Can Kazakhstan set an example for Central Asia’s key position in the global transition to green economy?

© Aliaksandr Kisel

If there is one Central Asian country that stood out during the COP 28 summit on climate change in Dubai in late 2023, it was Kazakhstan. Its pledges and initiatives – specifically regarding methane reductions, transition to renewable energy sources, and water security and cooperation – correspond overall to the country’s commitments to a green economy transition. More importantly, such signaling and posturing may have larger repercussions in a region of increasing geopolitical and economic importance, not the least because of its vast resources and potential in terms of growing transportation networks.

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First to consider is Kazakhstan’s announcement of a Methane Reduction Pledge, which makes it part of a voluntary agreement known as the Global Methane Pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030. This is significant given that Kazakhstan is Central Asia’s main oil producer as well as an important gas producer. Stressing the country’s dedication to reducing greenhouse emissions, and in alignment with international efforts to decrease non-CO2 climate super-pollutants, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym Jomart Tokayev acknowledged during his speech at COP28 that cutting methane emissions was the “quickest avenue to immediately slow the rate of global warming”.

This move earned him praise from the U.S. and the UK. President Joe Biden’s Special Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, issued a joint statement with Zulfiya Suleimenova, Tokayev’s Special Representative on International Environmental Cooperation, underlining the two countries’ “mutual readiness to accelerate the development and implementation of policies and projects to rapidly reduce methane emissions” over the next two years, particularly from the fossil energy industry. The U.S. also said it would work with partners “to mobilize investments to support achieving full methane mitigation potential in Kazakhstan’s oil and gas sector”, which it said will require “at least $1.4 billion in total spending through 2030.” Likewise, British Embassy in Astana posted on X (formerly known as Twitter), to give “Congratulations to President Tokayev and Kazakhstan for joining the Global Methane reduction Commitment at #COP28 in Dubai!”, adding that this was a “significant step towards a sustainable future.”

Secondly, President Tokayev unveiled at COP28 an ambitious Joint Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) initiative for Kazakhstan, which will help make the country a key player in the global transition to renewable energy sources. This should be exciting news for people of Kazakhstan as their country is poised to be a major global supplier of critical minerals used in green technologies as the world decarbonises in the coming decades. A generally agreed list of these critical minerals often include lithium, cobalt and nickel (all used in the production of electric batteries), as well as rare earths (which include at least 17 elements such as neodymium, dysprosium and terbium that are necessary for magnets in wind turbines and electric vehicles), and silver (a key component for solar panel manufacturing). Kazakhstan holds the largest chrome ore reserves in the world and ranks first also in terms of their quality. It holds second place globally for uranium and silver reserves, and third in terms of lead and manganese ore. The comprehensive JETP framework, according to President Tokayev, will boost Kazakhstan’s production and export of these and other critical minerals while also encouraging investments in renewable energy technologies and cooperation with international partners to develop new supply chains.

Thirdly, it was announced that President Tokayev and France’s President Emmanuel Macron will co-chair the inaugural One Water Summit in 2024 on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly. This is a noteworthy position for Kazakhstan to hold, given that the upcoming summit will hopefully address crucial global water issues by supporting much-needed dialogue and collaboration among nations and organisations. The goal is not only to protect water resources but also to improve cooperation across national boundaries. Kazakhstan itself is no stranger to water challenges. During his COP28 speech, President Tokayev brought up the case of Aral Sea, the large inland body of saltwater that continues to serve as a critical reserve for both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan despite facing serious pollution and evaporation problems. Tokayev specifically encouraged support for the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, a Central Asian organisation whose chairmanship will be held by Kazakhstan next year.

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In the current global landscape, Kazakhstan’s leadership seems to be moving forward wisely in terms of climate change, water security and green transition issues. Its commitments to the green economy transition are already paying off. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has invested $36 million into the country’s wind power sector. SVEVIND Energy Group, a German-Swedish company, has promised a $50 billion investment for producing green hydrogen and it plans to build one of the world’s largest green hydrogen plants to start production by 2030. Several others – such as the Climate Investment Funds, USAID, Plenitude (an Eni SpA subsidiary), and the Asian Development Bank with the EBRD – have all invested in the country’s solar power industry in support of various projects. The future indeed looks greener for Kazakhstan, but also it holds a promise for the region as a whole.