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Saudi Arabia Is Trying to Block Climate Deals at COP28

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The world’s leading oil exporter has become the biggest roadblock to progress at the United Nations climate summit. It seems that Saudi Arabia is staunchly opposing any deal to phase out fossil fuels, even as rising temperatures fuel disasters across the planet.

Inside closed negotiating rooms, Saudi diplomats are accused of slow-walking and using delay tactics to block any agreement on ending oil, gas and coal, with European officials saying that Saudi Arabia is pressuring the UAE, the climate summit’s host.

It’s a fossil fueled fight against the global push to combat climate change. Can the kingdom chart a new course away from its oil dependence and toward a renewable future?

One thing is for sure – the clock is ticking as the planet burns.

Saudi Arabia has emerged as the main impediment to progress on phasing out fossil fuels at the UN climate change summit, COP28. According to insiders at the talks in Dubai, the kingdom has taken an uncompromising stance against any global deal to end oil, gas and coal use in efforts to curb rising temperatures.

As the world’s top oil exporter, Saudi officials have forcefully opposed language in negotiations aimed at transitioning away from fossil fuels.

The Saudi delegation has also strongly opposed a proposal, supported by at least 118 nations, to triple the world’s renewable energy capacity by 2030.

According to Germany’s climate envoy, Jennifer Morgan, the staunch opposition mounted by oil-exporting nations against a COP28 agreement phasing out fossil fuels demonstrates a sense of “panic.” The full-scale resistance reflects a panicked response to the prospect of ending oil and gas use.

As officials met for UN climate talks last week, OPEC urged its oil-rich members like Saudi Arabia to reject any deal to cut fossil fuel output. This sparked heated debate as negotiators tried finishing an agreement.

But to Jennifer Morgan of Germany, OPEC’s appeal was an admission that these talks threaten the oil industry’s very existence. It showed the oil cartel senses the existential danger to its business from potential deals to slash production.

“They obviously felt they needed to engage,” Morgan said to reporters. “Whether it was a bit of panic, whether it was a bit of realization of how far the discussions are. That’s my take on that.”

The push to phase out fossil fuels is emerging as one of the most controversial matters at COP28, as the summit is occurring in an area that contains major oil and gas exporting countries.

With the climate talks nearing their conclusion, officials are striving to agree on language supported by the nearly 200 participating nations. And it’s up to the UAE to find consensus.

Draft text presented over the weekend proposed a pledge to “phase out” fossil fuels in various forms.

However, it’s clear that Saudi Arabia has no intentions of “phasing out” anything.

According to numerous sources who observed the closed-door negotiations, Saudi diplomats have been especially adept at obstructing and delaying the talks through crafty procedural tactics. For instance, they have added language to draft agreements that other nations see as unacceptable. They have also slow-rolled provisions intended to aid vulnerable countries in adapting to climate change effects.

Other obstructionist techniques have included staging theatrical walkouts from side meetings and point-blank refusing to meet with negotiators pushing for a fossil fuel phaseout. Through these maneuvers, the Saudis have managed to frustrate and slow momentum toward a deal. Those familiar with the closed-door talks describe the Saudi delegation as executing a savvy playbook to impede progress on ending fossil fuel use.

The Saudi resistance holds great importance because UN rules mandate that any climate deal must have full consensus from all 198 nations involved. This means any single country can block an agreement from being reached.

Saudi Arabia is actually not the only nation voicing worries about ambitious worldwide climate action. The United States has tried to add qualifiers and conditions to any fossil fuel phaseout language. India and China have resisted directly targeting coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, for elimination. Iran and Russia have advocated for provisions to safeguard natural gas interests.

Additionally, many countries like Iraq have expressed concern that ending oil and gas could affect nations reliant on fossil fuel income, calling for increased aid from wealthier countries.

However, among all these voices, Saudi Arabia has distinguished itself as the most unmoving and uncompromising opponent of any deal whatsoever involving fossil fuel elimination. The Saudis have staked out the most hardline position against a phaseout agreement compared to other skeptical nations.

According to a former UN climate advisor observing the talks, most countries differ on how quickly to phase out fossil fuels. But Saudi Arabia won’t even entertain discussion about ending oil and gas use whatsoever, claiming that Saudi Arabia “ doesn’t even want to have the conversation.”

If agreed to in Dubai, a fossil fuel phaseout – or even phase down – would mark an historic breakthrough. Past UN climate summits have shied away from even mentioning “fossil fuels,” let alone contemplating their elimination.

However, dynamics appear to have shifted this year, the hottest on record. A coalition led by small island nations, acutely vulnerable to climate change’s threats, seeks a formal pledge pronouncing the era of coal, oil and gas nearing its end. Bolstered by Europe, they have made this their prime objective at COP28.

Debate has been fiercely contentious. The oil-flush Gulf in particular seems to view any challenge to fossil fuels, the bountiful resource underlying their governments’ wealth and power, as an existential crisis equal to climate change itself. To these petrostates, the prospect of winding down oil and gas poses a mortal threat.

Thus, momentum toward a once unthinkable fossil fuel phaseout deal has collided with grim resistance from interests profoundly vested in perpetuity of the status quo. A historic opportunity beckons, but faces formidable adversaries.

Last week, the secretary-general of OPEC, Haitham al-Ghais, urged member countries to reject any deal targeting fossil fuels. He said it was unacceptable for “politically motivated campaigns” to risk their people’s prosperity.

Saudi Arabia has a major sway in OPEC. Its energy minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, stated Saudi Arabia would “absolutely not” support phasing down or out fossil fuels.

The UAE, also a major oil producer, has a more flexible stance than neighbor Saudi Arabia. UAE’s Sultan Al Jaber says moving beyond fossil fuels is “inevitable” but must be gradual.

Saudi Arabia and some oil companies want to focus on emissions, not fossil fuels. They argue carbon capture can allow continued oil and gas use.

But most leaders and activists say replacing fossil fuels with clean energy is the best way to cut emissions. Carbon capture has limited uses. As the EU climate action commissioner says, “We cannot CCS ourselves out of the problem.”

Inside the talks, things are very contentious. Sources describe Saudi diplomats using delay tactics – giving long speeches, arguing the Paris Agreement only mentioned emissions cuts not energy sources.

In short, Saudi Arabia is staunchly obstructing progress on phasing out fossil fuels, through both stubborn rhetoric and shrewd procedural maneuvers. The kingdom appears committed to blocking any global shift away from oil and gas.

Saudi Arabia has long impeded progress at international climate negotiations. In fact, one of the reasons that the UN climate body operates by consensus in the first place is due to the kingdom insisting on consensus rules enabling any country to veto a deal way back at the inaugural 1992 climate summit. They have staunchly defended this obstructionist provision ever since.

The Saudis’ pattern of sabotage extends decades. Their obstruction has forced the UN process to crawl along at an excruciatingly slow pace. Riyadh has continually thrown up roadblocks, refusing to budge on anything perceived as compromising its oil interests.

Saudi Arabia’s delegation has many from the Energy Ministry, linked to oil giant Aramco. Last year, Saudi Arabia and Russia tried removing “human-induced climate change” from a UN document, denying the science that burning fossil fuels causes climate change.

Similarly, COP28’s president, UAE’s Sultan Al Jaber, has said that there is no scientific basis for phasing out fossil fuels to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius, according to reports.

Saudi officials argue ending fossil fuels is unrealistic, calling it moral grandstanding by countries that can’t meet their own climate pledges. Frustrated Saudis point out US oil production is rising, and Europe turned back to coal during the Ukraine energy crisis.

In 2021, Saudi’s energy minister dismissed the International Energy Agency’s net zero emissions plan as fantasy, comparing it to a “La La Land” sequel.

Despite efforts to diversify, Saudi Arabia still relies heavily on fossil fuel revenue to sustain its economy, budget, and political stability. After decades trying to break the “resource curse,” the kingdom remains highly dependent on oil and gas income.

However, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is spending billions to diversify Saudi’s economy into areas like renewables, tourism, and AI. Paradoxically, Saudi needs oil money to fund moving beyond oil. Officials expect budget shortfalls as oil revenue declines.

Saudi officials claim no contradiction between pursuing renewable energy and climate action while continuing oil exports. They argue oil is still needed globally, if not for energy then petrochemicals.

At COP28, Saudi’s exhibit proclaims “Here we write the future” with green lettering and flashy projections of desert forests and eco-business. This projects a message of a new, green Saudi Arabia.

But the question is whether Saudi negotiators inside are ready to move beyond old positions of obstructing climate action and defending oil. The diplomatic stance remains at odds with the external climate-friendly messaging.

As the world marches forward in the fight against climate change, time will only tell whether all nations will comply.

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