Analyzing The Impact On -And What's Next For- The Middle East After The UAE's Momentous Staging Of COP28 The United Nations climate conference in Dubai made history last month, uniting nearly 200 nations to adopt a resolution to "transition away" from coal, oil and gas in this decade.
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The 28th edition of the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) may have wrapped up- but the spotlight still remains fixed on the Middle East, with the UAE at the center, as it emerges as a potential key influencer in the global climate agenda. This focus comes amidst expectations from industry leaders that the summit's resolutions will spark a new wave of innovation and strategic rethinking across the region.
The United Nations (UN) climate conference in Dubai made history last month, uniting nearly 200 nations to adopt a resolution to "transition away" from coal, oil and gas in this decade. The landmark decision on fossil fuels -a first of its kind in the conference's three-decades- was won after intense debate and considerable resistance from leading energy producers.
Fossil fuels, which are responsible for the majority of global warming emissions, still account for more than 80% of the world's energy consumption, even amid a steady rise in renewable energy capacity. COP28 President Dr. Sultan Al Jaber said the deal "delivered a paradigm shift that has the potential to redefine our economies," but stressed the importance of action over rhetoric, signaling a turning point in international energy policies. "We are what we do, not what we say," he said. "We must take the steps necessary to turn this agreement into tangible action."
Salaal Hassan, founder and CEO of Ahya, an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered solution for businesses to measure and reduce emissions, said heightened awareness of climate challenges spurred by COP28 opens key opportunities for both policymakers and the private sector. "The private sector must move beyond an outlook of seeing climate change as corporate social responsibility (CSR), and instead adapt from purely capitalist models to green social capital-based enterprises," he said. To make the shift, he recommends the adoption of "double materiality", a concept that focuses on reinvesting profits into climate protection and accurately assessing climate risk.
Salaal Hassan, founder and CEO, Ahya. Source: Ahya
As for the road ahead, Hassan predicts the COP28 dialogue will be a major catalyst for climatetech innovation in the region, especially for software startups focused on database management, reporting, and reduction processes for climate initiatives. "Such solutions already exist in the US and European Union, but they are not transferable to the UAE due to cost, support, localization, and compliance aspects," he noted. As the region -which has been historically reliant on fossil fuels- pivots towards a sustainable future, Hassan also sees potential for Direct Air Capture (DAC) technology for greenhouse gas mitigation. However, he also pointed out that its capital-intensive nature poses limitations in emerging markets.
Meanwhile, Shukri Eid, General Manager for the Gulf, Levant, and Pakistan at American multinational IBM, said the urgency to measure carbon footprints, as well as the increasing demand for comprehensive data, including environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting, have exerted immense pressure on organizations. "To start, organizations need to establish baselines and develop data-driven strategies- deciding what data to collect, where to store it, and how to manage it for audits, performance assessment, and driving improvements," Eid said. Unfortunately, existing data is often "fragmented, incomplete, or outdated," Eid noted.
Shukri Eid, General Manager, IBM-Gulf, Levant, and Pakistan. Source: IBM
But he noted that technologies infused with AI "hold the most promise for climate action," citing IBM's collaboration with the US' National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on a foundation model for weather and climate. Trained on geospatial information, the model offers a novel approach to tackle climate change. "Unlike traditional AI models, geospatial foundation models can be fine-tuned for diverse applications, from flood detection to fire scars, driving impactful solutions across climate-related challenges," Eid explained.
Closer to home, IBM -which was an Associate Pathway Partner for the COP28 conference in Dubai – has also partnered with Mohamed Bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence to map the urban heat islands in the UAE. The research involves a fine-tuned version of IBM and NASA's geospatial foundation model to understand Abu Dhabi's urban environment and the formation of urban heat islands influenced by local landscapes. At the same time, IBM's Sustainability Accelerator is fostering innovation in water management at the University of Sharjah, which is developing a model and application to monitor and forecast water access in the Middle East and North Africa.
The financial sector is also adapting to take the lead in environmental initiatives. Dr. Saeeda Jaffar, Senior Vice President and Group Country Manager for the GCC at global digital payments leader Visa, said that finance and payment players "bear a significant responsibility" in driving adaptation, and that they are essential to bridging the gap between consumers and businesses in instilling sustainable practices. "The imperative for banks extends beyond merely reducing the reliance on cash payments and paper," she said. "It encompasses providing crucial capital to sustainable businesses, and creating an environment that fosters their growth. Any technology or innovation that inspires individuals and businesses to awareness and climate action holds great promise."
Dr. Saeeda Jaffar, Senior Vice President and Group Country Manager GCC, Visa. Source: Visa
Dr. Jaffar cited Visa's collaboration with sustainability-as-a-service startup Ecolytiq to launch an "Eco Benefits" bundle, in partnership with Mashreq Bank in the UAE and Qatar Islamic Bank in Qatar, as a prime example. The solution leverages payments data to allow consumers to track their carbon footprint per transaction, enabling them to understand the impact their spending behavior is having on the environment, and offers guidance on how to offset their carbon impact.
In the UAE, the carbon emissions insights are available to nearly one million Mashreq personal banking customers. "Rather than just offering products and services, we aim to craft experiences that truly benefit our customers," Faisal Al Shimmari, Head of ESG and Corporate Strategy at Mashreq Bank, said. "These products are designed to promote climate-positive behaviors, while delivering tangible impact for Mashreq customers."
Meanwhile, Mashreq is also actively ramping up its efforts to provide sustainable financing with a goal to reach US$30 billion by 2030, making it among the top facilitators of the UAE Banks Federation's (UBF) pledge at COP28 to mobilize $272 billion in sustainable finance by the end of the decade. The bank has already facilitated more than 30 deals in sustainable financing since 2021, including structuring and underwriting the recently closed Bapco Energies' $2.5 billion dual tranche Islamic and conventional term facility, the largest sustainability-linked loan in the region so far. Other projects that have received financing include adaptation-related projects such as water projects in Egypt, the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Having noted important gaps in climate finance for decarbonization in the UAE, Al Shimmari called it "a matter of national priority". This is why Mashreq is set to launch a UAE ESG Ecosystem Government Accelerator, an initiative uniting public institutions and financial private sector organizations to expedite the UAE's green transition.
Meanwhile, as 2024 now gets underway, Al Shimmari noted that UAE climate startups will need to confront regulatory uncertainties and funding challenges, yet promising avenues for innovation and growth await. "Startups should focus on increasing their technology readiness level through university collaborations and market-funded programs, and work on addressing climate risk stress testing, including data availability and governance challenges," he advised, noting a bright outlook especially for agri- and water-tech sectors.
However, Ahya's Hassan highlighted that the scarcity of capital for climatetech is a major obstacle to progress. "The biggest challenge is that of investors not having the risk appetite or a specialized thesis, due to the need to dive deep into the macroeconomics and regulations, which are distinguishably different from other sectors, as well as the need to see climatetech returns on a mid to long term horizon," Hassan said. "Here, very few investors have a focus on climatetech. And enterprises, whilst having sustainability departments, do not have specialists running them and have a general view of sustainability as an operational expense or CSR function. This can only change through confidence building, and simplifying the macro regulatory context."
Echoing Hassan's view, Victor Sunyer, Partner at Dubai-based investment firm Nuwa Capital, said that venture capitalists, in line with market conditions, "will continue to exhibit increased selectivity and caution." This cautious approach comes just as UAE-based data platform Magnitt noted a significant global investment growth in climatetech. The sector saw $82 billion in investments in 2022, up 20% from the previous year.
Victor Sunyer, Partner, Nuwa Capital. Source: Nuwa Capital
In the more nascent Middle East, North Africa, and Turkey (MENAT) market, climatetech startups attracted $651 million across 148 ventures between 2018 and 2022. However, Nuwa Capital envisions climatetech as "a fundamental area for growth and investment in the region" over the next few years, Sunyer said, motivated by the urgency to mitigate climate change impact. "Consumer sensitivity towards responsible behavior adds momentum to this trend," he said. "We are pursuing investment opportunities in the climate action space, spanning both early and growth stages."
Sunyer also said that the region is seeing "the beginnings of a solid climatetech ecosystem", also pointing to accelerator programs sponsored by major energy companies directing their focus to energy efficiency and transition. ADNOC, for example, launched a $1 million decarbonization technology challenge last year. Sunyer also noted "heightened enthusiasm" for water management and efficiency post-COP28, as well as technologies focused around low-carbon foods and locally grown produce, and on reducing building energy consumption. "Given the relevance of the construction sector and the climatic conditions, implementing energy-conserving measures for buildings is crucial for enhancing overall energy efficiency," Sunyer said. "Anticipated strides by policymakers in this regard underscore the potential impact."
With buildings accounting for nearly 40% of global carbon emissions, Maged Marie, CEO at Egypt-based real estate firm Magnom Properties, emphasized the role of the built environment in global energy transition discussions at COP28. The summit focused on practical solutions to decarbonize the buildings sector, Marie said, describing it as a move to "course-correct."
Maged Marie, CEO, Magnom Properties. Source: Magnom Properties
At the summit, the governments of France and Morocco, alongside the UN Environment Program (UNEP), launched the Buildings Breakthrough, setting a goal for near-zero emissions and climateresilient buildings by 2030– an initiative Marie lauded as one of the "most important sector-specific outcomes" at the conference in Dubai. "While the speed and scale of urbanization globally has brought manifold challenges to the climate crisis, the buildings sector is also uniquely positioned to be part of the solutions as we move forward on the path of net zero," Marie said. "At Magnom Properties, for instance, we are tapping into the long-term potential of clean hydrogen to power 75% of the total energy demands of the Forbes International Tower in Cairo, Egypt, designed to be one of the most sustainable buildings globally."
The Forbes International Tower, a commercial project planned to be constructed in locations including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, will also use solar power, while also incorporating water recycling and smart technologies for efficient use. The tower is set to reduce its carbon footprint by 58%, equivalent to 60 million kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions, and it is also targeting Platinum LEED certification.
Commenting on the industry as a whole, Louise Collins, Head of Engineering and Energy for the MEA, and Head of Project and Development Services for the UAE, at real estate services firm JLL, said that sustainability is "high on the agenda" for both local and global businesses operating in the real estate sector. More time, resources, and money are being spent on sustainability, she said, which is expected to continue in the years ahead. According to JLL, 59% of the top 100 office occupiers in Dubai have carbon commitments.
Louise Collins, Head of Engineering and Energy for the MEA, and Head of Project and Development Services for the UAE, JLL. Source: JLL
Collins said that much of the demand for low-carbon space is coming from international occupiers. But the Emirate faces a unique set of challenges in meeting this demand, she said, including extreme climate conditions, rapid urban development, and high-energy demand buildings. That said, the market also presents unique opportunities. "As Dubai continues to develop rapidly, local government officials and developers benefit from implementing stringent buildings codes and construction practices to ensure buildings are sustainable at the onset– a much easier route than having to go through expensive and complex retrofits," Collins explained. "Building owners can also capitalize on abundant solar energy potential and leverage smart city technologies."
A spokesperson from NWTN, a UAE-based electric car manufacturer and green energy provider, forecasted transformative shifts in the regional energy landscape, including an uptick in investments in renewables like solar and wind power, that would potentially lead to the emergence of new renewable tech companies. "Given the UAE's abundant solar resources, innovations in solar energy, such as more efficient photovoltaic cells or concentrated solar power systems, are particularly promising," the spokesperson said. "Wind energy, especially offshore wind turbines, could also see significant advancements."
Other promising technologies include green hydrogen produced using renewable energy sources. "It can be used in various sectors, including transportation, industry, and power generation, making it a versatile option for decarbonization," the spokesperson said. These, along with advanced energy storage systems including batteries and other novel storage technologies, along with smart grid technology, are essential for managing the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources.
Peter May, Vice President of Operations at Dubai-based proptech startup Silkhaus, underscored the shared collective accountability for climate action. "Climate action is everyone's responsibility across sectors, and not just that of cleantech businesses," he said. But startups face challenges, he added, in "avoiding the lure of greenwashing," and resisting the misconception that purchasing carbon credits is a primary solution. Advocating for a more comprehensive approach, May said companies need to focus on education, optimization, and direct impact reduction.
Peter May, VP of Operations, Silkhaus. Source: Silkhaus
But despite hurdles in the shift to green, May is upbeat about COP28's long-term effect on Middle East economies. Ultimately, the unprecedented agreement is encouraging as it aligns with the region's ambitions to diversify away from oil-dependence, he said. After all, expanding into non-oil sectors -while fostering sustainable practices- is a win-win scenario.