A billion trees, in the desert: Can Saudi Arabia’s fanciful climate plan actually work?

Comment: Saudi Arabia’s ability to comply with its own green goals may remain elusive, but its rhetorical commitment to renewable energy is already a step forward, writes Courtney Freer.

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing global economic slowdown, top exporter of crude oil Saudi Arabia at the end of March announced a large-scale campaign to combat climate change and decrease carbon emissions within the kingdom, dubbed the Saudi Green Initiative.
The ambitious plan includes the target of generating half of the kingdom’s energy through renewables by 2030. In Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s words, “We reject the false choice between preserving the economy and protecting the environment.” That statement and the announcement of the initiative signal an important rhetorical commitment from the world’s biggest producer of crude oil to finding new sources of energy production, although it is unclear how realistic these goals are. 

At present, only Iceland and Norway obtain more than 50 percent of their primary energy from renewables, illustrating how ambitious the target is. According to the International Energy Agency in 2018, renewables comprised 0.05 percent of Saudi Arabia’s electricity supply, with about 42 percent of the kingdom’s power generated through oil in 2018.

Neighbouring UAE has a similar stated aim of reaching 50 percent energy production through renewables by 2050, with Abu Dhabi aiming to do so by 2030, largely through existing solar energy and nuclear power projects which have received handsome government investments.

A move towards solar power could help insulate Saudi Arabia from oil price shocks of the type seen in 2020

It is still unclear, however, whether either will concomitantly reduce their export of oil and petrochemical products in the process of developing renewable energy, although it has stated a commitment to pursuing “clean hydrocarbon” projects.

The Saudi Green Initiative is part of Vision 2030, the fate of whose associated megaprojects like NEOM has been uncertain given the worldwide economic downswing in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. This economic slowdown has revealed, however, the vulnerability of states dependent on oil for their income, and so a move towards solar power could help insulate Saudi Arabia from oil price shocks of the type seen in 2020. The project is set to receive both government and private sector investment, the amount of which is unknown. 

Read more: Saudi Aramco in $12.4 billion oil pipeline deal with EIG-led group

As part of the broader initiative, Saudi Arabia also announced the launch of a massive forestation plan, aiming to plant 10 billion trees in the country over the coming decades and to work with other states in the region on a “Middle East Green Initiative”. As the world’s largest reforestation programme, it plans to plant 40 billion additional trees throughout the region. It is unclear, however, how or if this programme will be feasible in some of the areas targeted, particularly in parts of the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia which lack water resources.

Indeed, planting is so challenging in parts of the Arabian Peninsula that some GCC states have bought land abroad, particularly in Africa, to cultivate agricultural land as a means of achieving food security. And while planting trees would help stop the process of desertification, it is unclear whether the initiative could also help some countries, particularly those in the GCC, become more self-sufficient in terms of, for instance, of food supply, since developing local sources for such products would lessen their carbon footprint as well. 

Although both the Saudi and Middle East-wide initiatives represent potentially promising steps towards addressing the issue of high carbon emissions in the GCC in particular, it is also unclear how much commitment there is to disclosing the gravity of the problem before addressing it.

Their announcement signals a broader shift in terms of an at least stated commitment to developing sources of renewable energy

Indeed, in January Bloomberg reported that Saudi Aramco did not include emissions generated from its refineries and petrochemical plants in its carbon disclosures to investors. It added that if such facilities had been included, the figure of emissions from Saudi Aramco alone could have doubled, illustrating the extent to which the hydrocarbon industry in Saudi Arabia is both multi-faceted and nearly all-encompassing, which will make achieving the goals set out by the initiative challenging. 

Regardless of the feasibility and long-term viability of the Saudi and other regional green initiatives, their announcement signals a broader shift in terms of an at least stated commitment to developing sources of renewable energy, and this shift has impacts far beyond Saudi Arabia. Indeed, OPEC has applauded both the Saudi Green Initiative and Middle East Green Initiative, with all of OPEC’s 13 member countries having signed on to the Paris Agreement.

Such rhetorical commitment to renewable energy is a step forward, even if compliance with these stated goals may remain elusive. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s current emissions fall in the “critically insufficient” category and thus fall short of the Paris Agreement’s target which aims to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

Dr Courtney Freer is a research fellow at LSE Middle East Centre.

Follow her on Twitter: @CourtneyFreer

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