Since the turn of the last century, Saudi Arabia’s image and fortune have been inextricably linked with one element. The discovery and exploitation of petroleum transformed life in Saudi Arabia and placed the country at the forefront of the global petroleum economy.
But times have changed over the past two decades. It is recognized that petroleum and its derivatives, such as plastic and petrochemicals, are one of the main causes of global warming, pollution and environmental disaster. In Saudi Arabia, greenhouse gas air pollution shortens life expectancy by 1.5 years, while desertification and dust storms cause $ 13 billion in damage per year.
This grim image is a wake-up call, triggering seismic change across the world, moving away from carbon energy and hyperconsumption towards a cleaner, more sustainable lifestyle.
A leader in energy for decades, KSA is today at the forefront of environmental action. This effort is encapsulated in the Saudi Green Initiative (SGI) – a national program to combat pollution and land degradation, increase vegetation cover, reduce carbon emissions and preserve marine life.
“The Kingdom fully recognizes its share of responsibility for advancing the fight against the climate crisis. Just as the Kingdom has supported energy markets in the age of oil and gas, it will become a world leader in building a greener world, ”said Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, boss of SGI.
After introducing the concept of the circular carbon economy (a closed-loop system involving the “4Rs”: reduce, reuse, recycle and dispose) during its presidency of the G20 summit last year, Saudi Arabia is playing at a new leadership role by hosting the next SGI Forum, to be held in Riyadh on November 23-24.
The forum, in its own words, “will catalyze climate action in a coordinated manner at the regional and international levels. . . bring together heads of state, government officials, business leaders, pioneering academics and environmental specialists. . . and spur action and spark innovative solutions to help tackle climate change.
The event will help define a roadmap that aims to rally the Gulf region and contribute to agreed global goals by addressing climate change, increasing the use of clean energy, offsetting the impact of fossil fuels and protecting the environment.
The SGI is extremely ambitious. Ten billion trees are to be planted in the Kingdom over the next decade, rehabilitating some 40 million hectares of degraded land and increasing current tree cover by 12 times. This is equivalent to four percent of the global initiative to limit land degradation and one percent of the goal of planting a trillion trees globally.
The percentage of protected areas in Saudi Arabia will reach more than 30 percent of the total area – about 600,000 square kilometers – exceeding the global target of 17 percent. Carbon emissions will be reduced by 130 million tonnes thanks to a plan to generate 50% of the Kingdom’s energy from renewable energies by 2030; and landfills – where 95% of waste is currently dumped – will be reduced to just 5% of waste.
In fact, the very notion of ‘waste’ will largely be a thing of the past, as each form of waste becomes the raw material of a value-added product or energy source, in what is a key component of the process. “Circular economy” concept.
SGI will work in tandem with the wider Middle East Green Initiative, which includes all GCC states as well as other countries in the region. The overall goal is to plant 50 billion trees across the Middle East – the world’s largest reforestation program, restoring 200 million hectares of degraded land. The region’s carbon emissions must be reduced by more than 60 percent, or more than 10 percent of the projected global reduction.
While Saudi citizens are accustomed to a comfortable life of big cars and disposables, it is clear that SGI is already having a profound cultural impact.
“I believe SGI will usher in a whole new era for humanity,” Ziyad Al Shiha, managing director of Saudi Investment Recycling Company, a leading circular economy agency, told Arab News.
“We are now at a turning point and this is part of a major shift in the global economy. We are investing in the field, working with companies, small and medium-sized enterprises and with individuals, all that will contribute to the circular economy. “
Greening Saudi Arabia will bring changes in the daily lives of ordinary people and an entirely new mindset. It will be young people, in particular, who will forge a new path away from the habits of the last decades.
“SGI is our government’s initiative for a greener future for Saudi Arabia and the Middle East,” Fatimah Ahmad, executive of the $ 500 billion NEOM mega-city project, told Arab News.
She added: “The KSA is taking the lead to protect tomorrow from the climate change crisis. This is one of the Vision 2030 projects that fascinates me personally. It is an ambitious and crazy dream and I am sure it will come true very soon.
Cynical voices could say that the decline of the oil age and the global transition to a greener way of life will have a detrimental effect on the economy and standard of living in Saudi Arabia.
But Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has a more positive outlook. “We reject the false choice between preserving the economy and protecting the environment,” he said at SGI’s launch in March.
He added: “Climate action will improve competitiveness, stimulate innovation and create millions of high quality jobs. Young people, both in the Kingdom and around the world, demand a cleaner, greener and more inclusive future, and we owe it to them to make it happen. “
The SGI Forum will undoubtedly generate more ideas, greater awareness and practical solutions in the march towards a sustainable future in Saudi Arabia and around the world.