One of the world’s largest oil producers, Saudi Arabia, announced it aims to reach “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2060, joining more than 100 countries in a global effort to try and curb man-made climate change.
The announcement on Saturday, made by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in scripted remarks at the start of the kingdom’s first-ever Saudi Green Initiative Forum, was timed to make a splash before the start of the global COP26 climate conference being held in Glasgow, Scotland.
Although the kingdom plans to reduce emissions within its own borders, there is no indication Saudi Arabia will slow down investments in oil and gas, or relinquish sway over energy markets by moving away from the production of fossil fuels.
Energy exports form the backbone of Saudi Arabia’s economy, despite efforts to diversify revenue as the world increasingly looks to transition away from reliance on fossil fuels.
The country is forecast to make $150bn in revenue this year alone from oil.
Crown Prince Mohammed pledged that Saudi Arabia will plant 450 million trees and rehabilitate huge swaths of degraded lands by 2030, reducing 200 million tonnes of carbon emissions and attempting to turn the landlocked city of Riyadh into a more sustainable capital.
The kingdom joins the ranks of Russia and China on their stated net-zero target date of 2060. The United States and the European Union have aimed for 2050.
The kingdom, one of the world’s biggest polluters, said it would also join a global effort to cut methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030.
COP26 President Alok Sharma welcomed the announcement.
“I hope this landmark announcement … will galvanise ambition from others ahead of #COP26,” Sharma tweeted, adding he was looking forward to seeing more details on the Saudi plan.
I welcome Saudi Arabia’s 🇸🇦 announcement that it will reach net zero by 2060
Look forward to the detail of Saudi Arabia’s revised NDC and working together to keep 1.5C in reach
— Alok Sharma (@AlokSharma_RDG) October 23, 2021
In making the announcement, analysts said the kingdom ensured its continued seat at the table in global climate change talks. Saudi Arabia has pushed back against those who say fossil fuels must be urgently phased out, warning a premature switch could lead to price volatility and shortages.
Recently leaked documents show that the kingdom and other nations are lobbying behind the scenes before the COP26 summit to change the language around emissions.
In transitioning domestically, the kingdom could also take the oil and gas that it subsidises locally and allocate it as a more lucrative export to China and India, where demand is expected to grow in the coming years.
“The kingdom’s economic growth is driven by export of its energy sources. It’s no state secret,” Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said at the forum in Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia says it will reach net-zero through a so-called “carbon circular economy” approach, which advocates “reduce, reuse, recycle and remove”. It is an unpopular strategy among climate change activists because it touts still unreliable carbon capture and storage technologies rather than honing in on the phasing out of fossil fuels.
The announcement provided few details on how the kingdom will cut its emissions in the short and medium term, including when it will peak its emissions. Experts said sharp cuts are needed worldwide as soon as possible to ensure the world has a chance of capping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) as agreed in the 2015 Paris accord.
The kingdom — home to roughly 17 percent of proven petroleum reserves — supplies some 10 percent of global oil demand.
As OPEC’s heavyweight, Saudi Arabia holds tremendous influence over energy markets and can pressure other producers to fall in line, as seen last year when the kingdom triggered a price war that successfully got Russia to curb its production amid a slowdown in demand from the pandemic.
Saudi Arabia said the transition to net-zero carbon emissions “will be delivered in a manner that preserves the kingdom’s leading role in enhancing the security and stability of global energy markets”.
Gulf oil producers have argued against the rapid phasing out of fossil fuels by saying a hurried shift would hurt low-income nations and populations that lack access to basic energy. Saudi Arabia also advocated for language that referred to greenhouse gases, a basket that includes more than just fossil fuels.
“We believe that carbon capture, utilisation and storage, direct air capture, hydrogen and low carbon fuel are the things that will develop the necessary ingredients to really make sure this effort will be inclusive,” Prince Abdulaziz said of the global energy transition.
Earlier this month, the United Arab Emirates — another major Gulf Arab energy producer — announced it too would join the “net zero” club of nations by 2050. The UAE, home to the region’s first nuclear power plant, did not announce specifics on how it will reach this target.
The leaked documents, first reported by the BBC, also indicated that Saudi Arabia and other countries, including Australia, Brazil and Japan, are also apparently trying to water down an upcoming UN science panel report on global warming before the COP26 summit.
Greenpeace, which obtained the leaked documents, said Saudi Arabia was enabling nations to continue burning fossil fuels by pushing carbon capture technology.
The group said these “as-yet unproven technologies” would allow nations to emit more greenhouse gases on the optimistic assumption that they could draw them out of the atmosphere later.
Fossil fuels, such as crude oil, natural gas and coal, currently make the bulk of global energy consumption. Just 10 percent of electricity is generated by solar power and wind.
On Saturday, Prince Abdulaziz said every nation’s approach to cut emissions will look different.
“No one should be too factitious about what tool in the kit that everybody would have,” he said. “But if your tools in your kit and mine delivers emissions reductions, that’s the ask and that’s the objective.”