Decarbonizing Development in the Middle East

December 3, 2018

Cement plant in UAE recovering heat waste to generate electricity. Photo: UNDP

This week sees commencement of the 24th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24). Among the various topics under discussion, one key focus is on ways to accelerate actions that reduce the energy intensity of growth in the world’s major economies where most of the world’s carbon emissions arise from today. One key group in this regard are the high carbon oil exporting economies of the Arab Gulf.

The Middle East is known as the world’s oil capital, home to over 70% of the world’s proven oil reserves. It’s vast oil wealth and export revenues have been a critical factor in financing achievement of development goals for many years. From 1970-2010, the countries of the Arab Gulf saw one of the planet’s fastest rates of progress under the Human Development Index (HDI), with oil exports serving as the main driver behind this acceleration of results. But as countries set their sights on achieving the 2030 targets under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement on climate change, the position of carbon in the region’s development strategies is shifting. This is driven by three main factors.

On one hand, Gulf countries now have one of the world’s fastest annual growth rates in domestic electricity consumption. With a large share of power generated by oil burning power plants, this acts as a drain on oil reserves, reducing export revenues and creating serious risks for sustainability of the oil-export based model of development. A second and related factor is that the Gulf has some of the world’s largest per capita carbon footprints, alongside the rapid rise of temperatures in the region, faster than the global average. Indeed, some parts of the Gulf may become uninhabitable in the second part of the 21st century as a result. Lastly, and likewise related to climate change, a global shift is underway towards low-carbon solutions to combat climate change, with projections of global oil demand potentially peaking by 2030, creating fragility for countries overly reliant on oil exports.

As countries in the Gulf chart their pathways to 2030, most seek a more diverse economy so that public revenues and development budgets are not as dependent on oil exports, while simultaneously putting in place new low-carbon solutions to address growing electricity needs. As the UNs largest provider of technical assistance for climate action, with over $3 billion of ongoing projects around the world today, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been expanding our support to partners in the Arab Gulf to generate a new low-carbon sustainable energy trajectory. Today, UNDP implements over $100 million of local projects in Gulf countries to advance a low-carbon, sustainable energy transition.

In Saudi Arabia for example, UNDP partners with the Ministry of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources to implement a National Energy Efficiency Programme ($94 million; 2012-2019), UNDP’s largest low carbon, sustainable energy project globally. Fully financed by Saudi Arabia, NEEP stands as one of the main actions noted in the Kingdom’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to climate change under the Paris Agreement. The programme also includes strong partnerships with Ministries of finance, planning, housing, transport and water, as well as the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (ARAMCO), the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) and the Saudi Electricity Company.

Through UNDP assistance, the project has helped establish a Saudi Energy Efficiency Center and developed its capacity to serve as a new platform for scaling up energy conservation across major sectors. Results have included new laws and regulations to reduce the energy intensity of development, and new energy efficiency standards and policies for construction and for key technologies like air conditioning. It has also supported actions to reduce the energy intensity in core sectors of the economy including buildings, transport and industry, the latter seeing improved efficiency of energy use in steel, cement, petrochemicals sectors which account for 80% of industry energy consumption in the Kingdom. A key result has also been greater levels of awareness among the public on the development benefits of reducing carbon footprints through national wide campaigns as well as film series and other advocacy actions.

Similar activities are also underway in neighboring countries. In Bahrain, UNDP implements a Sustainable Energy Programme ($6.7 million; 2014-2019) to establish a new Sustainable Energy Unit (SEU) in Government as a hub for advancing climate actions through public and private partnerships. The programme has helped developed enhance the enabling environment of national strategies, policies and regulations for scaling up efforts to implement the National Energy Efficiency Action Plan and the National Renewable Energy Action Plan, both developed with UNDP assistance. Results under the project have included development of a new net metering and feed in tariff policies, green building code, green procurement guidelines, and a series of energy audits in public buildings to enhance compliance with the national energy plans. Following the successes of the cooperation, the Government has decided to scale up the role of the SEU, converting it in near future into a Sustainable Energy Center with a greater role in scaling up actions across the Kingdom.

Lastly in Kuwait, UNDP partners with Government to implement a National Energy Outlook programme which develops capacity for energy forecasting, policy and planning, while in United Arab Emirates UNDP and the UN Office of South-South Cooperation support establishment of a new World Green Economy Organization as a global platform to scale up actions towards a low carbon future.

With just over a decade left to achieve the 2030 targets under the SDGs and the Paris Agreement, a major push is needed to accelerate results. In expanding our cooperation in the Middle East, UNDP promotes innovation and scale up of domestic finance to implement national NDC climate plans under the Paris Agreement, and shift the trajectory of development towards a more sustainable and resilient future.