[Published here October 28, 2021]
A surge of new net zero pledges from the Middle East’s oil producing nations has raised expectations ahead of the United Nations COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow starting Sunday – but campaigners say the promises fall far short of what is needed.
The world’s top oil exporter Saudi Arabia announced on Saturday that it would aim to reach net zero emissions by 2060 by investing more than $186 billion into a green economy over that time – or roughly one to two years’ worth of its current oil revenue.
Saudi Arabia estimated that revenue at 412 billion riyals ($110 billion) in 2020, and expects to rake in 770 billion riyals ($205 billion) this year as oil price recover.
Bahrain made the same net zero commitment on Sunday, just days after the United Arab Emirates said it would hit that target by 2050 and invest $163 billion in renewable energy.
The three nations – along with fellow crude exporters Qatar and Kuwait – are among the world’s top 10 carbon dioxide emitters per capita, according to the World Bank.
The energy sector as a whole accounts for around three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions and “holds the key to averting the worst effects of climate change,” the International Energy Agency (IEA) said in a report in May.
The new pledges could also provide a boost to COP26, said U.N. climate chief Patricia Espinosa, after hopes of a significant breakthrough dimmed as leaders of major emitters including Russia and China indicated they would not attend.
“We need countries to come to COP with a high level of ambition,” Espinosa said on Saturday at a Saudi-led climate conference in Riyadh, describing the Gulf countries’ net zero commitments as “a powerful signal at the right moment”.
However, many analysts and activists said the commitments do not signal a significant move away from fossil fuels by Middle East energy giants, who have said they see those fuels as crucial for decades to come.
The net zero commitments are the latest in a series of green initiatives by the Gulf’s oil producers, in response to growing international pressure as global efforts to avoid the worst impacts of climate change founder.
Oman updated its climate action plan in July to include a 7% reduction in emissions by 2030 – a cut far short of the 50% reduction scientsts say is needed to stem runaway climate change.
Qatar aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2030 and OPEC’s second-largest oil producer Iraq ratified the Paris agreement in January, committing to a 1-2% reduction in emissions.
Saudi Arabia, which aims to generate half its domestic energy sustainably by 2030, opened its first renewable energy plant in April and its first wind farm in August.
The UAE, meanwhile, has invested in nuclear energy and sustainable transport.
But both countries said at a recent summit that they could not transition to net zero unless they continued to produce oil – a major contributor to dangerous planetary heating.
“We must include oil and gas, because it will be mainstream – it will be the spinal cord of our ability to meet energy requirements in the future,” said the UAE’s Minister of Industry Sultan al-Jaber at the Saudi Green Initiative summit in Riyadh.
Speaking alongside him, Saudi oil minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said his nation was adopting a “holistic” approach to transition that would include oil, gas, and hydrogen production, and that it could act as an “incubator” for collective efforts.
“If we are congregating at COP26 with a view that we need to be inclusive, then inclusivity requires you to be open to accept what everybody is going to do, as long as you contribute to emissions reduction,” he added.
Chatham House associate fellow Karim Elgendy said the net zero pledges were positive in that they would enable Gulf producers to be held to account to their commitments, and could bring “alternative visions” to the table at COP26.
“Saudi (Arabia) is climbing onto the bandwagon, but also trying to grab the steering wheel and change the direction slightly in a way more conducive to its own transformation,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
‘FOSSIL FUEL PROPAGANDA’
But continued heavy production of fossil fuels by Middle East oil states is not compatible with the required effort to combat global warming and prevent runaway climate change impacts, environmental activists warned.
Prior to the new net zero announcements, the Climate Action Tracker consortium – which ranks countries’ policies, actions, and domestic targets – labelled Saudi Arabia’s commitments as “critically insufficient” and the UAE’s as “insufficient.”
In May, the IEA set out a roadmap to move away from fossil fuels, which would require that no new oil and gas fields be developed beyond projects already approved as of 2021.
At the time, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister dismissed the plan as a “la la land” scenario.
Following last week’s announcements, the IEA said that new “climate pledges close less than 20% of the emissions gap between today’s policy settings and a #NetZero by 2050 path.”
Climate action organisation Greenpeace called Saudi’s pledge “nothing but fossil fuel propaganda ahead of COP-26” and an attempt to alleviate political pressure.
Last week, Greenpeace’s investigative journalism platform Unearthed published comments that major oil producers had made to a draft of the International Panel on Climate Change’s upcoming report on options to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Saudi Arabia had asked the writers to remove recommendations on phasing out fossil fuels and on implementing “urgent and accelerated mitigation actions at all scales”.
OPEC’s reviewers, meanwhile, asked authors to omit a portion stating that some fossil fuels would have to remain untapped if global warming were to be restricted to 2 degrees Celsius.
“We’re not asking them to stop pumping oil today, but to start paving the ground for a future where they don’t have to pump oil,” said Julien Jreissati, Greenpeace’s Middle East and North Africa programme director.
“Instead, they are investing time and money to slow down the global transition,” he added. “Instead of jumping on the train, they are running in the other direction.”