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One of the key themes for this month’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Climate week in Riyadh was ‘transformation’, yet COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber immediately set about dampening expectations. 

“We cannot unplug the energy system of today before we build the new system of tomorrow,” he told delegates in his opening keynote address. To make “ground-changing progress”, he said, “we must separate facts from fiction, reality from fantasy, and impact from ideology.” The subtext was clear – the energy transition is all well and good, but let’s be realistic about the pace at which it can unfold. For anyone closely watching the exponential growth of renewable energy production, it’s Al Jaber perhaps who’s living in an alternate reality. His assertion that 17 of the past 27 COPS have been hosted by “fossil fuel producing nations” will also have done little to convince the cynics dismayed that the boss of the UAE’s national oil company is presiding over the world’s premier climate summit.

Al Jaber’s comments were echoed in the closing statements by Khalid Almehaid, Chief Climate Negotiator for Saudi Arabia, who proclaimed that “hydrocarbons will remain in the energy mix for decades to come”, while calling for the inclusion of all sectors and industry perspectives to help fight climate change.

With the EU subsequently coming out firmly in favour of pushing for a fossil fuel phaseout at COP – albeit for unabated plants (those not capturing emissions) – the battle lines for Dubai are clearer than ever. Indeed a number of announcements were made during MENA involving offsetting, carbon capture and storage (CCS) and carbon dioxide removal, suggesting Saudi Arabia in particular is determined to explore every option for ensuring fossil fuels continue to play a key role in energy production.

Financial reform key for climate

Away from fossil fuels, Al Jaber stressed the need for a “comprehensive” agenda at COP. He called on nations to double climate finance and ensure “old promises” were met by mobilising USD 100bn a year for developing countries. Significantly, he also called on global financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to reform their mandates to reflect “the climate realities of today”, suggesting there is growing momentum behind the Bridgetown Agenda, led by Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, which calls for fundamental reform in the way climate finance is raised. Sticking with the theme of finance, he also called on the private sector to open its eyes to investment opportunities in the Global South.

Following Jaber’s lead, throughout the week delegates discussed a just energy transition, economic diversification and climate finance, and climate adaptation, while a number of initiatives were announced, including:

  • Saudi Arabia launched its domestic carbon credits scheme, the Greenhouse Gas Crediting and Offsetting Mechanism, which aims to “to incentivise the deployment of emission reduction and removal activities at scale”. The domestic scheme is due to launch early next year and will be voluntary.
  • The country also announced it had joined the Global CCS Institute, an organisation committed to accelerating the deployment of CCS across the world. “CCS is a needed technology that will drive a low-emission transition across hard-to-abate industries,” the Saudi Minister of Energy Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said.
  • Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil and gas company, also announced a partnership with Siemens to develop a direct air capture and storage unit, to be built next year in Dhahran, and a deal with Danish chemicals company Topsoe to build a low-carbon hydrogen demonstration plant.
  • Saudi Arabia also signed a memorandum of understanding with India to establish a green hydrogen supply chain and explore electricity interconnections. Indian Minister for Power and New & Renewable Energy Raj Kumar Singh said his government had set aside USD 2.3bn to invest in his country’s National Green Hydrogen Mission.
  • Saudi Arabia also revealed a roadmap to achieve an initiative, first announced in 2021, to plant 10 billion trees. The programme will be implemented in two phases, with the aim of planting 600 million trees by 2030.
  • Finally, an ‘Empowering Africa’ initiative was announced, designed to build on the Clean Fuels for Cooking programme by promoting cleaner cooking fuels alongside digital health and education initiatives.