Riyadh draws criticism as it refuses to ‘welcome’ findings of U.N. body on climate change
Saudi Arabia’s refusal to embrace landmark environmental data highlighting the need for drastic fossil fuel cuts is part of a long history of hostility to climate action from the world’s largest oil exporter, delegates and observers at U.N. climate talks said.
Negotiations between nearly 200 nations aimed at charting mankind’s path away from runaway global warming were thrown into tumult at the weekend when Saudi Arabia, along with the United States, Russia and Kuwait refused to “welcome” the findings of the U.N. body that laid out the threats posed by climate change in the starkest terms yet.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in October concluded that worldwide greenhouse gas emissions must be slashed by nearly half within 12 years to retain any hope of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius. That is the safer cap that countries agreed in the 2015 Paris accord, and the COP24 climate talks due to end Friday in the Polish mining city of Katowice are supposed to produce a rule book on how nations achieve this.
Riyadh’s Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih issued a statement on Wednesday reaffirming “the kingdom’s commitment to the Paris agreement.” But representatives of smaller nations imperiled by rising seas alleged that Saudi Arabia and its allies were, in fact, “buying time” for fossil fuels at the expense of the planet.
Ralph Regenvanu, foreign minister of Vanuatu—a nation already dealing with the extreme weather and rising seas made worse by our warming planet—accused the bloc of negotiating the Paris rule book in bad faith. “The Pacific islands, small island states have identified climate change as the single greatest threat to our livelihoods,” he said. “In that context, for anyone to say that the 1.5C report is not the basis of immediate action coming out of Katowice is insulting to us and it’s insulting to the people of the world.”
A Saudi delegation official in Katowice defended his country’s stance and insisted it had “never objected to the science” of climate change. The delegation said on Monday that it believed there were “gaps” in the IPCC report that needed “further research and analysis in order to address” them. Riyadh agreed to “take note” of the report, and indicated it wished to wait for the IPCC’s next major assessment, scheduled for 2021.
Critics counter that a world already dealing with deadly climate impacts cannot afford to delay action that long.
Several sources at the IPCC report launch in October said that Saudi Arabia backed down at the last minute from an attempt to obstruct the U.N.’s climate science panel from adopting the findings. “They wanted to disconnect the science from the political process,” said one source with intimate knowledge of the process.
Some negotiators pointed to IPCC projections showing that greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2020 for 1.5C to remain attainable—as well as the need for massive cuts to fossil fuel use.
For scenarios depending almost entirely on slashing carbon pollution, coal consumption would drop 78 percent by 2030, and 97 percent by mid-century. Oil would decline by 37 and 74 percent, respectively, and gas by 25 and 74 percent. But even a pathway that assumed a huge role for technologies that suck CO2 out of the air saw gas and oil use decline by one third and by one half, respectively, by mid-century.
Saudi Arabia and its allies are “hiding their head in the sand,” said Carlos Fuller, a negotiator from Belize. “They are concerned, rightfully so, that their main source of income is threatened and they need to find a way to ensure they can, at least in the short term, continue their economy and transform it,” he said. “But their timetable doesn’t agree with small island states’ timetable. We have to act now.”
Falih criticized what he called a “sharp deviation” from the Paris goals at COP24 with an “undue emphasis on energy and particularly oil.” The Paris deal does not mention fossil fuels, something green campaigners say demonstrates the influence of big polluters over the entire political process.
The U.S. has already signaled it is withdrawing from Paris, and even as emissions rise each year since the accord was struck there are fears the political will to act is waning. “It’s a make-or-break, live-or-die situation and we would expect, in the spirit of international solidarity, that other partner countries throughout the world would recognize we are all part of one international community,” said Regenvanu.
Observers accused Riyadh of having a long history of obstructing climate action.
Alden Meyer from the Union of Concerned Scientists, who has attended every COP since the first in 1995, said Saudi Arabia and Gulf ally Kuwait “have been problems from the beginning of these negotiations.” He said the U.N. framework convention itself was adopted in 1992 despite fierce protests from the two oil producers. “And at the various IPCC negotiations they have been very vocal in trying to water down the text,” he said. “Their objective all along has been to avoid pressure on fossil fuels.”
Even as the 2015 Paris text was being finalized, Riyadh was accused of seeking to block the mention of the 1.5C target.
Harjeet Singh, global lead on climate change at advocacy group ActionAid, said it was “disappointing but not surprising” that Saudi Arabia was working to “dilute and disrupt consensus” on the rule book. “Saudi Arabia has long been playing games behind the scenes of climate negotiations, aiming to water down the ambition and cooperation needed to avert catastrophic climate change,” he said.
The Saudi delegate told reporters that the IPCC report—called for in 2015—was compiled “in an extremely short time.” He added, “There are great gaps in the publication knowledge. All we are saying is that this is not enough.”
A veteran negotiator said that while the IPCC report was produced relatively quickly, its scientific findings were “solid.” He said, “There are some parties trying to create a breach.”