Greg Barker: COP18 climate talks can boost Saudi green ambitions

By Ed King

UK energy and climate change minister Greg Barker has argued that the UN climate talks in Qatar later this year offer a unique opportunity to encourage the major oil and gas producing states to recognise the benefits of signing up to a low carbon agenda.

Speaking at an All Party Parliamentary Group meeting at the House of Commons, Barker admitted that hosting a climate conference in the Middle East might seem a ‘bit bizarre’ given its links with fossil fuel production, but said it was vital to take the climate message to sceptical nations.

Close observers of the UN talks have told RTCC they are concerned that oil giants Saudi Arabia could pressure COP18’s Qatari hosts into blocking attempts to raise mitigation ambitions, but Barker says the summit should be seen as a chance for progressive parties to influence policy at the heart of the Gulf.

“It’s an opportunity to bring in countries who have previously been antagonistic to the agenda to make them realise it’s in their interest,” he said.

“I’m thinking particularly here about Saudi Arabia – one of the world’s largest oil producers – historically they have not been fantastic supporters of the UNFCCC process, but they have recently announced that they have a massive solar mission.

“They do appreciate there are elements of this low carbon agenda that they can sign up to, and we’ve got to find ways of bringing people into this agenda.”

Low ambition

The Saudis have long been seen as a difficult party in the UN process, notorious for slowing negotiations to a crawl and watering down mitigation targets.

At the recent Bangkok talks Saudi head of delegation Khalid Abuleif caused much amusement among onlookers by suggesting: “I think we need to consider a space to agree to disagree,” without suggesting where this could lead.

The Kingdom participates in a number of forums – including the Kyoto Protocol – but actively resists attempts to cut global emissions, preferring to focus on adaptation measures.

Frequently a target of protests, in June 2010 activists from WWF and Oxfam broke the Saudi delegation’s desk nameplate, put the bits in a toilet bowl and took photos. Both NGOs have since apologised.

Changing economics

In turn the Saudis have regarded the UN climate process as little more than an assault on their economy.

In 2009 their lead negotiator Mohammad Al Sabban outlined the reasons behind their hostility towards the UNFCCC: “It’s a matter of survival for us, also. So we are among the most vulnerable countries economically. Saudi Arabia has not done that much yet to diversify.”

That stance could soften if recent predictions over the Kingdom’s oil reserves prove accurate. A recent report by Citigroup reveals that the country’s black gold is running out – and it could cease to be an oil exporter as early as 2030.

A growing population’s energy consumption is exacerbating the situation – it has one of the largest per-capita carbon footprints on the planet, and a particular drain on its resources are the 30 state-run desalination plants that consume 1.5 million barrels of oil per day.

However in May this year it unveiled an $100 billion plan to construct up to 41,000 megawatts of solar projects over the next two decades – these would replace oil as the main fuel for the water plants.

Perhaps this was what Barker was hinting at when he added: “there are elements of this low-carbon agenda they can sign up to and we need to find ways of bringing people in.”

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