Can we really live in a fossil fuel free world with Saudi at the epicentre?
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Have you ever watched something (except the news) and couldn't quite believe what you were seeing was real and actually happening whilst you're going about your business? This is exactly how I felt whilst watching the House of Saud on BBC iPlayer. I almost had lockjaw my chin dropped to the floor so many times throughout. Whilst I know that corruption exists, it’s not exactly something I necessarily think about on a daily basis. As I watched the horrifying images in Yemen and the astonishing stories from whistleblowers, my mind began to wander to Saudi’s reliance on crude oil for their vast fortunes and position in the world. I couldn’t help but wonder, how can the world possibly move away from fossil fuels by 2050 (or reduce by 45% by the end of this decade), with this Kingdom at the epicentre of the industry?
I started to Google about Saudi and fossil fuels and ended up spiralling down the virtual rabbit hole. I decided to gather some of the information together and write down my layperson thoughts on this very complex issue. Sure it would be over-simplified but perhaps we need that? Then I started to doubt myself. What can I possibly write that would add to the conversation in a meaningful, valuable way? So I went back to my original thought, “how can we possibly move away from fossil fuels with Saudi at the epicentre?” and instead of trying to figure it out sensibly or realistically, I turned to 'dreaming'. If I could imagine a world without fossil fuels, what would it look like? And what would Saudi be doing?
Saudi’s contribution to the fossil fuel industry
Whilst I started to dream about what a fossil free world would look like, I grabbed some notes and information about Saudi’s oil wealth. Here’s what I found out – which I’ll list as bullet points so it's easy to scroll past for those of you who already know the detail. Sources - The Intercept; Reuters and Wikipedia.
Saudi Arabia’s crude oil exports rebounded in July to 5.73 million barrels per day (bpd) from a record low in June;
Saudi Arabia's economy is highly dependent on oil exports to the tune of 87 percent of total exports;
State-owned firm Aramco is the world's largest oil producing and exporting company. Main export partners are:
United States (14 percent of total exports),
Japan (13 percent),
China (12 percent),
South Korea (10 percent)
India (8 percent)
Saudi Aramco, the most profitable corporation in the world, released more than 40 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases between 1992 and 2017, the equivalent of almost 5 percent of industrial carbon dioxide and methane
Aramco is focused on a range of petroleum products, including jet fuel. In the Katowice climate talks last year, Saudi Arabia, reflecting Aramco’s interests in jet fuel production, objected to having the International Civil Aviation Organization report on the climate impacts of aviation;
…drones struck oil installations in the eastern part of the country on September 14 2019. While the Trump administration is blaming Iran, Houthis in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attack on Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company, which is both the source of the kingdom’s vast wealth and, as the world’s largest corporate emitter of greenhouse gases, one of the primary drivers of the climate emergency making life increasingly difficult throughout the region;
While Saudi Arabia has been standing in the way of climate progress since the 1990s, “I almost wonder if it hasn’t gotten worse,” said Depledge, who noted that, during the most recent UN climate change negotiations in Katowice, Poland, “Saudi Arabia was picking at point after point” in the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
So all together, a rather gloomy picture and one that would most likely render anything we do in Scotland as futile. Other than, perhaps, gaining the bragging rights of being carbon neutral, or being at the forefront of renewable energy etc etc. Which is fine if all that mattered was giving ourselves a pat on the back. Sadly though, much like the COVID-19 rhetoric and much loved hashtag of being ‘in this together’, reversing climate change is very much an ‘in this together’ thing.
So what are the fossil fuel giants doing, or saying they’ll do, to play their much needed and vital part in solving climate change?
Truth or elaborate sandwashing?
Back to Google and I press the right buttons in the correct order and search for “Saudi Arabia sustainability’. Above the organic search results in my Ecosia browser, three news stories are offered. The first a headline from "1 day ago" in the Arab news,
“Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman: Saudi Arabia devoted G20 presidency to stronger, more sustainable world"
Of course, the G20 virtual summit took place on 21-22 November with Saudi Arabia hosting the annual meeting of the world’s most polluting, sorry, world’s largest economies.
I scan through the article for sustainability related information and I’m met with soundbites like, “‘Realizing [sic] Opportunities of the 21st Century For All,’ which includes themes such as: empowering people, safeguarding the planet, and shaping new frontiers.”
Themes? It’s not Disney Land we live in. As far as Empowering people and safeguarding the planet (which, Saudi is playing a vital role in screwing up) are concerned, these are not ‘themes’. They’re real life issues. They are not ideas in a book. Or stories in a movie. They are HUGE problems that need to be addressed, yesterday. What a poor choice of language. The word ‘theme’ diminishes the severity of the issues being faced by humanity. Are the Saudi Arabian Royal Family simply paying lip service to these issues? Would anyone who takes these matters seriously refer to them as ‘themes’? In fact, re-reading the quote, it feels like nothing more than a social media soundbite. Easy to digest and scores a click of the like button.
Anyway, back to the organic search results...
One article from July 2020 centres on Saudi’s ‘circular carbon economy’. All this tells me is that Saudi is trying to look for ways to NOT have to change their reliance on fossil fuels. But instead, come up with a non-sensical solution that allows them to can continue as is. Which isn’t a long term, sustainable solution. Is it? If Saudi focussed on reducing or eliminating their GHG’s in the first place, I don’t know, say by using the energy from the glaring heat of the Arab sun? Then we wouldn’t need to waste time talking about a ‘circular carbon economy’ (a concept coined by the Saudi Arabian KAPSARC, King Abdul Petroleum Studies and Research Center [sic] following meetings in Paris in July 2019) or what to do with the carbon that’s emitted when it doesn’t need to be.
The more I read, the more frustrated I’m becoming.
So before I write down my dream solutions for Saudi Arabia, here’s a few other ‘sustainable initiatives’ that I found on ye olde interweb. I'll let you dig a little deeper on these if you'd like to.
A Public Investment Fund. A person buys shares in Aramco and those funds will be used for “renewable energy and enormous real estate projects aimed at creating jobs for Saudis”.
NEOM – “NEOM is a bold and audacious dream. It is a vision of what a New Future might look like (in fact, NEOM means, “new future”). It’s an attempt to do something that’s never been done before and it comes at a time when the world needs fresh thinking and new solutions.”
I’ll let you go down the rabbit hole of NEOM. For me, it looks like nothing more than a fancy website and, if it is true, the pointless destruction of more land.
The King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy – otherwise known as Ka-care is “a scientific, research and governmental entity in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that is legally independent chaired by the Minister of Energy, which deals with the issues of nuclear and renewable energy in Saudi Arabia and contributes to the sustainable development of the energy sector in the Kingdom and founded in 2010 headquartered in Riyadh city.” (Source – Wikipedia).
So what would a dream Saudi solution look like?
A 100% move away from fossil fuels, which would need to be replaced by alternate solutions. A Royal Family, that, as with every other super (financially) rich individual, must realise that there is only so much money one person or one family needs and therefore must contribute to the fair distribution of wealth.
Saudi oil fields could be transformed into vertical farms, solar power stations or thermal renewable energy. Hemp crops (growing in controlled environments) used to make fabric for abayas and thawbs, oils for shisha pipes and more.
In a world without fossil fuels, no country would be reliant on another for resources. No country would have any power over another.
We need to dream big, bigger and then bigger again.
Solar power in Saudi Arabia has become more important to the country as oil prices have risen. In 2011, over 50% of electricity was produced by burning oil. The Saudi agency in charge of developing the nations renewable energy sector, Ka-care, announced in May 2012 that the nation would install 41 gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity by 2032. It is projected to be composed of 25 GW of solar thermal, and 16 GW of photovoltaics. At the time of this announcement, Saudi Arabia had only 0.003 gigawatts of installed solar energy capacity. A total of 24 GW of renewable energy was expected by 2020, and 54 GW by 2032.