Saudi Arabia’s progress in turning its climate ambitions into actions
The world is gearing up for COP27, the annual United Nations climate change conference, which is taking place in Egypt this year. Countries around the world are coming together and are expected to show how they are turning their climate ambitions and commitments into actions.
A year has passed since Saudi Arabia announced its ambition to achieve net-zero emissions by 2060. Net-zero emissions are achieved when the quantity of emissions generated by a country or company is balanced by the quantity of emissions removed from the atmosphere. This balance can be achieved by reducing, avoiding, or removing emissions.
Saudi Arabia also revised its 2030 emissions target last year in its Nationally Determined Contribution. NDCs are essentially climate action plans that lie at the heart of the Paris Agreement, which is an international treaty for tackling climate change that almost every country in the world signed. Parties to the Paris Agreement such as Saudi Arabia submit NDCs to the UNFCCC every five years. These NDCs generally include an emissions target and plans for achieving that target.
In its updated NDC, Saudi Arabia pledged to reduce, avoid, and remove 278 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually, including gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, by 2030. Saudi Arabia also detailed in its NDC its multi-faceted approach to achieving this target, highlighting its plans for energy efficiency, renewable energy, carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS), and hydrogen, to name a few. Saudi Arabia is already making substantial progress in many of these areas and demonstrating its leadership when it comes to implementation.
Energy efficiency in Saudi Arabia provides one of the best examples of successful implementation, having played a key role in reducing Saudi Arabia’s energy consumption and CO2 emissions. Saudi Arabia established the Saudi Energy Efficiency Center in 2010 and launched the Saudi Energy Efficiency Program. Since then, the program has led to numerous actions that have improved energy efficiency across multiple sectors.
For example, in the buildings sector, thermal insulation in new buildings became mandatory, and the minimum energy performance standards for appliances like air conditioners were increased. Financial incentives were also introduced, such as the recent Estbdal program, which allows consumers to replace their old window air conditioner with a new and more efficient unit, with a 1000 Saudi Riyal discount on the price of the new unit.
Other examples of energy efficiency actions include soft loans for energy efficiency in the industrial sector, which have helped reduce the emission intensities of cement, iron, and petrochemical manufacturing. They also include the implementation of energy efficiency labeling for electrical appliances, fuel economy labeling and fuel economy standards for cars, and extensive energy awareness campaigns through various channels.
Renewable energy is also starting to play a rapidly growing role in reducing Saudi Arabia’s emissions. Saudi Arabia is blessed with natural solar and wind potential and has been scaling up its renewable energy projects. For example, there is the fully operational Sakaka project, the first “utility-scale” solar power project in Saudi Arabia, with a 300 megawatt (MW) capacity. This project had set a world record for the lowest solar power generation cost. Another example is Dumat Al Jandal, Saudi Arabia’s first utility-scale wind project. With a capacity of 400 MW, Dumat Al Jandal is the largest wind farm in the Middle East.
Additionally, Saudi Arabia very recently announced five new renewable energy projects. In total, there are currently 17 major renewable energy projects that are either already operational or under development in Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, this number will need to grow exponentially over the coming years for Saudi Arabia to meet its ambitious target of generating 50% of its electricity from renewables by 2030.
The vision and goals set by the Saudi government have encouraged leading Saudi entities to set their own voluntary emission targets. Over the last year or two, Saudi Aramco, SABIC, STC, ACWA Power, and Ma’aden have set targets to achieve net zero by 2050.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s gigaprojects have made sustainability a key pillar in their strategies. NEOM, for example, is targeting net zero carbon emissions by 2030, while Red Sea Global is targeting net zero carbon emissions over the lifetime of its Red Sea Project between Alwajh and Umluj. The ambition shown by the Saudi government, gigaprojects, and leading companies will likely inspire many more Saudi entities to launch sustainability strategies and set net-zero targets.
The areas of CCUS and hydrogen provide excellent examples of Saudi entities spearheading actions toward a more sustainable future. For example, Saudi Aramco pioneered the capture and storage of CO2 to enhance the recovery of oil from its fields. At their plant in Hawiyah, Saudi Aramco captures 45 million standard cubic feet of CO2 per day, which they then transport, pump, and store in an oil reservoir, leading to increased oil production.
SABIC built one of the largest CCUS plants globally, which uses 500,000 tonnes of captured CO2 to produce valuable products. These products include liquified CO2 (used in the food and drink industry), urea (utilized by the agricultural sector), and methanol (a key ingredient in many commonly used chemical products.) Saudi Arabia aims to expand its efforts in CCUS over the coming years, transforming larger quantities of captured CO2 into valuable products.
Saudi Arabia has also been pioneering in producing and exporting clean hydrogen, and the government has set a target to become the world’s leading hydrogen producer and exporter. When it comes to clean hydrogen, two types are commonly discussed, designated by the colors blue and green. ‘Blue’ refers to hydrogen produced from natural gas, a process that generates CO2 emissions, in which the generated CO2 emissions are captured and stored. ‘Green’ refers to hydrogen produced by using clean electricity from renewables.
The world’s first global shipment of blue ammonia was from Saudi Arabia to Japan. (Blue ammonia is an easier-to-transport compound that is obtained by combining blue hydrogen with nitrogen.) Saudi Aramco and SABIC, in partnership with the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan (IEEJ), played key roles in this achievement. As for green hydrogen, NEOM recently announced its green hydrogen project, already under construction, which aims to produce 650 tonnes of green hydrogen per day in 2026.
There are many more examples of actions implemented across areas like waste management and tree planting, but the key message is that Saudi Arabia is taking its targets seriously, as evidenced by the progress already made across a wide range of areas. While work remains to be done, Saudi Arabia has so far been successful in forging a path toward achieving its near-term and long-term climate goals. With the upcoming flagship events for the Saudi Green Initiative and the Middle East Green Initiative, which are taking place at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh this year, we will likely be hearing more about turning ambition into action.
• Anwar Gasim is a researcher in KAPSARC’s Climate and Sustainability Program.