How Saudi Arabia is leading the global climate action

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Ishtiaq Ahmed

The Saudi Green Initiative Forum in Riyadh has brought together world leaders, public officials, businessmen and climate activists to chalk out the regional roadmap for tackling the disastrous effects of global climate change. Its highlight is the official launch of the Saudi Green Initiative and Middle East Green Initiative, unveiled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in March.

The forum is also a prelude to the 26th UN Climate Chance Conference, or COP26, to be held Oct. 31-Nov. 12 in Glasgow, which is expected to renew the global commitment to realize the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting the global temperature rise by 2 C — ideally 1.5 C — by reducing carbon emissions down to zero by 2050.

In August, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying. Its destructive potential was visible in this year’s record-breaking summer temperatures, flash flooding across China, central Europe and the US and forest fires on almost every continent.

Fortunately, 2021 has also turned out to be a promising year, with the US re-joining the Paris Agreement and the rest of the world expressing greater resolve on climate action at various world forums, including the US Earth Day virtual summit in April and the G20 Meeting on Environment, Climate and Energy held in July in Naples.

Since the use of hydrocarbons causes 80 to 90 percent of carbon emissions, oil giants like Saudi Arabia will have to lead the global climate action. It is offering such leadership through flagship projects such as the SGI and MEGI as well as other innovative ways to reduce the carbon emitting potential of oil and petrochemicals, besides undertaking major wind and solar ventures to generate renewable energy.

There are pragmatic reasons why Saudi Arabia is doing so. First, the effects of climate change are especially clear in the Middle East, where drought and temperatures in excess of 50 C have now become the norm. In the past four decades, average temperatures in Saudi Arabia have risen by more than 2 C — three times the current global average.

Second, under the Saudi Vision 2030, the government is implementing major reforms that aim to diversify the Saudi economy away from the depleting oil reserves. Almost 70 percent of its population is under the age of 35. Hence, the leadership has to act now to deal with the socio-economic aspirations of the youth bulge in future.

he holistic Saudi approach to climate action also focuses on current action for the sake of future generations. Apart from the two green initiatives, three one-of-a-kind climate ventures are worth mentioning:

The SGI includes the planting of 10 billion trees in the upcoming decades, the equivalent to rehabilitating roughly 40 million hectares of degraded lands. It also seeks to reduce carbon emissions by more than 4 percent of global contributions through an ambitious renewable energy program that will generate 50 percent of the Kingdom’s energy from renewables by 2030.

The MEGI, to be realized in coordination with other Arab allies, includes the planting of 40 billion trees in the Middle East. Together, the 50 billion tree planting program is the largest reforestation program in the world and is meant to restore an area equivalent to 200 million hectares of degraded land, representing 5 percent of the global target of planting 1 trillion trees and reducing carbon emissions by more than 10 percent of global contributions.

Saudi Arabia has introduced the framework for the circular carbon economy, which is endorsed by the G20 and which advocates the reduction, recycling and reuse of carbon emissions across industrial processes. Saudi Aramco, the Kingdom’s national oil company, has undertaken several carbon capture, utilization and storage projects to turn carbon dioxide into useful and saleable products.

It is already a pioneer in developing hydrogen fuels and last year exported the first shipment of blue ammonia — a much cleaner fuel that is a byproduct of the oil and gas industrial process — to Japan for use in the latter’s electricity generation industry. It has joined hands with Germany to build the world’s largest hydrogen plant worth $5 billion in NEOM, the smart, zero-carbon city being built on the Red Sea coast.

Saudi Arabia has also established its niche in wind and solar energy. In August, the Middle East’s largest wind farm at Dumat Al-Jandal began producing carbon-free electricity, which will eventually meet the energy needs of 70,000 homes. Acwa Power, a company co-owned by Saudi Arabia’s Sovereign Wealth Fund, is building the world’s largest solar power project at Sakaka. A $200 billion joint venture with Japan’s SoftBank, initiated in 2018, aims to build several other solar projects.

Hence, besides afforestation and renewable energy, Saudi Arabia offers novel solutions like the circular carbon economy and hydrogen fuels so that oil and natural gas may continue to replenish the world economy while carbon emitting potential is simultaneously reduced.

The Kingdom has also joined major global forums such as the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative of 12 oil producing companies, the 23-nation Mission Innovation 2.0 on renewable energy and the Net Zero Producers Forum.   

The SGI Forum, indeed, places Saudi Arabia at the heart of a global quest for clear energy and zero emission — a pathway worth emulating for the remaining countries as they renew their climate commitment at the forthcoming COP26.

• Ishtiaq Ahmad is a former journalist, who subsequently served as the vice chancellor of Sargodha University in Pakistan and as the Quaid-e-Azam Fellow at the University of Oxford.