‘False solutions’: scepticism over Saudi carbon capture plan

Kingdom’s Cop27 announcement of new storage hub part of pattern of delaying fossil fuel transition, experts say

Saudi Arabia is bolstering years of negotiation tactics designed to stymie vital climate negotiations with a focus on carbon capture technologies that experts say risk delaying a meaningful transition from fossil fuels.

The kingdom, which is the world’s second largest oil producer, accounting for roughly 15% of global output, announced plans at Cop27 in Egypt for what it labelled the “circular carbon economy”, in partnership with the national oil company, Aramco, which recently reported $42.4bn in profit.

The plan primarily involves the construction of the world’s largest carbon capture and storage (CCS) hub, operated by Aramco, in the kingdom’s eastern region of Jubail. The centre will begin functioning in 2027, said the energy minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, initially extracting and storing 9m tonnes of carbon dioxide a year with an aim to capture and store 44m tonnes by 2035.

While Aramco also highlights steps to reduce harmful gas flaring and mentions scaling up renewable energies, the overall focus on CCS technology rather than scaling down fossil fuel consumption was met with widespread scepticism by informed observers.

“All that was on display was illusions and false solutions that are a waste of time and money,” said Ghiwa Nakat, executive director at Greenpeace Mena (Middle East and north Africa). “We acknowledge the difficulties for an economy that has been over-reliant on oil for decades in letting go of what they see as a golden age. It’s surprising that an innovator like Saudi Arabia should stick with oil when it would do better to make peace with the end of an era.”

Longtime observers of Saudi Arabia’s tactics at climate talks say the switch to promoting CCS follows years of belligerence during negotiations, including aggressive efforts to stymie vital discussions on mitigating the climate emergency, outright denial of the science of human-made climate destruction and efforts to limit the inclusion of findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN body.

The kingdom’s choice publicly to promote CCS at Cop27 signals a shift, observers say, even if some of the same tactics have remained behind closed doors. Saudi Arabia claims it intends to reach its target of net zero emissions by 2060, although the target is reliant on CCS.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shaking hands with Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shaking hands with Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi at Cop27 in Sharm el-Sheikh. Photograph: Bandar al-Jaloud/Saudi royal palace/AFP/Getty Images

Carbon capture is a controversial technology, one scientists say cannot provide the sole solution to the climate crisis. Some fear it provides a way for fossil fuel companies to continue polluting, while others have questioned the viability of CCS at the scale and long-term cost Saudi Arabia and other nations are proposing.

Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 report, intended to diversify its economy beyond oil, which currently accounts for 46% of its GDP, describes an intention to “transform Aramco from an oil-producing company into a global industrial conglomerate”.

While it says the kingdom will aim to produce 9.5 GW of renewable energy by 2030, it adds that Saudi Arabia will double natural gas production – also a fossil fuel.

Despite international pressure on Saudi Arabia at the climate talks to curb its use of fossil fuels, Cop27 followed months of tension between the US president, Joe Biden, and the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, over oil production cuts. Biden vowed “consequences” for the kingdom after a decision by the Opec+ oil cartel to cut production by 2m barrels a day, which Biden called “politicised”, a claim Saudi officials said was “not based on facts”.

The decision to cut oil production marks a contrast with years of Saudi Arabian tactics at the Cop talks intended to find collective solutions to the climate crisis. A former climate negotiator and current civil society observer who has attended 17 Cops, including Cop27, described a decade of experience dealing with Saudi Arabia.

“Saudi Arabia had two major tactics. One was procedure obstruction, which is something they’ve done, and they’re still doing. Because it’s the United Nations system, one country can object and hold up or halt the process, and that’s what they usually do. They either do this through fighting not to get important items on the agenda, or taking them off the agenda,” she said.

The former negotiator said that this followed many years of efforts to “limit the input of science” into negotiations, particularly on discussions on limiting global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. “They normally used a procedural excuse not to put temperature targets on the agenda, saying it’s not part of the agenda or the mandate of this particular body to do that. Or they would discredit the IPCC reports, saying that they’re political.”

She added: “So it’s all about avoiding any mention of science as being embedded in the process and procedural obstructions. They also sometimes do things directly, so whenever you’re approaching consensus on an issue, they just raise something. This destroys all the effort that has been made, when everybody’s exhausted, and they do it at the last minute – or they do it via other countries.”

The Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington DC, which handles the media on behalf of the kingdom, did not respond when asked for comment. Representatives of the Saudi Arabian delegation at Cop27 could not be reached for comment.

Nakat said such tactics had been on display at Cop27. “The Saudi negotiators have put a lot of energy and effort into blocking any mention of the 1.5C warming limit as well as any language around the importance of phasing out – or even simply phasing down – fossil fuels. This is consistent with their historical pattern of blocking an ambitious outcome, most notably on matters relating to emission reduction and energy transition,” she said.

“Saudi Arabia has been complementing its work in the negotiation tracks with its typical flurry of statements around the importance of fossil fuels in the energy transition. However, this year it has scaled up its communication on CCS as the miracle solution that would allow fossil fuels to exist in a net zero world,” she added.

The former climate negotiator agreed. “I think the push to get CCS as an aspect of the energy transition keeps Saudi Arabia in business for a little longer,” she said.


Ruth Michaelson and Patrick Greenfield

The GuardianTramp

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