans to plant four times as many trees making it the world's largest reforestation project and to cut emissions from regional hydrocarbon production by more than 60 per cent.
Hot on the heels of the Saudi announcement, the UAE convened a regional dialogue in Abu Dhabi, including US special envoy on climate John Kerry, the president of COP26 Alok Sharma, and representatives from ten Arab countries - notably Saudi Arabia was not among them.
And at the leaders' summit itself, the Net Zero Producers Forum - co-founded by the US, Saudi, Qatari, Norwegian and Canadian governments, but not the UAE - launched with an agenda to tackle methane and carbon emissions in the oil and gas sector. Although details are sketchy, for Saudi Arabia and Qatar this appears to be in line with their existing plans for technologies such as carbon capture, usage, and storage (CCUS) and aims to improve their image as hydrocarbons exporters.
Meanwhile Turkey is rapidly growing its own renewable energy capacity, and already generates roughly half of its electricity from renewables - mainly hydroelectric power - which it was keen to highlight during the summit. As is the case with many other states, concerns over energy dependency rather than climate have driven these developments, and large-scale damming does not come without environmental costs. Turkey is also one of few countries yet to ratify the Paris Agreement and continually refers to its limited historic responsibility for climate change, most recently at the summit.
Israel is on a different trajectory. Despite having aspired once to be a regional leader on solar energy, it now appears to be in favour of using its newly discovered off-shore natural gas to replace imported coal, which will delay its transition towards renewables. However, it still aims to source 30 per cent of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2050.
Morocco, commended in the past for having the region's most ambitious climate action plan, has never attempted to lead the MENA region on climate issues, preferring a quieter form of climate diplomacy.
More a change in speed and scope
These developments may appear as radical departures from the region's historical position of considering emissions' mitigation efforts as a low priority. But they only actually mark a change in speed and scope rather than trajectory and were preceded by years of gradual progress in national sustainability policy.
For Gulf oil producers in particular, the economic logic for reining in domestic oil and gas demand and maintaining relevance in a time of decarbonization has been a driver since at least 2012. This transformation - albeit piecemeal - was evident in changes to policy, regulations, and major urban and infrastructure projects.
These developments may appear as radical departures from the region's historical position of considering emissions' mitigation efforts as a low priority. But they only actually mark a change in speed and scope
Saudi Arabia has been increasingly integrating environmental sustainability into its national transformation program, improving its environmental regulations and setting high aspirations for environmental sustainability into its state-led projects. Despite having the ninth highest per capita emissions, it was already working towards sourcing 30 per cent of its electricity from renewables by 2030 before these recent announcements.
The UAE has been institutionalizing sustainability for more than a decade across the energy, transportation, and buildings sectors and, while it remains the sixth highest emitter per capita, it is on track to source 21 per cent of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030.
During the leaders' summit, UAE vice president Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid was keen to highlight its renewable energy projects and overseas investments, as well as carbon capture and storage efforts. In addition to the highly ambitious Saudi target for emissions reduction, the UAE has committed to reducing its emissions in its December 2020 NDC update - the region's first since the Paris Agreement.
What has changed recently is the development of overarching targets for emissions reduction and the adoption of decarbonization measures. This coincides with a wave of rising global ambition for climate action ahead of COP26 in November, including more ambitious nationally determined contributions (NDCs) from the UK, the EU, and the US, and many pledges for carbon neutrality by 2050.
Recent announcements are welcome progress, and healthy competition may encourage others to join in. COP26 may shed more light on this expanded regional engagement. For now, while it is clear that competition for climate leadership in the MENA reflects wider intra-regional dynamics and geopolitics, if actions match ambitions then the greatest winner will be the environment itself.
Associate Fellow, Energy, Environment, and Resources Programme