In the run-up to COP26, a slew of states and businesses rolled out their PR-ready packages of “innovations” and “models” to dulled crowds in conference centers and backroom offices. Leading the pack was the House of Saud with the latest updates on the Saudi Green Initiative, the recent update from Mohammad Bin Salman on his Vision 2030.
The two weeks of COP talks and negotiations in Glasgow is the 26th time countries have attended the United Nations lead climate event. These negotiations are important as they will see countries make new pledges on their commitments to moving towards net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of this century. In Paris, during COP21 in 2015, there was an agreement to keep global temperatures “well below” 2C above pre-industrial levels, with the hope of staying below 1.5C.
However, the agreement relied on individual states to decide their own policies, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), towards net zero. Leaders who have not already done so will now submit their plans for the following five years (which is taking place a year later than previously arranged due to the outbreak of Covid-19), alongside other agreements between states.
The Middle East is key for negotiations and Saudi Arabia is the region’s most important exporter of fossil fuels. In the lead-up to COP, the Saudi Green Initiative, which met during a forum in late October, pledged to reach net-zero by 2060, plant 50 billion trees, and invest $10.4bn in renewable energy technologies.
Mohammad Bin Salman, the de facto leader of the Kingdom and face of the Initiative, has said, “The Saudi and Middle East Green Initiatives are only a start. The Kingdom, the region and the world needs to go much further and faster in combating climate change. Beginning this journey to a greener future has not been easy, but we are not avoiding tough choices. We reject the false choice between preserving the economy and protecting the environment.”
On Sunday, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Energy Prince Abdulaziz Bin Salman highlighted the Green Initiative as a sign the Kingdom was leading the Gulf and the wider region in moving towards net-zero.
However, Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil exporter and source of revenue for the Saudi elite, said days before the forum of the Green Initiative that it plans to raise oil production from 12 million to 13 million barrels of oil per day by 2027. The International Energy Association said in May that for a net-zero future there would be no need for new oil or gas fields, which suggests the Kingdom’s rhetoric of a net-zero future would not come at the cost of reduced revenues from fossil fuels.
The official plan is to offset heightened production by carbon capture and storage, an emerging technology that takes CO2 before it enters the atmosphere and stores it deep in the ground for centuries or millennia. The system, known as the “circular carbon economy”, is yet to be used on a large scale.
But impressive words from Saudi political and business leaders have lost some gleam after it was revealed that the Kingdom, alongside other big carbon emitters like Australia and Brazil, have been lobbying the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to remove sections of their report which highlighted the need to urgently phase-out fossil fuels.
Documents leaked to Greenpeace show Saudi minister for petroleum and mineral resources told the IPCC authors to “emit” a section in the report that said the “focus of decarbonization efforts in the energy systems sector needs to be on rapidly shifting to zero-carbon sources and actively phasing out all fossil fuels.” The minister said this statement “undermines all carbon removals technologies such as [carbon capture and storage] (CCS)/ [carbon capture and utilization] (CCS) and limits the options for decision [sic] makers to carbon neutrality”.
Saudi Arabia is not alone in the Gulf in pursuing fossil fuel revenues with the public aim of investing in renewable energy sources. “This is a transition, we can’t just switch off the tap,” Mariam Almheiri, the United Arab Emirate’s minister for climate change and environment said during a webinar on 26 October. “As we ramp up clean and renewable energy, we will also be ramping down oil and gas production — but at the moment there is still a global need, so we will still be supplying,” she added.
Saudi Arabia, which burns oil to generate around 40% of its electricity, would welcome renewable technologies domestically as it would allow for more oil to be exported. Furthermore, the country is faced with a climate catastrophe inside its own borders.
“Saudi Arabia wants oil to be part of the global energy mix for as long as possible,” Jim Krane, author of Energy Kingdoms: Oil and Political Survival in the Persian Gulf, told Al Bawaba. “But the kingdom is also acutely threatened by climate change. Parts of the country could become uninhabitable if things get too bad, climate-wise.”
“If warming trends continue, things could get dangerous. A power outage during a summer heatwave could be a mass casualty event.”
“Saudi Arabia is in a tough spot. It needs climate action to succeed for livability reasons, but it needs to sell oil to keep its economy and political system afloat. The magic bullet would be technology that leverages oil without releasing emissions to the atmosphere. That’s something that doesn’t yet exist.”
The strategy of performing a public push for net-zero carbon emissions whilst continuing to ramp up the global oil supply is dangerous. If the world continues to increase fossil fuel emissions the talks at COP26 will be read by generations to come as the high-point of international greenwashing.
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