Saudi Arabia and China surprised onlookers when they pledged net-zero emissions and a movement away from fossil fuels by 2060. Now, the lack of clear strategies on how they will move away from fossil fuels has some questioning just how genuine their promises were.
Just last week, President Xi Jinping of China pledged net-zero carbon emissions by 2060, only ten years later than several European countries that are well on their way to net-zero and are in line with Paris Agreement targets. Xi Jinping stated that carbon emissions will peak in 2030 before tapering off as reliance shifts towards low-carbon oil and renewable alternatives.
This target was backed by the government, which released a Cabinet document last Sunday outlining aims to reduce fossil fuel use to below 20 percent by 2060. However, despite this ambitious aim, China has not released a clear strategy on how it will wean itself off of fossil fuels in the coming year to eventually achieve net zero.
China recently announced that it will no longer invest in the construction of new coal plants overseas, but the case domestically is very different. China is still backing coal in a big way, with plans for around 60 new domestic coal plants, undermining its participation in the upcoming COP26 climate summit to be held in Glasgow at the end of the month.
Experts suggest that for China to get anywhere near meeting the ambitious climate aims it will have to completely abandon its coal industry by 2050, replacing it with nuclear power or renewable alternatives. Yet, to date, there is not a clear plan for this to happen. With the potential for new coal plants to be active for the next 30 to 40 years, shutting down production early could mean a hit to China’s energy economy.
Saudi Arabia made an equally bold pledge last week when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman declared it was also aiming for net-zero carbon emissions by 2060. Considering Saudi Arabia’s reliance on its national oil industry, as the world’s largest exporter, this was a surprising announcement for many.
Despite pressure from the U.S., the U.K., and international institutions such as the IEA, Saudi Arabia has repeatedly rejected suggestions to curb its investment in fossil fuels and pump more funding into renewable alternatives. However, right ahead of the Cop26 summit, Saudi Arabia finally appears to be turning a corner on its climate stance.
Instead of totally abandoning oil and gas, bin Salman emphasized the need to develop greater carbon capture (CCS) technology to support low carbon energy output. In addition to net-zero aims for the second half of the century, Saudi Arabia hopes to reduce its carbon emissions by 278-million tonnes per year by 2030, doubling its original target.
The announcement follows state-owned oil and gas firm Aramco’s existing pledge to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. It is important to note, however, net-zero applies only to output at the national level, not projects taking place abroad.
Much like China, Saudi Arabia has failed to outline a clear exit strategy alongside its recent announcement. Bin Salman stated that the Kingdom would be investing $187 billion in climate action this decade, while Saudi Arabia continues to produce oil and gas. In addition, half the country’s electricity will come from renewables by 2030, according to the Crown Prince, despite only 1 percent of the country’s power currently being generated from solar power. Beyond introducing CCS technology and investing in renewable energy, there appears to be very little clear strategy around how to achieve these ambitious goals.
Some believe the 2060 deadline is far enough away to make the pledge realistic. One such person is Mina Al-Oraibi, Editor of the Saudi media outlet The National, who stated “These commitments are important, but they have to be realistic, and they have to be tangible, and you have to have the technological and financial ability to actually see it through.” In support of the announcement.
Yet others are not so sure. Experts wonder how Saudi Arabia’s plans to continue ramping up oil production while also decreasing carbon emissions. Questions have also been raised over how the country will continue its water desalination processes, needed to sustain its growing population, without natural gas. And environmental groups such as Greenpeace were particularly vocal about their doubts, suggesting without a clear plan to reduce emissions, the aim means very little. Some say the announcement was a publicity stunt ahead of the Cop26 summit, with the hope of diverting criticism away from one of the world’s biggest polluters.
Greenpeace MENA campaigns manager Ahmad El Droubi stated of Saudi’s shift in stance, “We question the seriousness of this announcement, as it comes in parallel with plans for the kingdom to increase its oil production.” Adding, it “seems to simply be a strategic move to alleviate political pressure ahead of COP26.”
So, are these countries simply jumping on the bandwagon or will they make a meaningful change as stated in their recent pledges? Only time will tell. But as other states in the Cop26 summit introduce clear strategies for the movement away from fossil fuels to renewable alternatives over the coming years, China and Saudi Arabia won’t be able to get away with sweeping statements with no action for long.
By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com