Najib Saab. 15/10/2023

Participants in the Middle East and North Africa Climate Week, which was hosted by Riyadh few days ago, did not debate whether the climate was changing or not, but rather went directly to devising practical solutions to the inevitable challenge. Instead of just casting doubts and complaining about alleged conspiracy theories, the meeting was full of proactive initiatives, especially from Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, which is currently leading a new approach that puts oil at the service of climate action and environmental protection.

The Riyadh meetings showed, however, that diagnosing the problem is only the beginning, as the dilemma lies in agreeing on matters of financing and a timetable for implementation. These still constitute thorny obstacles, the main focus of which is who pays the price, according to a fair division of responsibilities.

The complexities that accompany achieving the international commitment to reach zero carbon emissions by mid-century were evident in the discussions of the European Parliament, days before the Riyadh meeting. Two months after the Netherlands nominated former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Finance Wopke Hoekstra for the Climate Commission, European parliamentarians were still scrutinizing him to ensure his commitment to implement the climate action plan approved by the EU. To pass the test and obtain the necessary votes, he had to make specific pledges, including reducing cow farms in the Netherlands, the main source of methane, one of the most powerful greenhouse gases.

So what are the tough challenges facing the climate agenda of the Europeans in Brussels and the Arabs in Riyadh? Industrialized countries, including Europe, are searching for practical methods to implement their pledge to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050, while they are still reeling from the effects of Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine. Can they actually reduce emissions according to the specified timetable, and where does the additional funding for climate action come from without affecting other services, and will people continue to support climate policies if they come at the expense of the economy and social benefits? Crucially, how will sweeping waves of refugees affect Europe’s ability to finance climate action?

On the other hand, countries that met in Riyadh face a different sort of climate challenges, at the forefront of which is obtaining their fair rights and sufficient support for the energy transition. Developed countries have achieved high levels of growth over the past 150 years, through their excessive use of fossil fuels, namely coal, oil and gas. Therefore, they are historically responsible for most of the carbon emissions that caused climate change, and they must bear greater obligations to reduce emissions, while helping developing countries transition to a green, carbon-free economy, besides financing adaptation measures to face the catastrophic effects of rising temperatures.

Arab oil-producers that were among those gathered in Riyadh, are all developing countries that seek to develop their societies using their oil income, while working to diversify the economy. They should not be blamed or punished because they continue to supply their oil and gas to meet market demand, while they have never been an obstacle to developing renewable sources of energy in sufficient quantities. On the contrary, some Arab oil-producing countries have excelled in clean and renewable energy programs and investments, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Asking them to halt producing and exporting oil carries a lot of hypocrisy, as every time they reduce production they are accused of monopoly. They certainly are not the ones to blame for the failure of industrialized countries to achieve faster transition to carbon-free renewable energy.

However, the emphasis on the responsibility of industrialized countries for ‘historical’ emissions does not exempt other countries from their duties. It is not permissible to punish the countries that led the industrial revolution for the vigour, dynamism and vision of their people in pursuit of progress and advancement. The science, technology and intellect produced by developed countries has benefited all mankind, albeit that the growth process they adopted has exceeded the limits and caused excessive depletion of natural resources. Therefore, billions of people in developing countries and emerging economies should not be denied the right to progress and accessing basic services, as compensation for the excesses of the population in other countries. Rich countries have to place restrictions on uncontrolled consumption patterns, in a way that guarantees fair rights for others.

On the other hand, a country like China, which has jumped to the front ranks of great economic powers, and has become the largest source of carbon emissions, cannot be allowed to continue to hide behind poor developing countries and demand to be treated like Somalia and Nepal, by extending grace periods to postpone commitment to reduce emissions, as if demanding a right to pollute.

There are those who are calling on industrialized countries to launch programs to capture the carbon they have released into the atmosphere over a century and a half. This technology, called Direct Air Capture (DAC) is not yet proven to be a practical solution, and is very expensive compared to capturing carbon at source, where it is produced in fuel burning stations, for reuse or storage, in turn a costly process. However, no potential technology should be dismissed, as meeting the challenges of climate change requires keeping the doors open to all options. What is dangerous is taking the discussion in an entirely different direction, such as saying that if industrialized countries succeed in recovering part of their “historical carbon” from the atmosphere, then they can continue burning fuel and producing emissions. This conclusion is far from reality and science, because even if technology finds a practical and economical method to collect some carbon from the atmosphere and store it safely, continuing to produce emissions cannot be justified. This would be similar to a patient who demands to continue smoking if medical science succeeds in cleaning his lungs of toxins.

While the discussions in Riyadh stressed the need for a sufficient transition period to find alternatives, as carbon emissions resulting from burning fossil fuels cannot be stopped tomorrow, they showed, on the other hand, that planning on the basis that they will remain in use forever is mere denial and tantamount to suicide.

The Riyadh meeting gains its strength from the fact that leading Arab countries are now at the heart of climate decision-making, as they took the initiative to diversify their economies and launch pioneering programs, locally, regionally and internationally. For example, the UAE economy – which is among the largest investors in renewable energy in the world – today depends by 71 per cent on non-oil sources for its income. Saudi Arabia has integrated green economy as an essential element in “Vision 2030”, and championed major afforestation initiatives within the Kingdom and across the Middle East, to help process carbon naturally through photosynthesis. It has also launched projects covering all sorts of renewable energy, hydrogen, carbon capture, and distinctively a huge plant for electric cars.

Achieving climate justice is not easy, in a world governed by political and economic interests. However, the MENA climate meeting in Riyadh laid the right foundation to go to the international negotiations in Dubai with a strong position, as a group that understands its duties, while recognizing its rights.