Can Saudi Arabia Drill Its Way to a Greener Future?

Can Saudi Arabia Drill Its Way to a Greener Future?
King Salman of Saudi Arabia and China’s president, Xi Jinping, arrive for a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, China, March 16, 2017 (Lintao Zhang pool photo via AP).

As the worldwide movement to combat climate change gets underway in earnest following the 2015 Paris Agreement, oil-rich Saudi Arabia finds itself in an awkward position. The world’s largest producer of fossil fuels, the kingdom needs to pump ever-increasing amounts of oil to support a rapidly expanding population in a new era of relatively low global oil prices. But the hot, arid country is one of the most vulnerable to the effects of rising temperatures. There is the distinct possibility that if the emission goals of the Paris Agreement are not met, some areas of the Arabian Peninsula, including Mecca, may become so hot that they are uninhabitable by the end of the century.

Saudi Arabia’s situation is reflected in its approach to regulating and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. While most countries focus on scheduled fossil fuel cutbacks and the development of renewable energy, the kingdom’s climate policy for the short and medium terms still centers on producing more fossil fuels. Indeed, from 2014 to 2016, Saudi Arabia flooded the oil market in an attempt to undercut U.S. shale producers and maintain its global dominance.

This counterintuitive approach simply reflects the limited short-term options available to Saudi policymakers. The country is facing a rapidly closing window to establish a path of long-term sustainable growth that isn’t dependent on oil. But paradoxically, for now, more oil-financed investments may be the country’s best option to diversify its economy so it can ultimately survive, and hopefully thrive, while emitting fewer greenhouse gases.

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