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Saudi Arabia’s Quantum Leap to Green Era

Saudi Arabia’s Quantum Leap to Green Era

Monday, 12 April, 2021 - 04:15
Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment & Development magazine

With the launch of its green initiative, Saudi Arabia assumes a long-awaited role as a key player in environmental protection and climate change. The country, which has been the mainstay of global energy stability for decades, is now assuming a new role as leader in the fight to reduce carbon emissions, the main cause of climate change. The two-pronged initiative, Green Saudi Arabia and Green Middle East, recognizes the close interconnectedness of environmental action at the local, regional and global levels, being common challenges which go beyond borders. Through this wide-ranging initiative, Saudi Arabia goes beyond joining international endeavors and commanding its position as part of the solution, to being a full partner in creating solutions.


The initiative's goals are not limited to reducing carbon emissions from new activities, but exceed that to putting forward a practical plan to reduce existing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, through absorption and assimilation into forests and the marine environment. Programs to plant 10 billion trees have been announced, which is equivalent to rehabilitating 40 million hectares of Saudi land, and increasing green areas by 12 times. This is accompanied by programs to treat wastewater to be used efficiently in irrigation, so that not a drop is wasted, protection and development of coastal and marine ecosystems to serve as carbon sinks, in addition to their role in improving coastal water quality, and as a shield against storms, floods and sea level rise.


As the initiative seeks joint programs with neighboring countries, including planting an additional 40 billion trees, rationalizing the management of natural resources and curbing pollution, the Saudi leadership began discussions on the second day of launching its initiative, with Arab and foreign heads of state, to explain its components and objectives and to agree on cooperation programs to implement them. This immediate follow-up gave a clear signal that we are witnessing the birth of serious action, and not a public relations bubble.


The green initiative is based on the principles of green economy, which is meant to achieve the largest amount of development that benefits everyone, while using the least amount of natural resources, and also cutting waste and pollution. This is the essence of sustainable development, which secures the needs of the present population, while preserving the right of future generations to a decent life, where enough natural resources needed for quality survival are available.


A 2011 report of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) entitled Green Economy- Sustainable Transition in a Changing Arab World, launched the new concept at the regional level. It examined the benefits of adopting green economy principles and the requirements for green transition in eight sectors: energy, water, food production, industry, transport and communications, cities and buildings, waste management, and tourism. The report found that greening these sectors, by securing a healthy balance between environment and development, yields great benefits that go beyond protecting the environment. Such an approach guarantees the rationalization of the use and regeneration of natural resources, in order to ensure their continued availability as an inevitable component of the economy. It also reduces carbon emissions, thus contributing to combating climate change. Above all, the shift to a green economy creates millions of new jobs. At the time the report was presented, AFED was accused of promoting measures under the guise of green economy that place restrictions on the carbon emissions and impose constraints on the use of fossil fuels, thus hindering economic growth.


The Saudi Green Initiative comes as a firm response that takes objective facts and global changes into consideration, to build a balanced and diversified economy that preserves the right of future generations to a decent life. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman addressed the skeptics with precise words expressing clarity of vision, by saying: “We reject the misguided choice between preserving the economy or protecting the environment. We believe that working to combat climate change enhances competitiveness, sparks innovation and creates millions of new jobs.”


This green trend does not come from vacuum, but is a continuation of a radical shift in development policies that began with the Saudi Vision 2030, a comprehensive strategy that was embraced in 2016. One of its recent results was introducing the Circular Carbon Economy initiative at the G-20 summit, which was hosted in Riyadh in November 2020. Whereas the traditional concept of circular economy is based on managing resources by adopting the 3R tripartite of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, the new initiative introduced carbon into the circular process and made it a 4R quadruple by adding a fourth stage, Recover.


The introduction of carbon management into the equation represents a realistic view, as fossil fuels, especially oil and gas, will remain part of the energy mix over the few coming decades, making it imperative to find ways to control their harmful emissions. The concept of the circular carbon economy is based on reducing the quantities of carbon emitted at the sources of production and consumption, and capturing what is left before it is emitted into the atmosphere, to be used in clean industrial processes to produce other useful materials, or to store safely. What is new in the initiative is working on recovering the excess amounts of carbon in the atmosphere, by absorbing it naturally in forests and marine ecosystems. The Saudi initiative pledged sizeable support to develop functional carbon capture and storage technologies.


The significance of the initiative is evident in the scientific research led by King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in the areas of carbon capturer, reuse and storage, as well as other research in clean and renewable energy. The initiative is notable in that it goes beyond generalities to adhering to specific targets and deadlines. In addition to the ten billion trees, the initiative includes raising the proportion of protected areas to 30 percent of Saudi Arabia, contributing more than 4 percent to the global share to reduce carbon emissions, reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills by 94 percent, generating half of the electrical needs from renewable energy sources by 2030 and reducing carbon emissions from oil production by 60 percent.


As Saudi Arabia has contributed over the past decades to global development efforts by maintaining the stability of oil supplies, in parallel with bringing hundreds of millions of people out of energy poverty, it is now admitting its share of responsibility to protect the environment and combat climate change. The Saudi Crown Prince clearly expressed this when he asserted that “As a leading global oil producer, we are fully aware of our responsibility in advancing the fight against the climate crisis. Just as we played a leading role in stabilizing energy markets during the oil and gas era, we will work to lead the coming green era... Today, the new generation in the Kingdom and the world demands a cleaner and more sustainable future, and we owe it to them to do so.”


For people like us, who work in the domain of environment and sustainable development, we cannot add to this declaration, because it represents the ultimate change that we have aspired to. When ideas and recommendations are transformed into national policies, we can only applaud, support, and anticipate with hope.


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