Green growth in the UAE; a growing oasis of sustainable development

By Daniel Muñoz-Smith, GGGI Communications Specialist 

A recent World Bank study has forecast that over 100 million of the world’s most vulnerable people could be pushed into poverty if adequate steps are not taken to address the impacts of climate change.   Rising temperatures could also make some parts of the world inhospitable by the end of the 21st Century.

Keenly aware of the potential harm that climate change could wreak, and the role that fossil fueled-based activities are playing in exacerbating this threat, many countries within the Middle-East and North Africa (MENA) have begun a shift towards a more sustainable model of development.  The United Arab Emirates (UAE) in particular has made it a strategic goal to utilize the financial resources generated by its petroleum industry to support the development of a sustainable “green” national economy.

Since seven emirates came together in 1971 to form the federation of the United Arab Emirates, the country has grown to become one of the Middle East’s most important economic centers. Leveraging an open economy driven by petroleum resources, the UAE is a regional finance, trading and tourism hub with sound infrastructure.

Though rich in energy resources and situated along the Gulf, the UAE spends a significant amount of energy and financial resources on systems to cool living and work-space environments and on desalination processes that provide drinking water and support the agricultural industry.  The UAE’s economic reliance on energy is also critically linked to fluctuations in global energy prices.

Developing a more diversified economy founded on green growth principles has, therefore, become a core element of the country’s keystone development initiatives, including the UAE Vision 2021, which aims to build an innovative, inclusive and resilient economy that raises standards of living and ensures environmental sustainability.  Under this vision, the UAE is targeting to derive 24% of its energy from clean energy sources by 2021.

resized-3To achieve this and other priority targets across sectors of the country’s economy, the UAE has adopted several policy frameworks to support the development of a sustainable and diversified economy, including the National Green Growth Strategy (NGGS).  Adopted by the UAE Cabinet in 2015, the NGGS serves as the primary vehicle to deliver the sustainability targets of the UAE Vision 2021, and will drive the implementation of 12 comprehensive green growth programs that aim to accelerate the UAE’s transition to a green economy.

In support of these policy initiatives, the UAE has also taken concrete measures to develop institutional capacity and expertise.   Over the past decade, the emirate of Abu Dhabi has been developing Masdar City as a show-case of carbon-free sustainable living. The growing green city hosts a number of innovative institutions and organizations that are dedicated to finding and promoting sustainable solutions worldwide, including the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the Global Green Growth Institution (GGGI).

GGGI has played a critical role in the development and adoption of the NGGS. Partnering with the UAE’s Energy and Climate Change Department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 2011, GGGI has worked systematically with the full range of stakeholders across economic sectors to assess the country’s green growth needs and potential, identify knowledge gaps and capacity development solutions, and provide expert advisory and coordination services to guide the strategic formulation, government review and official approval of the NGGS.

“The UAE is fully committed to building a strong and dynamic economy that secures development gains, enhances competitiveness and sustains growth in the long term,” notes Dr. Thani Ahmad Al Zeyoudi, UAE Permanent Representative to IRENA, GGGI Council Member and Director of Energy and Climate Change at the UAE MOFA. “Working closely with GGGI is a key element of the UAE’s efforts to achieve its green growth transition.”


GGGI’s work in the UAE has demonstrated how investments in green growth could translate into a 5.5% boost to national GDP by 2030, particularly if robust actions were taken to further develop the clean and renewable energy sector and increase energy efficiency.  Indeed, GGGI research indicates that 35% of this boost could be achieved by setting and reaching UAE-wide renewables and energy efficiency targets.

In this context, the UAE has rolled-out and increased investment in promising technologies and infrastructure such as the utility scale Solar PV power plants Shams 1 and Dubai Solar Park.  This Clean Power sector is being supported by an emerging Environmental Goods and Services sector that provides related professional services such as advisory services on financing, procurement and construction both within the UAE and externally.

Indeed, the UAE has a vested interest in promoting its green growth activities to the world, but in particular within the MENA region.  With a land-mass of just 83,600 km², the UAE recognizes that its own transition toward a green economy will not be enough to stem climate change and other environmental degradation impacts. To achieve sustainability, green growth principles must be shared and adopted across the MENA region.

Here again, GGGworkshop_cropped-1I is playing a critical role.  With its Masdar City office serving as a MENA regional hub, GGGI and MOFA are working to share the knowledge and lessons learned from the UAE’s green growth journey in order to help build the capacities of regional countries facing similar challenges and opportunities.

“There are a number of sustainability issues unique to the region, which can only be effectively addressed through cooperation and collaboration,” says Yvo de Boer, Director-General of GGGI. “GGGI is very pleased to be working with the UAE to engage other regional partners in our mutually beneficial effort to find and implement solutions that leverage green growth opportunities.”

In October 2015, GGGI and MOFA gathered government officials and development stakeholders from five MENA region countries to discuss shared sustainability changes, and exchange knowledge and best practices being implemented in respective national green growth initiatives.

This first of its kind engagement also took preliminary steps to establish a Green Growth MENA Network that will enhance regional capacities by serving as a dedicated forum for continued interaction and knowledge sharing. Operated by GGGI from its Abu Dhabi Office, the Green Growth MENA Network is expected to be officially launched at the World Future Energy Summit in the UAE in January 2016.

While the UAE’s sustainable future faces considerable challenges, the country’s efforts to date and critical recognition that long-term goals can only be achieved through inclusive engagement of all stakeholders, clearly demonstrate the UAE’s commitment and leadership in the transition toward a national and regional green growth pathway.