A bridge to where? Gulf states in denial over climate goals

Saudi Arabia plans to ramp up clean energy investment and Qatar touts gas as a transition fuel, but officials struggle to see the fossil-free endgame

A 100MW solar thermal plant in Abu Dhabi (Flickr/Masdar Official)

A 100MW solar thermal plant in Abu Dhabi (Flickr/Masdar Official)

By Megan Darby

Saudi Arabia expects to ramp up clean investment to 80% of its total energy spend in the medium to long term.

So delegates heard at a Chatham House event in London on Tuesday, with economic diversification away from oil production across the Middle East a running theme.

Analysts argued it was in the region’s interests to slash energy waste and go large on solar. Qatar’s energy minister touted its huge gas supplies as a low carbon alternative to coal.

Following last month’s UN climate pact in Paris, said Mohammed bin Saleh Abdulla Al-Sada, “I for one can’t see any potential candidate to bridge or take us to a decarbonised future energy source but natural gas.”

There was little attempt to engage with the endgame of that transition, however: a fossil free economy.

“Oil is going to be here for a long time and it is a blessing for us,” said one speaker, who cannot be identified under the Chatham House rule.

Report: Paris climate pact spells slow death for fossil fuels

Under the Paris agreement, 195 countries agreed to hold global warming “well below 2C” and “pursue efforts” for a tighter 1.5C limit. That means phasing out fuel use that generates greenhouse gas emissions in the second half of the century.

Scientists at UCL estimate 38% of oil reserves and 61% of gas in the Middle East is unburnable under a 2C cap. Little wonder Gulf states are threatened by the prospect of emissions curbs worldwide.

At home, with the self-styled Islamic State on the doorstep and budgets squeezed, it is easier to see the case for green measures.

Every barrel of oil saved domestically – whether by improved efficiency, a shift away from energy intensive industry or switch to solar – means more for export.

Kuwait is the latest Gulf state to flag fuel price hikes – an austerity measure with positive side-effects for the climate.

Beyond oil: Petropower Saudi Arabia signals end of era

Contributions to the Paris deal suggest climate concern is not a driving force for policy, but wrapped into the wider reform agenda.

Roula Majdalani, sustainable development expert for Western Asia at the UN, said Arab negotiators played a positive role in the talks.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Chatham House conference, she told Climate Home: “Definitely there is greater awareness. There is also a lot of capacity in using, engaging and mastering the narrative about climate change.”

Diplomats from the region have preferred to focus on adaptation to climate impacts than the more contentious carbon-cutting theme.

Heat levels could become intolerable in the Persian Gulf by the end of the century on current trends, scientists have warned.

And a five-year drought, made more likely by global warming, is seen as a factor in the ongoing Syrian conflict.

“The drop in oil prices was a big factor in thinking very seriously about reform,” said Majdalani. “The other factor was geopolitics and security.”

Clean energy – with Saudi Arabia targeting 16 nuclear plants and 41GW of solar – helps to reconcile the region’s interests with global carbon-cutting goals.

But to really get on board with the climate agenda, Middle Eastern petropowers need to plan for the end of oil.

Read more on: Fossil Fuels | Middle East | Renewables