From the time climate diplomacy began 25 years ago, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) led by Saudi Arabia have played the most consistently negative role. One student of their behavior called them “the worst of friends.” Another characterized Saudi Arabia’s conduct as “striving for No.”
At one of the yearly climate meetings, where the environmentalist group ECO regularly gives out a “fossil of the day” award in mock recognition of the country or group that did the most to impede progress, the members of the Saudi delegation were so pleased at their selection they posed for a group photograph in front of the ECO booth. A member once told ECO that the delegation considered receipt of the fossil awards a matter of national pride and aimed to get as many as possible.
Lately, however, there have been signs of a distinct shift in Saudi Arabia’s attitude toward climate change and effective global climate policy. That raises the question, in the lead up to the international climate conference in Paris at the beginning of December, as to whether a more constructive OPEC attitude could be a significant and positive element in the talks.
One recent development was the submission by Saudi Arabia of its climate pledge—its so-called Independent Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC)—to the United Nations climate secretariat. Though the INDC arrived very late and was quite short, it was to the point and contained some materially important elements.
Under the heading of National Circumstances, the INDC said right off that Saudi Arabia “exhibits a significant vulnerability” to climate change.
Current climatic conditions range from semi- to hyper aridity, with extremely low rainfall…, high evapo-transpiration and resultant water scarcity. In the long term, a significant share of the infrastructure on the coastlines may be vulnerable to sea level rise. Trade and services may also be vulnerable to heatwaves and sandstorms.
Though the INDC does not say so, perhaps Saudi leaders have been impressed by recent scientific reports saying that parts of the Middle East could become flatly uninhabitable by the end of this century on business as usual projections. The disintegration of Syria, which began with a severe prolonged drought, may also have been a factor.
Among other things, the INDC states that Saudi Arabia will launch an ambitious solar energy program, focus a lot of attention on energy efficient buildings, and promote carbon capture and storage (CCS) from combustion of fossil fuels. This is not mere talk. In 2008, for example, Saudi Arabia worked with Norway to get CCS projects included in climate trading mechanisms, so that they would eligible for carbon offset permits. Two years before that it convened an international conference on offsets.
Strategically, the INDC says it will be Saudi Arabia’s objective to diversify its economy so as not to be exclusively reliant on oil, while at the same time trying to guarantee that climate policies adopted internationally will not be too damaging to Saudi Arabia in the shorter run. In other words, Saudi Arabia will continue to resist what it sees as too ambitious policies, but that will no longer be its only preoccupation.
An equally telling shift in Saudi Arabia’s attitude emerged with reports last month of a split among global oil companies over whether to persist with an obstructive attitude toward effective climate policy or to take a more constructive line. Most of the major European companies opted for the more positive position, while the U.S. majors unanimously stuck with their obstructive attitude. Remarkably, Saudi Arabia’s Aramco sided with the Europeans.
On the face of it, Saudi Arabia’s more constructive line ought to translate into better Paris prospects. Through most of the last 25 years, the kingdom has been notably effective in impeding negotiations. In talks that involve almost two hundred countries and depend almost entirely on consensus, there are a lot of opportunities for those “seeking as little progress as possible, as late as possible,” and who would be content with no agreement at all, observed Joanne Depledge of Cambridge University in her 2008 “Striving for No” article.
Saudi Arabia often found support among the G-77 countries—the grouping of Third World states that now includes more than 130 members. In particular, poor country leaders liked the Saudi line that the global South should be compensated by rich countries for any costs incurred in addressing climate change. That led to “complex, time-consuming and otherwise unnecessary negotiations around the issue of ‘the adverse effects of response measures,’” wrote the University of Melbourne’s Jon Barnett in his 2008 “Worst of Friends” article.
The Saudi delegation has always been not only highly determined by highly skilled negotiators, notes Depledge, a former staff member of the UN climate secretariat. Its de factor head, Mohamed Al Sabban, was “renowned for his ability to spot opportunities to push his country’s agenda forward.”
Now, says Depledge, yet another indicator of a new Saudi line has been Al Sabban’s retirement from the scene. Still, Depledge is skeptical about how positive the implications will turn out to be. She believes “the Saudis see that the world is moving toward a low-carbon economy,” and they do not want to fall by the wayside. Yet at the same time they “don’t feel very threatened” because after all, the world is not moving all that fast in the direction of clean energy. What is more, they do not often need to be conspicuously obstructive, because generally they can count on somebody else getting the job done for them—Russia, or Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela, the perpetual dissidents in climate talks.
Still, as Depledge observed in “Striving for No,” Saudi Arabia has represented and embodied in climate talks “the more extreme end of a broad coalition of fossil fuel interests who still oppose any strong action on climate change.” The fact that a country in this position has adopted a distinctly more constructive line cannot be a bad thing for Paris. At the very least the shift is indicative of a sea change in mainstream world opinion about the seriousness of the global warming problem.
Note: The Depledge and Barnett articles both appeared in MIT’s Global Environmental Politics, a quarterly.
Bill Sweet is completing an analytic history of climate diplomacy from 1990 to 2015, to be published next year. He covered the Copenhagen conference and will be at Paris.
A science and technology journalist with 40 years' experience. Currently a history adjunct in the CUNY system and at work on a book about climate diplomacy.