Saudi Arabia in the spotlight for its climate change focus

Dr. Bashayer Al-Majed

The UN Environment Program has released a job advertisement for a chief editor for an environmental report to be completed on Saudi Arabia before the end of the year. Meanwhile, the scientific journal Sustainability has put out a call for papers for a special edition on “Vision 2030 in Saudi Arabia,” requesting “multidisciplinary solutions” to help reach the nation’s targets, with a deadline for papers in August. And Saudi Arabia established new environmental legislation in 2021, so, with all this focus on the Kingdom, its sustainability and its future, how is it coming along?
Let us begin with the context. The 2015 Paris Agreement set a series of mutually agreed global targets, including limiting the world’s temperature rise to a 2 degrees Celsius (and preferably 1.5 C) increase from pre-industrial levels by the century’s end. In 2021, the UN Environment Program launched the report, “The Heat Is On,” demonstrating that interventions had slowed the increase, but not by enough, and it forecast a 2.7 C increase by the end of the year 2099. However, if nations’ net-zero carbon emissions pledges were actioned, the value would decrease to 2.2 C. It continued that the 17 G20 countries that had pledged a net-zero target emitted 70 percent of emissions. However, last year’s Emissions Gap Report stated that, due to current emissions, we are way off target.
The UN Environment Program report on Saudi Arabia will of course be completed as part of a larger whole, including reports for many other countries, but, as can be seen from the focus of Sustainability, the results will be considered impactful. Neighboring countries with similar vision strategies and primary industries will look to Saudi Arabia to assess the success of its implementations.
A special edition such as Sustainability has planned is a great way to pool the minds of scientists, engineers and innovators from across the world and across disciplines to address these targets in the most effective way, making use of their research and insights for the cost of a journal copy or at least bringing the nation’s leaders into contact with the right people. So, while here we are focusing on Saudi Arabia, it is a symbol for all Gulf nations and oil producers.
Saudi Arabia is important because it is responsible for about 13 percent of the world’s oil exports and emits 1.52 percent of global carbon dioxide due to its high domestic oil use. Since 1990, its emissions have increased 227 percent, although this is small compared to China and India. So, Saudi Arabia could inspire all nations, either with its successes or lessons of where improvements could be made.
It is worth considering that smaller carbon dioxide emitters have a part to play. The UK has one of the smallest emissions increases since 1990 levels at about 40 percent, but this is in part because it has moved much of its manufacturing abroad. Also, the rise of buying and disposing of cheap items, thanks to huge logistics outfits like Amazon, has led to a large increase in cheap manufacturing in China and India, where the low costs do not leave much margin for good environmental practices. Emissions in these countries have skyrocketed.
Here, we can all have an impact by considering what we are buying, from where and the conditions under which it is manufactured. In 2020, the UN Environment Program jointly launched with many other stakeholders the Oil and Gas Methane Partnership 2.0 to provide measurement-based reports to improve accuracy and transparency in emissions reporting. It states that methane, a byproduct of the oil and gas industry, is the second-largest contributor to global warming and provides the largest opportunity for reduction. This seems like an excellent place to start, with some simple solutions such as fixing leaky equipment and capturing the methane to sell on.
Saudi Arabia introduced the Vision 2030 strategy as an action plan for financial and environmental sustainability, including targets for reducing carbon emissions. It also includes improvements on environmental factors, education, infrastructure and gender equality, among others.
Global warming is not the only environmental impact of the oil and gas industry. For example, there is also damage to coastal habitats and marine life due to shipping, salt waste from production, temperature changes and oil leaks. Aramco and others have worked toward improving their equipment and monitoring processes, and Saudi Arabia is becoming one of the world’s largest investors in renewable energy, such as green hydrogen.
In response to a lack of improvement in its carbon dioxide emissions, Saudi Arabia updated its Environmental Law in January 2021, raising penalties for violations, coupled with better monitoring and restricting and licensing activities with a high environmental impact, particularly in marine environments. While ecotourism will be encouraged as part of the diversification away from gas and oil, access to delicate environmental areas will be limited. These are positive steps and, if the Kingdom is to improve its infrastructure, building into the desert for renewable energy sites and developing coastal regions for tourism, they are vitally important to preserve the environment, for both wildlife and people.
However, more needs to be done globally to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if we hope to reduce the effects that we are already experiencing. The annual UN Environment Program reports are an excellent way to monitor success, hold nations to account and see where they can be helped. Sustainability’s special edition will also be worthy of examination when published, not just for Saudi Arabia, but for global application.