Riyadh Seeks to Reclaim Climate Narrative

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COP27 Sharm el-Sheikh

Saudi Arabia has leveraged this month’s COP27 climate summit to unleash a barrage of green initiatives as it seeks to assert its regional climate leadership and respond to criticism of the kingdom’s environmental record.

Unsurprisingly, given its massive oil production, Saudi Arabia has the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions among the G20. And the kingdom has sparked criticism from environmentalists by traditionally spearheading producers’ responses to anti-fossil fuel measures on the global stage.

For many, the reinvention of Riyadh as a "jolly green giant" is a hard sell. But no doubt in Sharm el-Sheikh, Riyadh has pulled out all the stops, hosting a series of high-level presentations to deliver a clean energy policy blizzard. Among the flagship initiatives announced are:

  • The establishment of a national greenhouse gas crediting and offsetting scheme to be launched at the beginning of next year.
  • Massive expansion of its carbon capture and storage (CCS) ambitions, now targeting 44 million tons per annum by 2035, with a 9 million ton/yr Phase-1 to be in place by 2027.
  • Thirteen new renewable energy projects with a total capacity of 11.4 gigawatts at an estimated investment value of $9 billion, as part of the Saudi push to have 50% of its electricity generation from renewables by 2030.
  • Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF), the country's sovereign wealth fund, targeting net zero by 2050, a decade ahead of the national target.
  • Acceleration of the Saudi Green Initiative afforestation program. 600 million trees are to be planted by 2030, 150 million up on an earlier target.
  • The launch of Ceer, the first Saudi electric vehicle (EV) brand. This comes as EV firm Lucid builds its first factory outside the US in the kingdom. When both are up and running, the kingdom should be producing 328,000 EVs per year, according to Yasir al-Rumayyan, governor of PIF and architect of a recent green bond issuance, the first ever by a sovereign wealth fund.
  • The success last month of what al-Rumayyan called “the largest carbon credit auction in the world.”

Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman also on Saturday announced the launch of the Circular Carbon Economy Knowledge Hub to “facilitate regional collaboration,” the establishment of a regional center to advance emissions reduction, and the kingdom's plan to host Mena Climate Week in the lead up to next year’s COP28 in the United Arab Emirates.
Mission Almost Impossible

Riyadh has set itself a tough task. The country is relatively new to solar and the scale of its ramp-up will be challenging. Some 26 oil-fired power plants will have to be decommissioned in the next five years, as part of the transition.

On afforestation, the Saudi Green Initiative has set itself a long-term target of planting 10 billion trees, with another 40 billion as part of a wider Middle East Green Initiative (MGI) to which Riyadh has pledged $2.5 billion. But details on how the initiatives will be implemented are sketchy.

Riyadh has offered to host the MGI headquarters and has received support from some countries in the region. But much more needs to be done to bring life to this regional scheme.

Nature-based offsets have come under fire, with critics arguing that projects need to not only show they have planted trees that otherwise would not be there, but also that the trees will remain in place, thus providing permanent carbon sequestration.

In a high-level UN experts report released last week at COP, it was recommended that non-state actors should not be allowed to claim nature-based offsets, slamming them as “greenwashing.” But, argues Daniel Nepstad, president of the Earth Innovation Institute, which advocates for such solutions, these offsets have massive potential.

“If we don't slow down deforestation and degradation, we could get to a tipping point in the Amazon where there's just this accelerating flow of carbon out of the region,” Nepstad argues.

Privately, sources in the kingdom acknowledge third-party verification and monitoring is needed for the Saudi scheme to have integrity. A study on how to best implement the scheme, involving outside consultants, is under way, with findings out in March, said one source.

Low-Carbon Policy, Carbon Capture (CCS), Carbon Markets , Renewable Electricity , Nature-Based Solutions
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