Saudi 'slow to act on climate change'

Environmentalists claim that the kingdom is already seeing the affects of global warming in reduced rainfall and increased sandstorms.

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JEDDAH // In the 1980s, expatriates working at Saudi Aramco, a Saudi oil company, used to spend their weekends water skiing and swimming in a lake in the heart of the desert. Two decades on, however, and there is nothing left of Lake Layla, once considered the largest body of water on the Arabian peninsula. The evaporation of the lake, and the increased frequency of sandstorms, such as the one that obscured the skies over the capital, Riyadh, a fortnight ago, are the most tangible results of climate change, environmentalists say. They have also warned of worsening climate conditions to come unless more is done to limit the emissions of gases heating up the planet.

The department of meteorology at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah last week predicted there would be more sandstorms as the drought worsens and vegetation dies. Climate change is not a common topic of discussion in Saudi Arabia, which ranks second after the United States in production of carbon dioxide per capita, according to a United Nations report. The United Nations Development Program's human development 2007/2008 report showed that Saudi produced an average of 13.6 tonnes of CO2 per person, accounting for 1.1 per cent of global emissions with only 0.4 per cent of the world's population.

"If all countries in the world were to emit CO2 at levels similar to Saudi Arabia's, we would exceed our sustainable carbon budget by approximately 511 per cent," the report said. Saudi Arabia is a signatory of the Kyoto Protocol, a global treaty intended to achieve stabilisation of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide at the atmosphere level. The country has invested US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion) to research cutting emissions of CO2 and protecting the environment.

But analysts have said Saudi has been too slow to cap emissions of CO2 and methane gas, which have contributed heavily to an increase in temperatures. The government, too, has opposed any global action to reduce CO2 emissions that would affect the price or supply of oil. Asa'ad abu Rizaizah, a Saudi environmentalist, said the government should develop more public policies to protect the environment and to focus on reducing methane gas, which has a larger impact on climate change than CO2.

"The government is investing money to reduce CO2 emission, but municipalities are not doing much to dispose safely of the waste in dumpsters which produces methane gas," said Prof abu Rizaizah, who is an associate professor of environmental engineering. Scientists measure the impact of greenhouse gases through the Global Warming Potential (GWP). The GWP for methane over 100 years is 25, which means that an emission of one million metric tonnes of methane is equivalent to emission of 25 million metric tonnes of CO2.

Prof abu Rizaizah called on the government to develop an advanced public transportation system to limit the number of cars on the roads and therefore cut carbon emissions. He also wants the country to reduce its dependence on fossil fuel for energy. Saudi depends heavily on fossil fuel to meet local demands for electricity, which is growing by six to seven per cent annually, according to official figures.

There has been some effort to look at alternatives to fossil fuel. This month, the oil minister, Ali al Naimi, said the kingdom hoped to become a leading supplier of solar energy. Ali al Barrak, the chief executive officer of Saudi Electricity Company, also said the country was in talks with French companies to build a nuclear power plant. "We can have a nuclear power generation plant by 2018 if we started now," Mr al Barrak told the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat.

Saudi Arabia signed up to the Kyoto protocol and pledged to play a positive role in tackling global warming and climate change through investing in new technology, as it opposes any tax on oil production. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec), of which Saudi is a member, has also committed to reducing harmful emissions. In 2007, King Abdullah announced during the Opec heads of state summit in Riyadh that he would donate $300m for research into helping the environment, including investments in technology such as carbon store and capture.

Mr al Naimi, the Saudi oil minister, told the Opec summit that his country was as concerned as any other in tackling climate change but the world had to accept it would be dependent on fossil fuels for decades to come. Saudi Arabia and the wider Opec cartel agreed that safeguarding the environment's future was one of the three top priorities, alongside reliability of oil supply and global prosperity. However, they stressed that countries should learn how to manage their consumption instead of backing action against supplying nations.

Taxes against supplying nations and a cut in oil consumption could seriously affect the economies of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations, Reuters quoted Mohammad al Sabban of the Saudi ministry of petroleum as saying. "Countries talking about reducing dependence on oil could impact our economy," Mr al Sabban told an Opec energy conference two weeks ago. Efforts to cut CO2 and at the same time reduce dependency on imported oil could impact the economy, he said. "We stand to lose out to such policies that are biased against oil producers."