Saudi Arabia In Need of Alignment

Besides more serious domestic issues like the Arab Spring or women driving, Saudi Arabia is steadily drifting towards an increasingly untenable situation in its relationship with climate change. The Kingdom’s nascent domestic climate policy is becoming detached from its long-held obstructionist international climate policy posture. The questions are: does the government care, and should it?

For two decades now, Saudi has rather proudly carried the mantle of number one obstructionist in  international climate negotiations, which take place under the umbrella of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In climate geek circles the country is notoriously famous for its long-standing and experienced negotiating team, said to have been trained by the US oil lobby back in the 1990s. Indeed Saudi and oil lobby interests are essentially the same, aiming at stretching out the global oil era as far as possible. Nowadays, however, the Saudi team acts independently; there is little need for external assistance when your chief negotiator has (apparently) attended each and every annual Conference of Parties (and a great share of the intersessional meetings too) since they began in the mid-1990s.

As always, there are two sides to the story. Saudi and its OPEC fellows say they are “faithfully engaging” in the negotiations (also a nice choice of words for the Guardian of the Holy Places). Pretty much everyone else, however, seems to think Saudi is only interested in delays, discord and trouble.

The last round of UNFCCC negotiations that ended in mid-June was no exception: a briefing paper by the Finnish think tank FIIA described Saudi Arabia as thriving “on the procedural conflicts” and being “clever at utilizing the political space that opens up when big players are in disagreement.” During the two weeks of negotiations the Saudi team also received the most daily “Fossil of the Day” awards from the NGO alliance Climate Action Network.

Despite having a clear international policy, Saudi Arabia still has no actual domestic climate policy (as is, to my knowledge, the case for the entire Middle East). In recent years and months, however, there have been a number of announcements signalling a change from within. These could one day be picked up by the top echelons and transformed into official targets and policies. Recent examples of these include oil minister Ali al-Naimi’s June speech on “the Saudi Arabia of Solar Electricity”. achieved by generating solar electricity equalling the amount of energy from its oil exports. In April, the GreenProphet blog reported on a statement attributed to a vague source, alleging the country’s national solar capacity goal had been set at a massive 20 GW by 2030. Last week, another vague source was quoted in the local press as declaring that the kingdom had a solar target of 5 GW by 2020. Nuclear is also on the agenda.

If Saudi in the coming months or years decides to go proactive and announce a domestic alternative energy target, it would (naturally) not be an internationally binding one. A developing country (or a country classified as developing by the UNFCCC back in 1992) would never commit internationally unless there were strong guarantees of tangible support from the global North. Currently, developing country targets are probably announced for two main reasons: they can be part of national mitigation plans, drafted in exchange for assistance from developed countries, or they can be announced for the sake of something more intangible like solidarity or prestige.

A domestic Saudi target would definitely fall into the latter category. It could be either for renewables only or for “clean energy”, which would also include “dirty” things like nuclear energy and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage. Somewhat differently from Abu Dhabi, where renewable energy plans are linked to a defined technology transfer agenda, Saudi Arabia’s alternative energy target is likely to come as a byproduct of the country’s swelling domestic electricity needs. There is plenty of oil but too little natural gas to power a 27-million nation with massive plans to diversify the economy in heavy industries like petrochemicals. This is why Saudi is mulling nuclear energy—and solar in a longer term.

Any alternative energy target therefore would be primarily tied to domestic energy security, but there is a clear link to the issue of climate change too: adapting to climate change mitigation will eventually require replacing oil revenues with something else. Solar is perhaps the strongest candidate when it comes to the rulers’ dream of preserving the existing social contract.

My argument is there is a problem with the country’s international policy becoming detached from domestic developments. Some might counter with the suggestion that  in climate policy, these two are not necessarily connected: a country may have a lot going on domestically (the US is the prime example), but for one reason or another (domestic politics, economics, competitiveness, policy dominance by one bureaucracy) it might be reluctant or not feel the need to engage to a similar extent in the international regime.

The bottom line, however, is that Saudi Arabia has accrued its wealth with the export of a product with negative environmental externalities, and the time to pay has come. Saudi has the wealth to buy the technology and expertise needed to adapt to this transition. The sooner it stops fighting against the current in the UNFCCC, the better for its international image. And international image, as we have seen in the case of Abu Dhabi’s alternative energy projects, can make the transition to low-carbon a lot faster and smoother. Should the government care? That depends on how much it's prepared to do now for the future.