Under pressure to decarbonise, Saudi Arabia has announced a raft of measures to deal with the intensifying climate crisis, but critics say the moves are just a smokescreen to keep fossil fuels propelling its economy.
After holding the “Middle East Green Initiative” over the weekend, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman presented a series of plans to address the dangers of global warming, overwhelmingly caused by rich nations over the past three centuries.
The initiatives included achieving “net-zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2060, planting 50 billion trees in the Middle East in the decades to come, and launching a $10.4bn clean energy project for the region.
The pledges, however, came days after Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil producer, announced it planned to raise crude production from 12 million barrels a day to 13 million barrels by 2027 – a move scientists, energy experts, and activists say goes directly against what is needed to stave off the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
All hydrocarbons must remain in the ground starting now, climate researchers say.
Saudi Arabia has justified the contradictory moves of reducing its own carbon emissions while still taking oil out of the ground and selling it worldwide as part of a plan to create a “circular carbon economy“.
This envisions continuing to extract carbon-filled fuel out of the earth while employing new technologies to capture, store or sell its emissions – essentially an offset scheme.
The Saudis and other traditional energy producers say it is unrealistic simply to turn off the oil-and-gas taps at the moment as fossil fuels will be needed for decades to come during the transition to renewables.
“Demonising the hydrocarbon industry is not going to help anyone,” said Aramco’s Chief Executive Amin Nasser on Saturday. “Decarbonising the economy is not going to help anyone.”
‘A long game’
Saudi Arabia previously outlined plans to build the world’s largest green hydrogen plant powered by solar and wind energy in its futuristic city Neom.
Riyadh has said its own “Saudi Green Initiative” will involve investments of more than 700 billion riyals ($187bn) by 2030.
Oil and gas economist Cornelia Meyer has praised the kingdom’s “green” economy transformation plans.
“Saudi Arabia is steering a good course with the Saudi and Middle East green initiatives, renewables and green hydrogen projects. It will in the long run also pay off to develop further the CCUS [carbon capture, utilization and storage] technology and the concept of the circular carbon economy, because combating climate change is a long game,” she wrote in the Arab News.
But others have questioned Riyadh’s path in dealing with the escalating climate crisis.
The International Energy Agency (IEA), the world’s top energy body, said in May that governments and companies must immediately halt investing in new oil-and-gas projects if the world wants to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Questions also surround the current state of carbon capture technology being promoted by the Saudis – technology that is still unproven in its effectiveness and extremely expensive to use for large-scale extraction.
It isn’t difficult to understand why the kingdom would be reluctant to act fast and decisively on walking away from hydrocarbon production.
Saudi Arabia possesses about 16 percent of the world’s proven petroleum reserves. Estimates indicate the oil and gas sector accounts for about 87 percent of budget revenues, 42 percent of gross domestic product, and 90 percent of export earnings.
However, with ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions and the accompanying global temperature rise – and all the associated environmental devastation – it remains to be seen if carbon capture technology and billions of planted trees can negate the continued mass burning of fossil fuels.
‘Dealing with the root causes’
Some critics have accused the Saudis of “greenwashing” – or claiming something is good for the environment when in reality the opposite is true.
Yara M Asi, a non-resident fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, said Saudi Arabia’s carbon capture approach is just one of many needed for the crisis, but she added “alone this strategy is not enough”.
“This is a convenient move if a state is not willing to significantly curtail the amount of carbon they produce, but want the benefits of claiming they are reducing carbon emissions,” Asi told Al Jazeera.
She said the Saudi’s “green” announcements ahead of the COP26 summit – such as planting millions of trees over the next few years – were all needed, but the core effort in combatting global warming is halting fossil fuel use.
“Ultimately, these kinds of initiatives produce a good headline for a state or entity while allowing them to avoid dealing with the root causes of climate change and their carbon emissions, which would require a fundamental rethinking of how we build our world and how we power what we build,” Asi said.
‘Dangerous and delusional’
Matthew Archer, a researcher at the Graduate Institute Geneva, was more direct when asked by Al Jazeera about Saudi Arabia’s “circular carbon economy” plan.
“It’s absurd to think that an economy based on the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels can be ‘circular’ in any meaningful sense of the word. The only way it works is if you rely on technologies that don’t exist yet,” said Archer.
“These initiatives are … full of language that’s as ambitious as it is ambiguous, with very few concrete plans and no accountability mechanisms.”
Highlighting the dire warnings in the latest report by the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change, he said the only way to rapidly decarbonise to avert catastrophic consequences of global warming is to ban new fossil fuel developments and invest massively in renewable energy and public infrastructure projects.
“Anything short of that isn’t just greenwashing, it’s dangerous and delusional,” said Archer.