Net Zero Pledges Are So Worthless, a Country Almost Entirely Reliant on Oil Just Made One

Net Zero Pledges Are So Worthless, a Country Almost Entirely Reliant on Oil Just Made One
The sun rises over the city skyline with the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building at the backdrop, seen from a balcony on the 42nd floor of a hotel on a foggy day in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo: Kamran Jebreili, AP)

The United Arab Emirates, a country that’s economy is dominated by oil and gas production, announced on Thursday that it was committing to net zero emissions by 2050. It’s the first country to make a net-zero commitment in the Persian Gulf, and adds to a growing list of countries across the world that have announced a net zero target or pledge.

The pledge also came without any corresponding announcement on winding down oil and gas production, making me feel like I’m in some sort of Matrix-style climate world where the phrase “net zero” means absolutely nothing.

“We are committed to seize the opportunity to cement our leadership on climate change within our region and take this key economic opportunity to drive development, growth and new jobs as we pivot our economy and nation to net zero,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, said in a statement at a world expo event in Dubai, where the country rolled out the announcement.

There were, perhaps predictably, very few details that came along with this announcement. What’s out there seems, at first glance, pretty cool climate-wise within the country’s borders. The UAE will invest $221 billion (AUD) in new renewables projects to help the country get to net zero emissions. Great! The government said it has invested over $54 billion (AUD) in clean energy over the past 15 years, and is aiming to produce 14 gigawatts of clean energy by 2030, a big step up from the 100 megawatts it produced in 2015. Awesome!

Reuters reported that the announcement comes as the country competes with neighbour Saudi Arabia to attract business and economic development. Good to hear that net-zero pledges are now part of that image. Shiny! Some people think that this announcement could even put pressure on the Saudis to roll out their own net-zero promises. Cool!

But this announcement mentions nothing about the UAE’s top industry: oil, which accounted for a staggering 77% of the state budget in 2011. The UAE produces 3.7 million barrels per day. Much of that production comes from the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), the 12th largest oil company in the world responsible for 12% of all oil and gas production on the planet. The emissions tied to burning all that oil and gas are simply not part of the UAE’s calculation, which is a huge problem.

And if the government is intending to slow down its main source of cash as part of this new net zero plan, ADNOC hasn’t gotten the memo. The UAE has even gotten itself in trouble this year with OPEC, the Big Oil & Gas Guys Club, by going against proposed cutbacks implemented by the cartel and producing even more of that sweet, sweet oil. (The Wall Street Journal reported that the UAE rushing to cash in on oil now is a sign that they see demand drying up in the future. Great climate-friendly strategy, guys!)

It’s perhaps almost too easy to pick on the UAE here. It’s not the first fossil fuel-producing country to make a net zero announcement. The world’s top oil producer, after all, is the U.S., and it also made a net zero promise. Canada, China and Brazil, all of which rank above the UAE in terms of oil production, have also made net zero promises. China’s two state-owned oil and gas companies are also technically the largest in the world based on output.

But there is something about a country that’s economy is based almost entirely on oil and gas production deciding that, somehow, they can proudly announce that they’re working on a net-zero target without changing a thing on the production side that makes me feel like I’m in an Alice in Wonderland simulation.

I’m not the only one who sees the irony in all of this. At this year’s COP26, Denmark and Costa Rica will announce a coalition of countries that have committed to phasing out fossil fuel production, not just making promises about getting to net-zero on the consumption side. We’ll see what the reaction will be like in Glasgow, but preliminary reporting indicates countries are somewhat lukewarm on the idea.

It wouldn’t surprise me if big players like the U.S. and the UK are perfectly fine with continuing to let fossil fuel production continue apace while touting their net zero goals. But if countries keep up this doublethink of producing fossil fuels being fine as long as they’re burned elsewhere, it’ll spell big trouble.