Saudi Arabia's path to net-zero is a game changer

The kingdom's plans to cut carbon emissions by 2060 can revolutionise climate dialogue

FILE - In this Thursday, Jan. 28, 2010 file photo, a worker walks past tanks at a Petrochina storage base in Suining, in southwest China's Sichuan province. A big shift is happening in Big Oil: an American giant now ranks second to a Chinese upstart. Exxon Mobil is pumping less oil than PetroChina, a company formed just 13 years ago by the Chinese government to better compete for the world's oil and natural gas. On March 29, 2012, the shift is expected to become official when the Beijing company announces that it produced more crude last year than its 130-year-old Texas rival. (AP Photo) *** Local Caption ***  CORRECTION Big Oil New No 1.JPEG-0d101.jpg

With less than a week remaining for the global climate summit, or Cop26, to begin in Glasgow on October 31, Saudi Arabia's reveal of its impressive carbon zero goals comes at a crucial time. It also heralds the visit of US climate envoy John Kerry to Riyadh where the green initiative forums are under way. Mr Kerry has this year been to the Middle East multiple times. On a trip to Abu Dhabi in June, in fact, he mentioned that the UAE was a good contender to host Cop28 in the year 2023.

The UAE, having unveiled its own strategic initiative last month to reach net-zero by 2050, has praised Saudi Arabia’s move to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2060. Dr Sultan Al Jaber, Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology and UAE Special Envoy for Climate Change, lauded Saudi Arabia's decision, calling it a “landmark, bold, long-term” strategic initiative.

There is no doubt that the measures the kingdom announced on Saturday are in step with global climate priorities. For the world’s biggest oil exporter – a country of 34.8 million people – to set a goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2060 is a prodigious step by any yardstick. The panoramic nature of the kingdom's climate ambitions is evident.

And even while the idea of the year 2060 could appear somewhat far down the road, there are objectives Saudi Arabia intends to meet in the much nearer future – at a halfway mark, so to speak. In another nine years, for example, by the year 2030, wind and solar energy will generate half of the country’s electricity. Also by that time, global methane emissions will be cut by 30 per cent from 2020 levels. The kingdom is also planning an enormous new hydrogen fuel plant in Neom, its futuristic city.

Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 programme, an ambitious national reform plan that aims to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on oil revenue, prioritises environmental protection and climate targets. The vision is to diversify energy production.

For a country of Saudi Arabia's scale and influence to move away from fossil fuels to renewables, stressing its intent to invest more in green energy refocuses the climate framework for the entire region. Its net-zero agenda could well inspire other economies in the Gulf – and parts of the world that have yet to flesh out their climate goals – to similarly plan and cut carbon emissions to align with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Earlier this year, when Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced two projects to reverse environmental degradation and climate change, he said: “As a leading global producer of oil, we are fully aware of our share of the responsibility in advancing the fight against the climate crisis and as our pioneering role in stabilising energy markets during the oil and gas era, we will act to lead the next green era."

For decades, fossil fuels have been the mainstay for multiple Gulf economies – indeed, on which several well-positioned economies have been built. And hardly limited to the Middle East, industry and production across the world have run on oil and gas. Viewed through this lens, for a major oil-producing country to move away from its core output, barrels of which have been shipped to countries everywhere, and have literally fuelled factories and economic growth for decades, is a tremendous change. For carbon zero goals of such scale to be met requires time, consistency and effort.

Saudi Arabia has shown great purpose in stating its long-term green missions. In embarking on a path with environmental concerns as the guiding light, it could spur urgent climate action far across its borders.

Published: October 25th 2021, 2:00 AM