Emerging Technologies

How technology is driving net zero in the Middle East

A shoreline view of Abu Dhabi in the Middle East

The tide is turning towards net zero in the Middle East Image: Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

Hatem Dowidar
Group Chief Executive Officer, e&
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Emerging Technologies

  • We might just have time to stop the worst effects of climate change and adapt to its effects by making net zero blueprints a reality by 2050.
  • AI has the potential to mitigate 5 to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Technology companies must expand their climate ambitions and help level the playing field for developing nations.

We are in real trouble. Unless humanity acts now, the world is on track for a climate catastrophe that will completely disrupt how and where we live. There are few bigger red flags than the UN issuing a survival guide for humanity. What more will it take to ignite urgent action?

But, there is still a glimmer of hope. We might have just enough time to stop the worst effects of climate change and adapt to the other inevitable effects by making net zero blueprints a reality by 2050.

A valuable ally

Smartly leveraging a digital toolbox is a non-negotiable route to achieving this goal in 26 years. This is a deceptively short timeline for the biggest goal in humankind’s history; we must hurry.

How we maximize this digital support system to accelerate sustainability, especially in developing countries, was recently under a global spotlight at COP28 in Dubai. This year we approach the halfway point of the 2030 Agenda of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a compass for global progress.

Many ideas are extremely promising. The Google and BCG Accelerating Climate Action with AI report launched at COP28, highlighted the potential of AI in reducing up to 10% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Research reports suggest that AI could contribute to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions ranging from 10% to 30%. While AI is not the sole solution and has its own significant footprint, it is expected to make a substantial impact.

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The power of connectivity

Easy-to-use and accessible technology that reaches broad populations is one of the best routes to significantly improve sustainability. The good news? We already have that tool.

Today, over 75% of the world’s population has one or more phones. The more connected we are, the faster we can empower every person to do their bit to help countries and businesses achieve net zero. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has significantly grown its digital economy, so 66% of the population in Northern Africa now has internet access, as do most of the 489 million people living in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have the world’s second and third highest internet penetration rates worldwide, respectively, after Norway. Such connectivity makes it quicker than ever to communicate key messages about sustainability that help bolster public and corporate buy-in, which in turn supports the road to net zero.

In developing countries with strong internet access, female entrepreneurs can join the workforce more easily and support their families by establishing online businesses, avoiding the high cost of renting premises. In education, leveraging the internet can help children supplement their learning in distant and overcrowded classrooms to broaden their intellectual understanding of the world and be competitive with graduates from other nations. Broader and inspired minds lead to innovation – critical to hitting net zero.

In healthcare, a parent can research their sick child’s symptoms online to decide the next best step. The list of benefits goes on and on, with all fundamentally supporting the United Nations SDGs to create a cleaner, greener and healthier world.

With human-induced climate change leading to more extreme weather conditions, the need for early warning systems is now more critical than ever. The Early Warnings for All initiative (EW4All) calls for every person on Earth to be protected by an early warning system by the end of 2027. It has garnered significant political support to address the early warning gap and has been embraced by the COP27 Sharm El-Sheikh Implementation Plan and it featured in the COP28 Presidential Action Agenda.

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The other side of the story

The digital divide, however, means that 34% of the global population lives without internet access. Plugging this gap must be a priority, especially as the top ten countries with the least access are all developing nations. India has the largest offline population worldwide with 684 million people – equivalent to twice the size of America’s population. This is particularly concerning when more than 90% of jobs worldwide now have a digital component.

This lack of digital connectivity hinders billions of people from being healthier, better educated and safer. In turn, this slows sustainability efforts in countries that often have the fastest-growing populations; 2.4 billion people are expected to live in Africa by 2050, doubling today’s population.

Standing together, shoulder-to-shoulder, is the best way to keep unlocking this vast potential. Fully digitalizing the MENA economy could lead to a $1.6 trillion long-term gain and a digital economy means women alone could add more than $300 billion to e-commerce markets in Africa and South-East Asia between 2025 and 2030.

In this vein, we are helping teach and build awareness of computer science with Code.org, which supports 80 million students across the Middle East, Asia and Africa. The one-year anniversary of our Women in Leadership programme with Nokia and UN Women also reflects our unwavering belief that we can break barriers to help write a new digital narrative for girls and women.

Plus, the EDISON Alliance, a global movement of nearly 50 leaders from the public and private sectors, wants to ensure that every single one of the world’s 8.1 billion people has digital connectivity. This is a bold goal, but the climate threat is extraordinary and so our targets must be too.

Staying sharp

Technology companies must also expand their climate ambitions, especially to help level the playing field for developing nations. We have pledged to achieve net zero in the UAE (Scope 1,2) by 2030 and have extended this commitment to all our international operations by 2040. Additionally, we have introduced Project Life, our sustainable procurement programme, with the goal of reducing Scope 3 emissions by 25% by 2030.

Global changes are also underway. In 2019, the GSMA said it would be net zero by 2050, which pre-dated any G7 economy’s commitment. So far, nearly half of the sector’s global revenue has committed to net zero by 2050 or earlier, which includes four mobile operators in MENA. Plus, 24% of electricity used by operators worldwide in 2022 is from renewables, rising by 10% on 2020.

The next step for many in the sector will include crafting Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) roadmaps over the coming year. These are a deep dive into how technology companies can become better for people, planet and profit.

Despite the urgency of climate challenges, the journey to net zero is a marathon, not a sprint, and we have only just left the starting line. Think of that next time your children are playing on the beach, your family picnic is shaded by an ancient woodland or you are dining outside together in gentle heat. Also think of the 1.2 million plants, animals and insects on the planet besides us and how we must protect them.

We have a lot of work to do. Let us work together to be ready for the next global stage of innovation, collaboration and accountability.

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