Saudi Arabia on Monday pledged to spend $2.5 billion over the coming 10 years to support green projects across the Middle East and to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The announcements were made by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the second summit of the Middle East Green Initiative (MEGI), a regional climate initiative launched by Saudi Arabia in October 2021.
Heads of state and governments from across the region and beyond – including Sudan, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, as well as India and Pakistan – took part in the summit, held on the margins of COP27 and co-led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
A few concrete announcements were made during the hour-and-half-long meeting, but many high-level officials lauded the initiative and Saudi Arabia’s leadership on climate issues.
“Initiatives like the MEGI are one big step in the right direction,” Pakistan’s prime minister Shehbaz Sharif said at the summit.
“Because of the Green Initiative, the future looks a little safer, and a little brighter,” the UK’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly likewise declared.
Oil-reliant Saudi Arabia is stealing the show at COP this year. With one of the largest booths inside the conference venue, a huge temporary gallery dedicated to the MEGI in the city of Sharm-el-Sheikh, and two high-level summits running in parallel to the climate talks, the Saudi kingdom almost overshadows Egypt – the current organizer – and the United Arab Emirates, who will host the next COP.
But for many observers, Riyadh’s claims to climate leadership are beyond questionable.
The Saudi kingdom is among the top producers of oil worldwide, holding around 17% of the world’s proven oil reserves, and has been accused of stalling progress on negotiations in the past.
So what should we make of Riyadh’s grand green announcements for the region?
Saudi’s green initiatives
Launched in October 2021 by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Green Initiative (SGI) has pledged to decrease the Kingdom’s carbon emissions and plant 10 billion trees across Saudi Arabia by 2030.
In parallel, Riyadh also spearheaded the Middle East Green Initiative (MEGI), a regional alliance of states united around common carbon offsetting and emissions reduction projects.
To kickstart the initiative, in 2021 Saudi Arabia pledged to “help the region reduce emissions related to hydrocarbon production by 60%” and plant 50 billion trees across the Middle East.
Following Riyadh’s lead, many Arab states including Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Kuwait and Sudan have since rallied the initiative and attended the second summit held yesterday in parallel to COP27.
Speeches at the summit focused heavily on the MEGI’s positive role in coordinating climate action and pooling funding for a region highly vulnerable to climate change.
“We have already seen the impact of climate change on the Middle East, a region already dangerously vulnerable to extreme weather,” Cleverly thus declared. “Initiatives like this, allowing leaders from the region and beyond to address these challenges are all the more vital.”
The MEGI summit also provided Saudi Arabia with a powerful communication platform to counter its reputation as a massive polluter, and a unique opportunity to portray itself as a regional climate champion. “[The MEGI] serves as a regional foundation for combating the impacts of climate change,” Sheikh Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, the Crown Prince of Kuwait, highlighted.
The $2.5 billion pledged yesterday by the Saudi Crown prince will go towards MEGI’s projects throughout the region for the coming ten years. But many activists are dubious about their actual environmental impact.
“My take on this is extremely critical,” Zeina Khalil Hajj, a longtime environmental campaigner now heading campaigns at 350.org, told The New Arab. “I really believe the Arab rich countries in the Middle East have to really move from what I’d call greenwashing initiatives to real concrete steps to shift climate change, as opposed to going around and saying, ‘We’re planting trees.’”
Most of the projects announced so far under the MEGI – like planting billions of trees and trading carbon credits – focus on offsetting rather than slashing carbon emissions, something that scientists say is now urgently needed.
“A tree, on average, is a net carbon producer for the first 6 to 8 years of its life. Only then does it start being a carbon sink,” Ahmed El Droubi, the Regional Campaigns Manager of Greenpeace, told The New Arab. “This is one of the inherent problems with net-zero solutions! We are planting a tree with no guarantee it’s going to live out its life and capture the carbon that we are producing now.”
And in the arid Middle East, planting billions of trees is no easy feat. “Where are they going to get the water from?” El Droubi added. “Are we going to desalinate seawater using fossil fuels?”
Another pillar of Saudi Arabia’s green strategy is carbon capture, a technology that pumps carbon dioxide (which is one of the main causes of global warming) out of the air and stores it underground, where it no longer contributes to warming the atmosphere.
Riyadh plans to create one of the largest carbon capture plants in the world, capturing 44 million tons of CO2e of the atmosphere – 15% of the emissions reductions that Saudi Arabia has committed to making by 2035.
But the effectiveness of carbon capture is hotly debated, and many scientists say this technology should not be accounted for in net-zero pledges.
Researchers from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) recently concluded that carbon capture to get to net zero would “simply not work” and that most carbon capture implemented so far had underperformed or failed.
Beyond the efficiency of these green projects, many observers question the pledges made by top oil producers to reach net zero by 2050.
“We need to look very carefully at how countries and companies plan to meet these net-zero pledges,” David Tong, a campaigner at Oil Change International told The New Arab. “There is a risk that they can be profoundly misleading.”
One example of this is Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company, which has promised to reach net-zero while increasing oil production. This is because “Saudi Aramco has promised to go net-zero for the emissions in its productions and operations and the energy it uses,” Tong added. “What it’s excluding is the emissions from its customers burning the oil and gas that it sells.”
Those typically represent 80 to 90% of oil and gas companies’ emissions – meaning that Saudi Aramco’s net-zero pledges actually cover less than 20% of its emissions.
What exactly is included in Saudi Arabia’s net-zero pledges remains unclear, but the Kingdom continues to make huge investments in fossil fuels. “Saudi Aramco is this year responsible for the largest new final investment decisions in favor of oil and gas production, committing over $4.5 billion to expand [the Zuluf offshore facility],” Tong highlighted. “That makes Saudi Aramco the single biggest company for fossil fuel expansion in 2022.”
In other words, as Saudi Arabia was pledging to reach net zero by 2050 and plant billions of trees across the region, it was at the same time realizing huge new investments in oil.
For environmental defenders, it’s time to look at Gulf countries’ climate pledges for what they are. “It is great to plant trees, I’m not saying we should not plant trees, but that is not addressing the problem,” al-Hajj added. “It’s not helping us nor reduce our carbon emissions, nor deal with the heart and essence of this problem, which is the fossil fuel industry that [Gulf countries] are behind.”
El Droubi added, “It’s all false solutions... All these initiatives are ridiculous, at the end of the day. They are just trying to kick the can down the road and throw the responsibility to future generations.”
The New Arab reached out to the Saudi team of negotiators at COP27 for comment, but none were available by the time of publishing.
This story was produced as part of the 2022 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security. It was first published by The New Arab on 8 November and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: The booth of the Middle East Green Initiative at the Saudi pavilion / Credit: Lyse Mauvais.