The choice of a leading oil producer, the United Arab Emirates, to host this year’s U.N. climate talks has angered environmental activists. But for the Emirates and other countries both highly dependent on oil and deeply vulnerable to rising temperatures, grappling with climate change is an urgent dilemma for them, too.
If the world abandons oil too quickly, the powerful authoritarian state that the Emirati rulers have built in 50 years could crumble as the revenue that finances much of their budget dwindles. Yet, if the world moves away from oil too slowly, the sliver of land they call home could become a wasteland by the time their grandchildren grow old: Scientists warn that the unmitigated burning of fossil fuels could eventually send temperatures in the Emirates soaring beyond the limits that humans can survive.
It is an extreme example of the choices faced by many other countries as well in a world addicted to fossil fuels.
“Our leadership are very future-oriented and already many years ago understood how important it is for us to diversify,” Mariam Almheiri, the Emirati minister of climate change and environment, said in an interview last week.
The Emirates was one of the first countries in the Gulf region to invest in renewable energy and develop industries beyond oil, including aviation, ports and tourism.
“Time is not on our side,” Ms. Almheiri said. “We cannot wait another two or three years to make any big movements.”
Starting on Thursday, diplomats and world leaders from nearly 200 states will gather over the next two weeks in Dubai for the latest round of negotiations aimed at limiting the rise in average global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels — a target that many scientists fear is out of reach as the planet has already warmed by 1.2 degrees Celsius. This is the threshold beyond which, scientists say, humans will have trouble adapting to intensifying wildfires, heat waves, drought and storms.
A major part of the strategy to reach that goal is to drastically reduce emissions from fossil fuels worldwide.
Until recently, Gulf oil producers like the Emirates and neighboring Saudi Arabia had mostly approached climate negotiations by trying to delay the global transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, said Karim Elgendy, a climate consultant and associate fellow at Chatham House, a London-based research organization.
But now, they are trying to “grab the steering wheel” and assume a leadership role on fighting climate change — influencing the trajectory of that energy transition in a direction that is “more favorable to their interests,” he added.
Climate activists argue that having the Emirates as host of this year’s climate talks undermines the credibility of the negotiations and gives the fossil fuel industry undue sway over the response to a global crisis.
The fact that the summit, known as COP28, will be helmed by Sultan al-Jaber, the head of the Emirati state oil company and leader of its push toward renewable energy, has only stoked fears that the self-interest of oil companies will take over the talks. But the Emirates has pushed back against the critics.
This week, a leaked document of talking points for Mr. al-Jaber suggested that he could have been using meetings related to the summit to advance oil and gas deals, an allegation he firmly denied, calling it “an attempt to undermine the work of the COP28 presidency.”
“No one shoved it down our throat,” Mr. al-Jaber told The New York Times earlier this year, explaining why the country wanted to host COP28. “It was our own interest. It is us who decided that we want to go and show the world what we can do in terms of helping address such a global challenge.”
In the scenario that Emirati officials hope for — and that many climate experts call unrealistic — the world will shift to renewable energy at a gradual pace. The Emirates would use the profits from the continued sale of oil to prepare for life after oil, investing in industries like artificial intelligence and restructuring their budgets and economies.
In the meantime, moving toward renewable energy at home would enable them to consume less, and sell more abroad, while that is still possible, Mr. Elgendy said.
The Emirates, the world’s seventh-largest oil producer, will produce oil “as long as the market demands it,” Mr. al-Jaber told The Times. The energy firm that he leads, ADNOC, is investing tens of billions of dollars to expand oil-production capacity.
As part of this approach, Emirati and Saudi officials say the world will need to rely partly on new technologies that are not currently commercially viable to reduce carbon emissions from the continued burning of fossil fuels by capturing and sequestering them.
Climate Action Tracker, which assesses countries’ net-zero pledges, calls the country’s pledge to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 “poor” and said its planned fossil-fuel developments would render its goals “unachievable.”
Scientists say the world has to cut emissions by 43 percent by the end of this decade.
Yet, for many in the Gulf, it feels natural to believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that “technology will save the day,” said Mr. Elgendy, the climate consultant.
Until oil was discovered in the Emirates in 1958, the disparate territories that later united to become the federation were mostly sparsely populated desert. Older Emiratis can recall the era before electricity and running water. Without air conditioning, they slept on the roof of their homes in the stifling summers. Many were desperately poor; around 20 percent of children died before the age of 5.
Oil changed all of that, cramming the industrialization and urbanization that spanned centuries for much of the world into a single generation. Foreigners arrived to seek their fortunes. Skyscrapers tore from the ground.
Today, Emirati sovereign wealth funds control an estimated $1.5 trillion in assets.
Yet, a sense of ephemeral vulnerability has always hung over cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the Emirati capital.
A recent International Monetary Fund economic report outlined the risks that climate change and the energy transition pose to the Emirates, warning that if the world moves away from fossil fuels faster than anticipated, it will strain the state’s finances, erode its savings and hobble its own pathway to clean energy.
While the Emirati economy is relatively diverse compared with that of other petrostates — oil makes up about 16 percent of total exports — the IMF estimated recently that fossil fuel revenues amount to more than 60 percent of total fiscal revenues in the country.
And, crucially for political stability, oil wealth helps support household income and state benefits for citizens in a labor market where public-sector jobs reign supreme despite government efforts to change that dynamic.
In the Gulf, even strategies to adapt to the environmental effects of climate change revolve around oil revenue, said Aisha Al-Sarihi, a researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute. From relying on air conditioning to cope with heat to using desalination to produce fresh water, oil wealth is part of what enables Gulf countries to maintain higher standards of living than neighboring countries like Yemen.
But if the planet warms by 3 degrees Celsius, Dubai will face an estimated 384 hours per year in which temperatures exceed the limits of heat stress that human bodies can compensate for, researchers wrote in a study last month.
“Even if indoor cooling is accessible, a quality-of-life shift would occur since a majority of a person’s time will have to be spent inside for the sake of their health,” the authors wrote.
In the Emirates, one of the Gulf’s most autocratic states, many of the voices that might have raised the alarm about such a dim future have been silenced or co-opted by the government, said Joey Shea, who researches the country for Human Rights Watch.
“There is no check on these entrenched energy and economic interests in the state,” she said.
In that context, the Emirati national project is defined by “relentless optimism,” said Jim Krane, who researches the energy geopolitics at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, has said that he plans to make the city-state the most livable in the world by 2040.
In the Museum of the Future, a doughnut-shape building overlooking the 12-lane highway that bisects Dubai, the Emirate imagines life in 2071 through a series of simulations divorced from the scientific realities of today. In one exhibit, a model of solar panels circles the moon, beaming energy back toward earth.
In another vision, the Amazon rainforest collapses in the 2040s and is reproduced digitally — in hopes that will help repair and restore ecosystems in the future.
At the end, visitors emerge through a doorway in the building’s hollow center, photographing Dubai’s gleaming skyline as the roar of traffic and the smell of exhaust waft up from the highway below.
Max Bearak contributed reporting from New York.