A touch of pragmatism: How Europeans can engage with the Gulf monarchies ahead of COP28

As COP28 approaches, the dispute over the phase-out of fossil fuels threatens to once again torpedo progress at the climate conference. Europeans have a chance to break this impasse and achieve meaningful progress by engaging with major fossil fuel producing countries like the Gulf monarchies

epa10411259 An Emirati walks past the logo of COP 28 UAE during the official launching of COP 28 UAE logo during the World Future Energy Summit 2023 (WFES) in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, 17 January 2023. The 28th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP28) to the UNFCCC will convene from 30 November to 12 December 2023 in the UAE. Photo: picture alliance/EPA/ALI HAIDER
An Emirati walks past the logo of COP 28 UAE during the official launching of COP 28 UAE logo during the World Future Energy Summit 2023 (WFES) in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, 17 January 2023
Image by picture alliance / EPA | ALI HAIDER

The European Union’s new commissioner for climate action, Wopke Hoekstra, faced a tense questioning by MEPs before his appointment because of his relative lack of experience in climate policymaking and past (albeit brief) employment at Dutch oil major Shell. And yet this unusual profile could help Hoekstra – who will represent the EU at the upcoming COP28 in Dubai – to constructively engage with some of the most difficult actors at the conference, including the host, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the other Gulf monarchies. During his tenure at the Dutch Foreign Ministry earlier this year, Hoekstra engaged with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE on green energy, and oversaw the signing of four deals between the UAE’s major renewable energy firm Masdar – led by COP28 president-designate Sultan al-Jaber – and its Dutch counterparts (the Port of Amsterdam, SkyNRG, Evos Amsterdam, and Zenith Energy), on the production of green hydrogen in Abu Dhabi and its export to Europe through the port of Amsterdam.

Amid growing ideological divisions around climate action, engagement between Europeans and the Gulf monarchies could be the shake-up that the international climate conference desperately needs. As largely expected, the irreconcilable dispute over the phase-out of fossil fuels – which torpedoed both the G20 Environment and Climate Sustainability Ministerial Meeting in July and the Bonn Climate Change Conference – has dominated debates in the run-up to COP28. The UAE has never supported negotiating a specific timeline for a phase-out of fossil fuels, stating instead that COP28 must work towards “an energy system free of unabated fossil fuels in the middle of this century”. This approach relies on reducing emissions using carbon capture, utilisation, and storage (CCUS) technologies, which trap carbon at its source, and sequester it underground or transform it into alternative marketable products.

Naturally, this approach has disappointed those calling for a complete fossil fuel phase-out. The scientific community has raised doubts about the viability of relying on CCUS technology. And this Emirati position has fuelled resentment in the climate community, where many were already wary of the UAE, whose subsistence depends on fossil fuels, hosting a COP, especially with Jaber – who runs the UAE’s fossil fuel major ADNOC as well as Masdar – as its president. In a joint statement, dozens of human and environmental rights groups said they feared choosing the UAE and Jaber would constitute an impediment to effectively fighting climate change and that they were concerned about their right to participate as activists in the event. The UAE has said it will allow environmental activists to “assemble peacefully and make their voices heard”. But official permission is required – and usually denied – to organise demonstrations in the country, and Qatar’s response to protests surrounding the World Cup last year suggest demonstrations could upset the Emiratis and sour the mood of official negotiations.

A failure to reach an agreement that advances climate imperatives at COP28 would deepen divisions within the international community

A failure to reach an agreement that advances climate imperatives at COP28 would deepen divisions within the international community and prevent any practical progress towards combatting this global threat. To prevent further stagnation, Europeans need to lead by example, reaching out to fossil fuel producers to pragmatically focus on concrete progress. The Gulf monarchies represent a good test case for such a pragmatic approach. These countries are home to almost one-third of the world’s proven crude oil reserves and around one-fifth of its natural gas reserves. They also have the financial resources to support their green ambitions, an abundance of technical expertise in the energy industry, and access to the cheapest solar energy in the world. Europeans should be partners of choice for the Gulf on decarbonisation, given their comprehensive knowledge and experience regarding the energy transition, as well as existing industrial and technological ties and geographic proximity. Progress between European countries and the Gulf monarchies could then serve as inspiration for efforts in industrial decarbonisation and the energy transition further afield.

Convergence and compromise

To achieve concrete progress at COP28, European countries should first focus on areas in which their aims align with those of the UAE and other Gulf monarchies. The UAE’s COP28 plan of action emphasises ambitious global targets for clean energy, endorsed by the International Energy Agency and the International Renewable Energy Agency, such as tripling renewable energy capacity and doubling both hydrogen production and overall energy efficiency rates by 2030. Europeans firmly support these goals: in September, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen co-signed an open letter with Jaber stating that “while renewables and energy efficiency are not the only answers to tackling climate change, they hold the key to getting the world back on track to meet the 1.5C goal.” The letter specifically advocated for strengthening grids and infrastructure, ensuring timely permitting, and structuring market rules to ensure increased financing.

Financing is another key focus for the UAE, which is confident that COP28 could achieve progress on restructuring rules to incentivise private capital and facilitate state contributions to build resilience to climate change. The UAE presidency also aims to draft a Climate Finance Delivery Plan, co-coordinated by Germany and Canada and supported by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which would finally establish a loss and damage fund or similar adaptation fund. This aims to find a compromise between developed nations, which are looking to fund specific projects to build climate resilience, and developing nations that need flexible financial support. Europeans can also easily support this initiative.

Some space for convergence on these questions timidly emerged in the engagement between Jaber and former EU Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans, as well as during von der Leyen’s trip to the Emirates in September 2023. This was followed by a visit by a high-level delegation from the commission’s Directorate-General for Energy to the UAE, led by Director-General Ditte Juul Jørgensen. During this visit, the EU and UAE defined their priorities for cooperation in: renewables and energy efficiency; investments in clean technologies; cooperation through the Global Gateway initiative on renewable projects across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa; and energy technology trade between Europe and the UAE as a regional trade hub.

The EU has opportunities to upgrade energy engagement between Europe and the Gulf monarchies in all of these domains, as outlined in a recent ECFR policy brief. In order to promote energy efficiency, Europeans could work with the UAE in the framework of COP28 specifically on: promoting industrial electrification; encouraging the introduction of enforceable norms in green buildings, especially on insulation and cooling; and raising awareness among consumers about the importance of energy efficiency.

The sustainability of green supply chains – which have been repeatedly disrupted by the covid-19 pandemic, Russia’s war on Ukraine, and Western tensions with China – poses an issue for tripling renewable energy production. Given the Gulf’s strategic position as a regional hub for energy technology trade, the EU should consider a specific agreement ahead of COP28 to liberalise trade on products and services linked to the green transition – including desalination, hydrogen, CCUS, or even energy-efficient household appliances. This would also address issues such as the scarcity of critical raw materials. The agreement could be similar to that between the United States and Saudi Arabia on critical raw materials, according to which Saudi firms lead the acquisition and US companies have access to the finished product. Finally, a hydrogen partnership between the EU and Gulf countries could help unlock the significant remaining challenges across the entire ecosystem, such as developing mutually agreed standards; creating opportunities for training and education; mapping the upgrade and construction of required connectivity infrastructure, from hydrogen-ready pipelines to a refuelling network in ports for maritime transportation and storage systems. The shared neighbourhood in the Mediterranean, including the eastern Mediterranean, is an obvious space for Europe-Gulf connectivity through the Global Gateway initiative.

At the same time, the EU should engage with the UAE in the framework of COP28 on the thornier question of carbon management. The EU has criticised the Gulf states’ embrace of CCUS as a silver bullet solution, but it has also recognised it as a key tool to aid decarbonisation as part of the European Green Deal. Crucially, current CCUS capacity is insufficient – including in the Gulf, where there are currently only three large active carbon capture plants, capturing 3.7 million tonnes a year of CO2, which represents 10 per cent of global capacity. To incentivise scaling this capacity up, the EU should use its forthcoming CCUS strategy to focus on the commercial viability of the captured or recycled CO2, promoting research and development, and inviting fossil fuel producers such as the Gulf monarchies to co-invest in European start-ups working on innovative solutions that go beyond e-fuels – including mineralisation, CO2-based building materials, and CO2 batteries.

The world is not on track to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and the global clean energy transition is dangerously off course. This is a global problem. But especially one for the UAE, aiming for a successful event, and for European countries, which aspire to be global leaders on climate. With a pragmatic approach towards the Gulf monarchies, Europeans have an opportunity to make concrete progress towards the Paris agreement’s commitments at COP28.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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