Last week, this column had reported the UN Secretary General’s warning that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatened to derail global action on climate change. Europe’s dependence on Russian gas as well as Russia’s role as a major oil supplier to the global south, including India, has meant that many analysts around the world are calling this a ‘fossil fuel’ war. Barely a week after António Guterres’s warning, it seems that major fossil fuel producing countries are banding together to push back against adoption of Renewable Energy (RE), in the name of energy security.
During a string of international meetings over the past week, Middle Eastern oil and gas producing countries took advantage of rising oil prices and the West’s need for cheap gas to effectively say, “Who’s talking about climate change now?” Those were the words of Saudi Arabia Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman at the World Government Summit (29-30 March) in Dubai. Countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are now pushing back against the UN-advocated need to drastically move away from fossil fuel energy over the next decade.
At the recently-concluded Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Climate Week (28-31 March), OPEC Secretary-General Mohammad Sanusi Barkindo contended that climate action and the role of oil and gas are not “mututally exclusive”. He said that, “oil and gas will remain as part of the overall energy mix. Investments must continue in the oil and gas front.” He added that oil and gas “will continue to account for more than 50 percent of the global energy mix to 2045.”
Another talking point that has seen a resurgence, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine disrupted global energy supplies, is that climate action will take time, and till then the world needs to be pragmatic about “near term goals”. Sultan Al-Jaber, UAE’s special envoy for climate change and also the MD of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, while speaking at the Atlantic Council Forum, said that pro-climate action policymakers are coming round to this point of view. “They are acknowledging that the transition will take time. They are pivoting their policies to ensure that near-term energy security is not undermined by long-term goals. And they have now come to the same conclusion that we came to a while ago, that we need to hold back emissions, not progress,” he said.
All this adds up to a grim change in the international scenario. As it is, emissions continue to rise, meaningful climate action is non-existent, and the effects of global warming are wrecking havoc around the world. Climate science is very clear that to stay within sight of keeping global temperatures from crossing the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold, the world’s governments should commit to not extracting any further fossil fuel sources like oil, coal or gas. This is essentially what oil producing countries are pushing back against.
International energy research has repeatedly shown that any adverse economic impacts of shifting to RE will be dwarfed by the cost of leaving it late. A report in September last year showed how 60% of oil and gas and 90% of coal reserves around the world must stay underground and cannot be utilised if we are to have even a 50% chance of staving off the worst impacts of climate change. It had also stated that Middle Eastern countries, which account for over half of the world’s oil reserves, must keep 62% of oil in the ground. The Russian war and the resultant need for ‘Net Zero’ nations like the US, the UK and the EU countries to keep their current gas dependency going, is now allowing the likes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to steer the conversation away from climate action.