DUBAI, United Arab Emirates—One of the world’s largest oil producers, Saudi Arabia, announced Saturday it aims to reach “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2060, joining more than 100 countries in a global effort to try and curb man-made climate change.
Although the kingdom will aim to reduce emissions within its own borders, there is no indication Saudi Arabia will slow down investments in oil and gas or relinquish sway over energy markets by moving away from the production of fossil fuels. Energy exports form the backbone of Saudi Arabia’s economy, despite efforts to diversify revenue as the world increasingly looks to transition away from reliance on fossil fuels. The country is forecast to make $150 billion in revenue this year from oil alone.
The announcement, made by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in scripted remarks at the start of the kingdom’s first-ever Saudi Green Initiative Forum, was timed to make a splash before the start of the global COP26 climate conference being held in Glasgow, Scotland. The prince vowed Saudi Arabia will plant 450 million trees and rehabilitate huge swaths of land by 2030, reducing more than 270 million tons of carbon emissions a year and attempting to turn the landlocked city of Riyadh into a more sustainable capital.
The kingdom joins the ranks of Russia and China on their stated net-zero target date of 2060. The United States and the European Union have aimed for 2050.
In making the announcement, analysts say the kingdom ensures its continued seat at the table in global climate change talks. Saudi Arabia has pushed back against those who say fossil fuels must be urgently phased out, warning that a premature switch could lead to price volatility and shortages. Recently leaked documents show how the kingdom and other nations are lobbying behind the scenes ahead of the COP26 summit to change language around emissions.
In transitioning domestically, the kingdom could also take the oil and gas that it subsidizes locally and allocate it as a more lucrative export to China and India, where demand is expected to grow in the coming years.
“The kingdom’s economic growth is driven by export of its energy sources. It’s no state secret,” Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said at the forum in Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia says it will reach net-zero through a so-called “Carbon Circular Economy” approach, which advocates “reduce, reuse, recycle and remove.” It is an unpopular strategy among climate change activists because it touts still unreliable carbon capture and storage technologies rather than honing in on the phasing out of fossil fuels.
The announcement provided few details on how the kingdom will cut its emissions in the short- and medium term, including when it will peak its emissions. Experts say sharp cuts are needed worldwide as soon as possible to ensure the world has a chance of capping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) as agreed in the 2015 Paris accord.
The kingdom—home to roughly 17% of proven petroleum reserves — supplies some 10% of global oil demand. As Opec’s heavyweight, Saudi Arabia holds tremendous influence over energy markets and can pressure other producers to fall in line, as seen last year when the kingdom triggered a price war that successfully got Russia to curb its production amid a slowdown in demand from the pandemic.
Saudi Arabia said the transition to net zero carbon emissions “will be delivered in a manner that preserves the kingdom’s leading role in enhancing the security and stability of global energy markets.”
Gulf oil producers argue against the rapid phasing out of fossil fuels by saying that a hurried shift would hurt low-income nations and populations that lack access to basic energy. Saudi Arabia also advocates for language that refers to greenhouse gases, a basket that includes more than just fossil fuels.
“We believe that carbon capture, utilization and storage, direct air capture, hydrogen and low carbon fuel are the things that will develop the necessary ingredients to really make sure this effort will be inclusive,” Prince Abdulaziz said of the global energy transition.