The Gulf States

In the Paradise of Black Gold, Carbon Neutrality Is in the Pipeline

The six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council are among those with the highest CO2 emissions per head in the world. As battle is joined for decarbonising the global economy, the Gulf oil monarchies declare carbon-neutral targets—but without giving up exporting hydrocarbons.

Oil refinery in the new industrial city of Al-Jubail (Madinat Al-Jubail Al-Sinaiya) in Saudi Arabia
Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

Swimming against the tide of international opinion, Prince Abdulaziz Bin Salman asserts that “every molecule” of the 297 bn barrels of crude oil lying under Saudi sands will be extracted. The Minister of Energy of this hereditary monarchy, which supplies nearly 10% of the world’s crude consumption, aspires to see Saudi Arabia maintain its pole position in energy markets—even if that meant pressing the UN scientists to withdraw a call for “the progressive elimination of fossil fuels” from a climate report published in mid-2021. Justifying the fact that his next car will “definitely not” be electric, Abdulaziz Bin Salman, launching a Saudi “Green Initiative”, states: “I have to be true to my convictions.”

None the less, despite an unambiguous position based on extending the all-petrol era, Saudi Arabia, along with the other Gulf oil monarchies, is striving to profit from the emergence of the decarbonised economy. In 2019, the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund bought up two thirds of the capital of Lucid Motors, a top-end electric vehicle manufacturer. The American start-up announced the planned opening of a factory in Saudi in 2024 to serve a virgin local market of 35 m inhabitants. There is virtually no network of charging points, and permits for importing electric vehicles are issued extremely frugally.

Taking up the double game, the United Arab Emirates committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 as part of the COP26 climate conference, a first for a Middle East oil state. Following along, Saudi and Bahrain currently aim to reach carbon neutrality in 2060, along with more than 130 other nations determined to control their greenhouse gas emissions. “It’s a decision which changes things, which changes history,” enthused Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). But note the silence emanating from Kuwait, Oman and Qatar. However, the host of the 2022 football World Cup none the less promises a carbon-neutral event, without specifying how that will work. “According to conversations I’ve had with officials, they’re not really up for a net-zero plan,” disclosed Saeed Mohammad, environmental policy specialist and director of strategy at the Qatari NGO Arab Youth Climate Movement.

Billions of trees in Saudi Arabia

“Whether we’re talking about the UAE, China, Japan or the US, the important thing is to have a net-zero target, and after that comes the debate about how credible it is and how it is to be achieved,” says Asaad Razzouk, a Singapore-based Lebanese-British entrepreneur specialising in renewables. But voices are being raised questioning the carbon-neutral movement to which a growing number of states and enterprises around the world have signed up. In a tweet published on the fringes of COP26, Greta Thunberg objected to the greenhouse-gas emissions offset strategies. For the Swedish activist, they amount to a permit to pollute instead of reducing human carbon emissions: “Polluting profiteers see offsetting as their get-out-of-jail-free card in the climate game.”

In fact, if carbon neutrality implies a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, above all it means compensating for the carbon which is still being emitted, especially by storing it in underground formations, or natural solutions such as forests. “These trees are not going to breathe carbon dioxide straight away. It’s a natural habitat and it needs time for them to grow and begin absorbing carbon dioxide,” cautions Saeed Mohammad, commenting on the Saudi project to plant ten billion trees across the country in the coming decades, ignoring the thorny issue of a deep scrutiny of a carbon-dependent society popular with the local population.

The Gulf countries have not yet revealed their road map for reaching the carbon neutral goal, but offsetting must play a central role, in line with the Saudi approach of refusing to see oil as an enemy, preferring to campaign for offsetting. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), a body long reputed to be close to the oil companies, carbon neutrality by 2050 is compatible with efforts aimed at limiting global warming to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels.

Abnormal energy consumption

On the energy front, the six member states of the GCC have a huge potential to do better. Up till now, they in fact rank among the world’s highest energy consumers per head of population, mainly because of the ubiquitous presence of air conditioners to spare the inhabitants scorching summer heat which often goes above 500 C. They are powered by “dirty” electricity: despite enjoying abundant sunshine, in 2018 Saudi was producing only 0.4% of its electricity from renewable sources. The Kingdom is still one of the last countries in the world to produce more than 40% of its energy from oil-fired power stations consuming 3m barrels of crude oil daily to feed domestic consumption and power its desalination plants, the same level as Brazil although the latter has six times the population.

Given the drop in the cost of producing renewable energy (solar has already become the cheapest electricity in history) and the need to improve its public finances, the biggest Arab economy is aiming at achieving 50% of its electricity from renewables by 2030. “Perhaps they will not reach all their goals, but it would be realistic to expect the share of renewables in their energy production to reach 10–20% in the next five to seven years,” said a source in the Saudi energy sector.

Beyond heading in the direction of electricity and drinking water from sources less hungry for fossil fuels, the Gulf states can also count on a high rate of urbanisation, reaching between 84% in Saudi Arabia and 100% in Kuwait, to optimise the environmental cost of infrastructure per head of population. The IEA stresses the importance of maximising the energy efficiency of buildings, without which the countries “will not achieve their climate targets”. If buildings certified “green” are still a rarity in the Gulf (there are only 12 in Oman), as is the use of smart solar panels for lighting and energy-efficient thermostats or algorithms driven by artificial intelligence, the UAE is showing the way, with 869 green-certified buildings and, since 2014, measures requiring any new building to comply with green building regulations.

“Urban development policies can encourage buildings with high energy returns and project the integration of carbon-free energy into the existing constructed environment,” comments Huda Shaka, an expert on sustainable cities and founder of The Green Urbanista, a blog on sustainable development in Arab cities. The high cost of urbanisation is also a spur to reshape Gulf mobility around a better use of public transport. In the streets of the Gulf commercial centre at Dubai, metro, tram and bus networks, which logged some 212m journeys in 2020, are already a daily reality for many foreign workers.

In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman announces The Line, a car-free, 170 km-long city which promotes a communal, carbon-free way of life constructed around transport hubs. The critics remain sceptical, pointing to the region’s poor track record in implementing ambitious projects. The Omani experience demonstrates the magnitude of the task. “The authorities are having a problem changing mentalities, especially in terms of reducing dependence on cars,” says Islam Bouzgenda, an expert in social sustainability and senior lecturer at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, after several professional experiences in Oman.

A place at the table on climate change negotiations

The six GCC countries are among the dozen countries whose CO2 emissions per head of population are the highest in the world. Saudi Arabia’s were estimated in 2019 at nearly 580m tons, roughly four times more than France per inhabitant. But the apparently unbridled energy consumption of the Gulf states masks the responsibility of the global economy for these poor environmental scores. A major part of the region’s emissions is in fact the result of the production of fossil fuels destined for the final consumption markets. A study carried out by Saeed Mohammad shows that 64% of the CO2 emitted on Qatari territory is subsequently exported. Qatar is the world’s biggest exporter of liquified natural gas, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE produce 11.5 m and 3.65m barrels of oil a day respectively, of which a large majority is exported. The region’s states “have not defended themselves very well” since the start of climate negotiations in 1992, according to the environmental policy specialist. “The 2015 Paris agreement was the right moment for them to make their point, but they missed it,” he said, “and now it’s too late to demand an equal sharing between producers and consumers of responsibility for emissions linked to fossil fuel production.”

With international pressure to combat climate change intensifying, the Gulf oil and gas exporters categorically refuse to take responsibility for CO2 injected into the atmosphere during production for export, especially to the Asian countries—an approach which contrasts with the wait-and-see attitude they displayed for a long time on the issue, thus allowing the final customers to ignore the environmental cost linked to the raw materials consumed. The Gulf states’ announcements about carbon neutrality are careful to exclude from the calculations any emission associated with products destined for export, thus limiting their commitments to domestic energy consumption—a strategy which allows the region’s countries to raise the issue of an equitable sharing of the cost of decarbonising the global economy.

After decades of intense lobbying against climate change, the region is changing its tune on the environmental issue. The declarations on carbon neutrality offer the region a seat at the climate negotiating table. For example, the UAE has just won its bid to host the 2023 COP28 conference. The Gulf oil monarchies’ goal is to preserve their economic interests and to stress a discourse favouring the retention of fossil fuels in the global energy mix. “It is imperative that we recognise the diversity of climate solutions, and the importance of reducing emissions as stipulated in the Paris agreement, without any bias towards or against a particular source of energy,” as Abdulaziz Bin Salman commented at COP26.

Some months earlier, in keeping with his line opposing any effort to relegate black gold to the annals of human history, the Saudi Energy Minister rejected wholesale a road map for global carbon neutrality by 2050 produced by the IEA, which advocates the massive deployment of all available clean energy technologies at the expense of fossil fuels. “This report is the follow-up to La La Land,” he commented drily. “Why should I take it seriously?”