COP21: Saudi Arabia a fly in ointment as countries seek accord

The wealthy and influential oil nation is attempting to frustrate progress at Paris talks

Saudi Arabian oil minister Ali al-Naimi: rejects distinction “between clean and dirty fuels”. Photograph: Jacky Naegelen/Reuters

Saudi Arabian oil minister Ali al-Naimi: rejects distinction “between clean and dirty fuels”. Photograph: Jacky Naegelen/Reuters

 

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been cast as the villain of the COP21 UN climate conference.

“Saudi Arabia is braking on every important subject,” says Denis Voisin of the Nicolas Hulot Foundation. “They’re playing for time, contesting long-term objectives about reducing emissions and decarbonisation.”

Liz Gallagher of the environmental think tank E3G calls Saudi Arabia “the first and primary disrupter in the talks”. Riyadh has so far blocked attempts to enshrine the goal of a 1.5-degree ceiling on the rise in temperature. It would preserve island nations such as the Philippines, where most of the Saudis’ servants come from.

Saudi Arabia opposes statements about climate-friendly investment and refuses to help developing countries fighting climate change. They’ve even asked for assistance which, as Gallagher says, “is a bit rich, coming from the world’s 13th wealthiest country”.

Pakistan as puppet

The country exerts influence over the six-member Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC). When the “Like-Minded Developing Countries Group” decided this week to endorse the 1.5-degree goal, the GCC objected, at the Saudis’ behest. Saudi Arabia uses other Sunni Muslim countries such as Pakistan “to say things the Saudis don’t want to say themselves”, says a highly placed source.

The Saudis are masters at obstruction. They’ve banned the words “renewable energy” from the draft accord. They object to “decarbonisation” and prefer “climate neutral” to “carbon neutral.” Ultimately, the linguistic arguments mask deeper issues over the objective of the accord and who assumes responsibility for fighting global warming.

On the opening day of the conference, Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi called for “emissions-reduction policies that do not discriminate against any of the energy sources”. Climate Action International, a network of more than 950 NGOs, gave al-Naimi its “Fossil” award for saying there should be no distinction “between clean and dirty fuels, a statement that fundamentally undermines what everyone is trying to achieve at the climate summit”.

Negotiating tactics

In an interview with Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker last summer, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres described Saudi negotiating tactics: “They would throw a wrench in here and get out of that room in which the issue was A, then appear over in this other room, in which it was a completely unrelated issue, throw a wrench in there, and disappear,” she said.

The Saudis are defending their livelihood or as the French say, their bifteck (steak). With temperatures often above 50 degrees, they too are threatened by global warming. “Parts of the kingdom won’t be inhabitable, no matter how much technology you bring,” says Gallagher.

“Their outdoor air-conditioning brings temperatures down from 55 degrees to 35 degrees. They do have a vested interest in a good outcome. They want to have a diversification strategy. But they want to do it on their own terms and they don’t want international pressure.”

With the world’s largest oil reserves and lowest production costs, Saudi policy has been to drive down the price of petroleum.

“They basically want to bankrupt everybody and put them out of business so that theirs is the only oil that will be sold,” says Gallagher. “When they talk about the end of fossil fuels, I think they mean everybody else’s but not theirs.”

Anti-Americanism

Alba, a group of left-leaning South American countries led by Venezuela, is also causing problems. They are motivated by anti-Americanism. “They believe that climate change is an imperialist imposition, which is true,” says a veteran negotiator. “And therefore they don’t want to participate in any solution that is also imperialist, where the US dictates how much money will flow, etc.”

The South Americans “can make a lot of noise and they can be very dramatic and it will get a hell of a lot more dramatic before we close on the weekend”, says the same negotiator. “You’ll have people screaming and crying and standing up on their chairs and making flamboyant multihour statements.”

But ultimately, neither Saudi Arabia nor Alba have the economic weight to block an agreement. “The Saudis know the Chinese and the US need an agreement,” says Gallagher. “So they’re not going to bring down the show. What they will do is systematically undermine the quality of the deal coming out of here.”