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Saudi Arabia sseeks 'net zero' emissions by 2060

October 23, 2021

Despite plans to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, the oil-rich nation will continue to aggressively pump and export fossil fuels to consumers around the world.

An oil field in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is the world's top oil exporter and its economy relies heavily on the fossil fuel industryImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Haider

Saudi Arabia unveiled new green goals on Saturday, announcing that it aims to slash the nation's greenhouse gas emissions to "net zero" by 2060.

The announcement was made by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in brief recorded remarks at the start of the Islamic kingdom's first-ever Saudi Green Initiative.

"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia aims to reach zero-net emissions by 2060 under its circular carbon economy program in accordance with the kingdom's development plan [...] while maintaining the kingdom's leading role in strengthening security and stability of global oil markets," Prince Mohammed said.

To reach the goal, the crown prince announced plans to cut carbon emissions by more than 270 million tons per year. 

Salman said the environmental initiative would see investments of more than 700 billion riyals ($187 billion, €160 billion).

Oil giant Saudi Aramco's chief executive Amin Nasser cautioned, however, against "demonizing" hydrocarbons.

Speaking at the conference, Nasser said there should also be enough investment for backup capacity, otherwise there would be potential for an "economic crisis." He recommended shared focus on new energy sources, along with existing ones.

Oil and gas, backbone of Saudi economy

The event comes just days before the 26th United Nations climate change conference, or COP26, which is set to take place in Glasgow from October 31 to November 12, where governments are expected to try to reach agreement on achieving deeper emissions cuts to tackle global warming and its challenges.

Saudi Arabia is the world's top oil exporter and its economy relies heavily on the fossil fuel industry. The country has announced plans to diversify away from its dependence on oil and gas, but little has been achieved on this front so far.

In March, Riyadh pledged to reduce carbon emissions by more than 4% of global contributions through initiatives including generating 50% of its energy needs from renewables by 2030 and planting billions of trees in the desert state.

The country is also setting up more solar and wind projects. Megaprojects, such as futuristic city NEOM, also incorporate green energy plans including a $5 billion hydrogen plant, and Saudi state-linked entities are pivoting to green fundraising.

Saudi has high per capita emissions

Still, Saudi Arabia has been criticized for acting too slowly and inadequately to address the climate challenge.

The country has high per capita emissions at more than 19 tons annually compared to the global average of around 4.8 tons per person per year. This is partly due to people needing to cool their homes. The desert country faces extreme temperatures, water shortages and increasing desertification.

A 2019 YouGov poll found the majority of Saudis believe climate change would affect their lives. Of those surveyed, 41% believed the issue would have "a great deal of impact."

In 2019, the government announced a new renewable energy target, which aimed to achieve 27.3 GW of green power by 2023 and 57.8 GW by 2030.

According to Climate Action Tracker, progress has been slow, with just 0.4 GW of renewables capacity installed by 2019. 

Pushback against phasing out fossil fuels

Although Saturday's announcement means the kingdom will aim to reduce its own emissions, it will continue to aggressively pump and export fossil fuels to nations around the world.

And Riyadh's "carbon circular economy'' approach to address the problem focuses on still unreliable carbon capture and storage technologies over efforts to reduce global reliance on fossil fuels.

Critics have slammed Riyadh not only for its high contribution to climate change, but also for blocking attempts to tackle it. 

Leaked documents emerged on Thursday showing how Saudi Arabia and other countries, including Australia, Brazil and Japan, have tried to pressure the authors of an upcoming UN climate report to make changes to suit their interests.

According to the leaks, Saudi Arabia has strongly pushed back against the recommendation to phase out fossil fuels.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), a group of petroleum exporting countries dominated by Saudi Arabia, told the report authors to cut the sentence: "More efforts are required to actively phase out all fossil fuels in the energy sector, rather than relying on fuel switching alone."

sri/aw (AP, Reuters, AFP)

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