Saudi prince's 'net zero by 2060' goal comes with intriguing contradictions

Saudi prince's 'net zero by 2060' goal comes with intriguing contradictions
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Saudi Arabia, a country that many view, with good reason, as being sand-colored, is going green.  And in the run-up to the climate conference that starts in Glasgow, Scotland, on Oct. 31, Riyadh is leading the race to dominate the headlines. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s effective ruler often known as MbS, announced last weekend at his Saudi Green Initiative that his country aims to get to “net zero” by 2060.

Why 2060, when countries that also have announced target dates, are aiming for 2050? It’s not clear, although some might say that 2060 is an alliteration of COP26, the official name of the Glasgow event. Anyway, Saudi oil minister Abdulaziz bin Salman, MbS’s older half-brother, covered that angle by declaring soon after MbS spoke that he expects the kingdom to achieve net zero closer to 2050.

So the headline achieved its purpose and fewer people will have noticed the climate contradiction in the target. In 2060, Saudi Arabia still intends to be a significant oil and gas producer, perhaps retaining the position as the largest oil exporter. But that doesn’t get an entry in the kingdom’s accounting ledger of emissions. It’s only when the oil and gas reaches its destination, and is converted into gasoline or electric power, that it emits carbon. That carbon counts against the customer country (the United States and others), not the producer (the Saudis).

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People with a semi-decent memory may well be asking what happened to MbS’s Vision 2030,  the plan announced in 2016 to transition the kingdom away from hydrocarbons by … yes, 2030.  Riyadh seems to now recognize an earlier contradiction that was obvious to many. In order to fund Vision 2030, the Saudis had to increase oil and gas production and revenues, rather than cut them back.

According to the Saudi news media, MbS intends to be in Glasgow. Maybe he will go to watch a match of the kingdom’s latest investment, the lackluster Newcastle United soccer team. The net zero announcement was probably establishing his credentials for the trip. It could be interesting: Also expected there is President BidenJoe BidenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden orders flags be flown at half-staff through Dec. 9 to honor Dole Biden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package MORE, who refuses to meet him, a consequence apparently of the belief that, despite denials, MbS ordered the murder and dismemberment of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul three years ago. (When national security adviser Jake SullivanJake SullivanBiden to receive 'regular updates' about Michigan school shooting Biden administration resists tougher Russia sanctions in Congress GOP holds on Biden nominees set back gains for women in top positions MORE visited MbS at the end of September, they spoke for nearly five hours. David Ignatius, in his Washington Post column, wrote: “Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman remains the stress point in the U.S.-Saudi relationship.”) 

MbS has a card to play — possibly. President Biden is concerned about oil prices. As a friend complained, “I filled my tank this week and it cost me more than $50!” The president has said that OPEC should produce more, but there are no signs that the cartel is ready to play with production in a manner that might weaken current prices — over $80 a barrel, with the prospect of hitting $100, perhaps only briefly, not considered ridiculous.

Such logical diplomacy probably will have been blown out of the water by the “60 Minutes” investigative program on Sunday, which featured an item about Saad al-Jabri, a former Saudi counterterrorism chief now living in exile in Canada. Riyadh wants to prosecute him for embezzlement of funds. Al-Jabri complained that his children have been arrested in the kingdom and are languishing in jail, in order to pressure him to return. The underlying reason could be that al-Jabri is close to Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, whom MbS pushed to one side as crown prince in 2017 but still represents a core opposition against him within the wider royal family.

The killer detail in the “60 Minutes” report is al-Jabri’s accusation that MbS sent a Tiger Squad to kill him in Canada just a few days after Khashoggi was slaughtered. It’s possible, even likely, but the story lacks clear confirmation from Canadian authorities who supposedly blocked the team’s entry at the Ottawa airport.

MbS’s alleged dark side may make him an unwelcome participant in COP26 photo opportunities.  It probably also will mean that Queen Elizabeth may avoid him, but the 95-year-old monarch has just spent a night in the hospital so has an excuse to miss the occasion. Also there, though, will be Prince Charles, who spoke at the Saudi Green Initiative by video link. He has his own problems, though. The London Sunday Times reported that his sustainability and conservation charitable foundation has been accepting money from Saudi Aramco, the kingdom’s giant oil company, to the tune of “hundreds of thousands.” The charity says it is “already undertaking a review.”

A net-zero future seems to have some issues to sort out in the present.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.