Written by Pierfrancesco Maria Lanza (EST International Officer)
In recent years, the world has faced a consistent increase in air pollution, which is causing fast climate change degradation as never seen before. Accordingly, the quantity of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions ranges from 9.420 kilotons in 1960 to around 36.000 kilotons in 2016 (The World Bank, 2016). Meanwhile, the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions range from around 28 million kilotons of CO2 equivalent in 1970 to 54 million kilotons of CO2 equivalent in 2012 (The World Bank, 2012). Aware of the shocking numerical numbers, the world has understood that addressing the problems of air pollution and climate change more effectively are key solutions necessary to save the planet. As is well known, some fundamental factors that provoke pollution are plastics, causing damage to both water, land, and the air polluting fossil fuels. As an example, the CO2 emissions from liquid fuel consumption were 12.420 kilotons in 2016, compared to only 3.113 kilotons in 1960 (The World Bank, 2016).
It is then apparent that the entire world has no other choice but to find common solutions to the problems we, as world citizens face. When it comes to the best practices in the struggle against the threats of climate change, it is understandable that the analysis should focus also on the European Union (EU) and, from recent months, on its Green New Deal. As a result, the main aim is making the EU’s economy sustainable through significant actions. Firstly, achieving climate neutrality by 2050 starting with a 50% cut in CO2 emissions compared to the objectives previously set for 2030 by promoting energy decarbonisation. A first achievement has been accomplished even before the launch of the Green New Deal project. Indeed, in 2019, CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion decreased by 4.3% in the European Union, compared to the previous year. Since CO2 emissions represent 80% of all man-made EU greenhouse gas emissions, reducing them can prove beneficial and significantly protect the environment (Eurostat, 2020).
Moreover, the common determinator of all these polluting factors rests in the fact that they are made out of oil and natural gas. Their role in energy is prominent as well as their function in causing climate change. In fact, they are burned for purposes of generating electricity or transport, which are relevant sectors of human society. Evident is that decreasing oil consumption is considered one of the main solutions to avoiding the negative effects of climate change. As a consequence, this has a negative impact on all economies basing their incomes on oil and natural gas production as well as other direct effects on the actions of importing countries, which are working to find solutions to switch their sectors on more cleaned energies. Doing this may initially be difficult but can prove to be significantly effective in the long term.
This is the case of the new informal partnership which was born and can develop between the European Union, the 1st importer of crude oil in the world in 2017 (Central Intelligence Agency, 2017), and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which are the 5th oil exporters in the world (Workman, 2019). These two entities met in November 2020 during the “EU Hydrogen Online Forum in the UAE: Hydrogen, the Energy Carrier of the Future” in order to discuss the new frontiers of energy production and consumption and the new solutions to climate change.
As a matter of fact, the EU is still very dependent on oil consumption. For instance, Malta, Luxembourg and Cyprus are the most dependent Member States, with a 90% rate dependency on oil (Eurostat, 2020). On the other side, except for the emirate of Dubai, the rest of the UAE base a relevant part of its State budget on oil. In 2018, oil income consisted of 35% of UAE revenues (Agarwal, 2018). Additionally, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has not helped the country. Indeed, the decrease in international oil consumption has negatively affected the UAE’s economic growth.
Regarding the UAE’s effects on climate change, its greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 are expected to be 6–9% lower than 2019 due to the pandemic. However, even though Abu Dhabi was one of the first countries to sign the Paris Agreement on Climate Change in 2015, its actions are considered to be inconsistent with the 1.5°C temperature goal of the Agreement. That is why the prestigious Climate Action Tracker (CAT) rates the UAE’s commitment to the Paris Agreement as “Highly Insufficient” (Climate Action Tracker, 2020). Despite the UAE has tried to address the problem of climate change with relevant measures, such as the construction of the world’s largest single-site solar park, the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, which is expected to reach a production capacity of 5,000 MW by 2030 (Abushahab, 2021) or the building of a 1.4 GW nuclear reactor, the CAT expects Emirates’ emissions from electricity production “to increase to 2030 due to a continued expansion of fossil fuel-based sources of electricity” (Climate Action Tracker, 2020). As a matter of fact, the UAE government has, for example, completed part of its 2.4 GW coal-fired power plant, which will make the reaching of Paris Agreement’s goals more inconsistent. In addition, the ongoing dependency on oil and natural gas exports represents another heavy obstacle to the UAE’s green commitment.
On the other side, the continuous dependency of the EU on oil imports shows the shape of a vicious circle that needs to be broken. The solution for both the actors may come from the use of hydrogen. Hydrogen is considered a versatile and alternative fuel by the Energy Policy Act of 1992. It can be extracted by water or methane in order to boost fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV). Although extracting hydrogen could generate emissions, depending on the source, a FCEV fed by hydrogen emits only water vapor and warm air. Therefore, it can power fuel cells in low emissions and is highly efficient. For instance, “a fuel cell coupled with an electric motor is two to three times more efficient than an internal combustion engine running on gasoline” (U.S. Department of Energy). As a consequence, the EU is very interested in implementing this solution, including it in its Green Deal. But as recognised by Kadri Simson, EU Commissioner for Energy, “if we scale up our hydrogen economy, as we intend to do, then that demand will by far outweigh our domestic production. And some EU Member States already intend to import green hydrogen to meet that demand” (Simson, the EEAS, 2020). Therefore, hydrogen can represent the basis for setting a stronger international cooperation in the energy field between the EU and UAE as an hydrogen exporter. Indeed, the Persian Gulf is considered to be a pivotal region for hydrogen production and it can represent a valid clean alternative to oil and natural gas. It is apparent that it can be a two-factors stimulus: facing climate change on one side and diversifying an economy on the other. As a hydrogen importer, the EU will be able to reduce its dependence on oil and switch to a more clean energy with a consistent decrease in greenhouse gases emission. While the Emirates will be considered as one of the leading forces as a hydrogen producer and exporter for a market that is estimated to value $300 billion by 2050. In a realpolitik view, this new green energy can represent the way for the UAE to be considered a more advanced country and to earn a prestigious position in the Middle East. Furthermore, on an idealistic view, hydrogen can help the country to be more committed to the Paris Agreement prescriptions, resulting in the achievement of its environmental goals, like the 1.5°C temperature one. ADNOC, the Abu Dhabi’s state-owned oil company, has started to develop together with other bodies in the country a hydrogen strategy to fulfil the hydrogen production in the UAE.
Of course, the renewable hydrogen production and trade will not be so easy to implement, since new technologies for production and transport are needed as well as certification schemes. In order to overcome these problems, the European Union can be a key partner thanks to its advancements in clean energy technologies and its innovative approach. A first concrete step forward to the green energy cooperation between the sides has been done with the EU-UAE Cooperation Arrangement signed in January 2018. Therefore, more advanced cooperation with hydrogen as a pillar can be more than welcomed by both actors and can represent a symbol for the rest of the world.
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