- Population (2020): 34,813,867 (ranked 41th globally)
- GDP per capita (2021): USD 22,700 (ranked 38th globally)
- Emissions (2019) : 614.6Mt (ranked 10th globally)
- Earth.Org Sustainability Index Ranking: 161st
Pledges & Targets
- Paris Agreement & NDC: Saudi Arabia’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), last updated in November 2015, targets the following:
- To reduce emissions by up to 130 million tons of CO2 avoided by 2030 annually through contributions to economic diversification and adaptation. These ambitions are contingent on the Kingdom’s economy continuing to grow as emissions are being reduced.
- Road to Net-Zero: In October 2021, Saudi Arabia announced a target to reach net-zero emissions by 2060, however, the country is also refusing to scale down fossil fuel production, claiming that the survival of Saudi Arabia’s oil and gas industry is necessary to maintaining global energy supply. The net-zero target only extends to domestic zeroing of emissions, not to fossil fuels exported to other countries. Saudi Arabia’s net-zero goal is largely contingent on the future viability of scalable carbon capture technologies.
- Saudi Arabia has also committed to reduce its methane emissions by 30% by 2030, relative to 2020 levels.
- Clean Energy Goals: Saudi Arabia plans to enhance energy efficiency, increase the use of renewable energies to contribute to the energy mix, establish carbon capture and utilisation to purify around 1,500 tons of CO2 a day for use in other petrochemical plants by 2030 based on their 5-year national development plans, and decide to achieve methane recovery and flare minimisation to recover and reuse hydrocarbon resources and minimise flaring and fugitive emissions.
State of Affairs
After publishing its NDC in November 2015, the Saudi government showed a commitment towards achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. But Saudi Arabia’s economy is reliant on fossil fuel production and oil exports, presenting a significant challenge if the country is serious about relinquishing its lucrative hold on the global oil market and transitioning to renewable energy. Saudi Arabia’s reliance on oil exports as a large part of its GDP makes it improbable that the country will prioritise environmental concerns, should incentives not change.
Saudi Arabia’s NDC aims to reduce average annual CO2 emissions from 600 million tonnes in 2019 to around 470 million tonnes by 2030, a reduction to the tune of 130 million tonnes. Per the International Energy Agency, the primary energy supply in Saudi Arabia almost tripled between 1990 and 2018, and now stands at 213.64 Mtoe (millions of tonnes of oil equivalent). Electricity consumption has also quadrupled since 1990 to 345.05 TWh. These soaring figures have been driven by oil and gas production after the oil boom in the 1970s, making Saudi Arabia responsible for 1.47% of global annual CO2 emissions in 2020. The government has announced a “Vision 2030” policy plan that targets increasing renewable energy capacity to 27.3GW by 2023 and 57.8GW by 2030. The Saudi Green Initiative, which is closely linked to the country’s NDC, sets out targets for 50% renewable energy use in the power mix by 2030, eliminate carbon emissions by more than 4% of global contributors, planting 10 billion trees across the country and raising the protected area to more than 30% of total land area. However, as of 2019, only 0.3GW of renewable energy had been installed. This slow progress on renewable energy installation makes the country’s determination and commitment to tackle climate change questionable at best.
Saudi Arabia obtains 17% of global oil reserves and was the world’s largest oil producer in 2020. As such, more than ⅗ of its national budget, ¾ of export revenue and ⅖ of its 2016 GDP are supplied by oil exports. The government has projected two scenarios in their first NDC for the future of its energy market. Scenario 1 states that continuous non-renewable energy export will generate significant revenue, which can be re-invested in developing the country’s high value-added sectors such as financial services, medical services, tourism, education, renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies to sustain economic growth. Scenario 2 projects that Saudi Arabia’s economic growth might weaken if they plan to boost domestic industrialisation by using domestic oil resources and restricting oil exports. Saudi Arabia would reduce its emissions if oil exports remain high, whereas increasing domestic consumption and restricting exports will increase its emissions. No matter scenario 1 or 2, oil production remains an economic priority for the Saudi government, NDC or not, indicating that without external incentives to do so the country does not envision fully transitioning away from fossil fuels anytime soon.
Despite maintaining an economy highly dependent on fossil fuel extraction, the Saudi government has suggested some alternative contributions to economic diversification in order to reduce its emissions. For example, officials plan to introduce efficiency standards to the building, industry and transportation sectors by 2030, which are responsible for over 90% of the energy demand in Saudi Arabia. The government has also increased its investments in renewable energies, such as installing more solar panels and geothermal energy plants, to increase renewables’ contribution to the energy mix. The government also plans to establish the largest carbon capture plant to sequester and purify approximately 1,500 tons of CO2 emitted from petrochemical plants. Finally, technologies such as gas and methane recovery are being actively considered, and the country’s NDC emphasises efforts to prevent natural gas and methane flares from pipelines and other infrastructure.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia also announced plans to mitigate climate change effects as well as adapt to future impacts. These include plans to safeguard biodiversity on land, seas and coastlines. Water and polluted water management, sustainable urban planning, marine protection and preventing desertification are measures that have been taken to protect Saudi Arabia’s natural environment and those that depend on it. Additionally, Saudi Arabia also announced their integrated coastal zone management planning, early warning system and integrated water management planning. In brief, Saudi Arabia has chosen to protect their surrounding environment with various management strategies.
Climate Vulnerability & Readiness
The ND-GAIN Country Index by the University of Notre Dame summarises a country’s vulnerability to climate change and other global challenges in combination with its readiness to improve resilience. The more vulnerable a country is, the lower its vulnerability score, while the more ready a country is to improve its resilience, the higher its readiness score will be. Saudi Arabia’s scores are:
- Vulnerability Score: 0.390 (ranks 72th out of 192 countries)
- Readiness Score: 0.507 (ranks 51st out of 192 countries)
Climate change has been threatening the Gulf area in recent years primarily in the form of extremely high temperatures. Readings as high as 50°C were recorded across the Arabian Gulf, including Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and UAE in June 2021. A study in the journal Nature pointed out that there will be a significant intensification of summer heat extremes across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in the coming years because “business-as-usual will lead to super and ultra-extreme heatwaves in this region.”
Despite palpable climate change impacts, Saudi Arabia and neighbouring countries have been extracting, consuming and exporting fossil fuels for decades, becoming a dominant driver behind global emissions. The Climate and Atmosphere Research Center also predicted that around 600 million people in MENA will be exposed to ultra-extreme heatwaves by the end of the century. Heatwaves can trigger heat exhaustion if the wet-bulb temperature, which is read by a thermometer covered in water-soaked cloth over which air is passed, exceeds 35°C. This may even make annual religious pilgrimage events like the Hajj extremely perilous because more vulnerable worshipers may suffer from heat exhaustion and heart attacks. In sum, the vast majority of this exposed population will have to cope with these unprecedented severe weather conditions and have to be more determined to slash carbon emissions as soon as possible.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is also classified as one of the most water-scarce countries in the world. The absolute water scarcity level in Saudi Arabia is 500 cubic meters per capita per year. Even though the country has sufficient levels of water access, overconsumption and lack of reliable renewable water sources have been exacerbating water scarcity in recent years. More than half of water resources are consumed excessively and 82% of wastewater is not purified for reuse annually, and Saudi Arabia’s water consumption levels are double the world average at 263 litres on a daily basis. Although Saudi Arabia heavily relies on desalination to maintain water supply, the high operation cost and environmental side effects hinder overall efficiency. Since then, Saudi Arabia has implemented a national program called “Qatrah”, which means “droplet” in English. This program targets reducing per capita water consumption by around 43%, to 150 litres by 2030 and also encourages citizens to raise awareness regarding water scarcity. Besides, this program also aims to modernise the distribution of water resources based on equity and public need. Saudi Arabia’s ambitious plan aims to put the country on a path to alleviate the water scarcity crisis suffered by its citizens.
Water scarcity has made desertification another impact of high concern to Saudi officials. While desertification in the country has been observed for several years, it has only recently begun to have a direct impact on the country’s biodiversity and ecological stability. While agriculture and livestock grazing are not major industries in Saudi Arabia, desertification threatens the long-term habitability of ecosystems for both humans and wildlife if it happens on short enough timescales. Up to 90% of the Arabian peninsula is under threat of desertification in the foreseeable future. If it occurs on a large enough scale without mitigation efforts being put in place, desertification could significantly exacerbate food insecurity and irreversibly damage Saudi Arabia’s biodiversity.
Finally, sea-level rise is a major environmental concern for Saudi’s future. The Middle East and North Africa countries are not exempt from the consequences of rising sea levels as the global sea levels will rise between 20-30cm by 2050. In particular, the coastal tectonic uplift rates of 0.15 mm/year have been recorded by measurements of uplifted Marine Isotope Stage 5 reef terraces at the Gulf of Aqaba. As such, sea level rises may incur a new wave of socio-political instability due to a potential massive migration both within and from the Middle East. Also, rising sea levels threatens the long-term profit margins of the largely state-controlled energy business, because most of the country’s refining facilities are in coastal areas. The CEO of Saudi Aramco, a primairly state-owned public petroleum and natural gas company which controls the majority of Saudi oil fields, has pointed out that “ the southern part of Yanbu will probably be submerged within the coming decade.” In response to this imminent crisis, Saudi Aramco has been collaborating with King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals to create some adaptation measures, including researching whether soil accretion can mitigate the impacts of rising sea levels by collecting core samples from seagrass meadows, mangroves and tidal marshes along the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf coasts. Throughout this research, officials found that only mangroves can accumulate soil quickly enough to tackle sea-level rise, informing potential future policy to mitigate climate change impacts.
Environmental Policies by Sector
- Renewables made up 0% of Saudi’s total energy share in 2017, per IRENA.
- Between 2012 and 2017, the share of renewable energy in Saudi’s renewable energy supply grew by 411.9%.
- In 2017, fossil fuels accounted for 100% of Saudi’s energy production. Renewable energy, such as bioenergy, accounts for 0%.
Saudi’s government is reluctant to adopt renewable energy or relinquish the use of traditional fossil fuels. Saudi Arabia is the world’s 2nd largest holder of oil reserves, possesses approximately 16% of the world’s total reserves and in 2016 was the world’s largest petroleum exporter. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), around ⅗ of the Saudi government’s revenue comes from oil, a market that generated around USD$133 billion in 2016. In addition, ¾ of the country’s total export value in 2016 was generated by the oil market. This lucrative business and all the country’s oil fields are being operated by Saudi Aramco, the world’s second largest oil company and the 14th largest company in the world by revenue. While Saudi Aramco is technically a publicly listed company, 98.5% of it is owned by the Saudi government.
The country’s transition to renewable energy has been slow. In 2016, around 53% of the 266.5 million tonnes of oil equivalent was crude oil and petroleum. On the flip side, Saudi Arabia has publicly announced its “Vision 2030” objectives to increase the use of renewable energy production and achieve a balance in the mix of local energy sources. The country aims to increase the proportion of natural gas and renewable energy sources to around 50% by 2030 with the support of private sector investment and public-private sector partnerships. For example, Larsen and Toubro’s (L&T) Power Transmission and Distribution business has signed a project for a solar photovoltaic plant in the Riyadh Province of Saudi Arabia in April 2021. This solar infrastructure will be established on 30.8km2 of land in Saudi Arabia so that Saudi Arabia can become a vanguard in renewable energy. Meanwhile, the Plan also mentions the use of atomic energy with the strictest international standards related to nuclear safety and security so as to cope with water scarcity and provide more electric power available for desalination activities. Saudi’s government has to balance both existing interests in the oil industry, while also making global commitments to pursue an energy transition in the near future. Its reliance on oil may be difficult to overcome, but its geographic and climatic conditions are considered ideal for certain forms of renewable energy, specifically wind and solar. The country’s geography has been called a “Global Sunbelt” with unusually high degrees of solar irradiation, and Saudi Arabia has been noted to have extremely high potential for establishing a tremendous solar facility.
- The Saudi Public Transport Company has a fleet of over 2,000 buses and carries more than 3 million passengers within large urban centers Jeddah, Madinah, Riyadh and Makkah. 10 international bus routes are used by nearly half a million travelers each year.
- Saudi Arabia encourages road transportation due to its low cost of gasoline, which amounted to USD$0.16 per liter in August 2012. The transport sector accounts for ⅓ of total final energy consumption. New car sales growth is estimated at 6.7% annually. 19% of new passenger cars and commercial vehicles were sold from 2014 to 2019. Private car ownership is 336 cars per 1000 individuals as of 2012.
- The Public Investment Fund (PIF) announced its initial investment of USD$1 billion in Lucid Motors, an electric vehicle manufacturer, in September 2018. The sovereign wealth fund announced that it would “provide the necessary funding to commercially launch Lucid’s first electric vehicle, the Lucid Air, in 2020.” The PIF now in fact owns over 60% of Lucid Motos.
- Vision 2030 aims to strengthen the private sector’s role in transportation as it pushes to diversify its economy. The Saudi Arabian government plans to increase planned government expenditure on infrastructure by 28%, which is from $14.6 billion to $18.6 billion.
- In January 2021, Saudi Arabia also announced its plans for The Line, a futuristic zero-carbon city. The city will extend over 105 miles and accommodate a million residents with 100% clean energy. Neom is a part of “The Line” and a commercial zone based in Saudi Arabia. The Line will preserve 95% of nature within Neom and will have “zero cars, zero streets and zero carbon emissions.”
Saudi Arabia has an ambitious plan to enhance their transportation system and relevant business sector. In view of this, they have been establishing infrastructure to further modernise their economy. Tailpipe emissions from vehicles have been increasing in tandem with car sales growth, which rose 6.7% from 2014 to 2019, most of which consumed low-cost gasoline. In response, Vision 2030 showed their determination to reduce reliance on petroleum and gas business and establish other emerging businesses to diversify their economic structure. Most importantly, Vision 2030 also includes the establishment of futuristic city plans with zero cars, zero streets and zero carbon emissions to contribute to the environmental commitment. People are the central target of this major urban development, as urban walkability is a crucial element in The Line project, which in addition to walkability will also incorporate clean public transit systems, including an ultra high-speed rail and autonomous mobility solutions. Saudi’s Public Investment Fund has also heavily backed EV manufacturer Lucid Motors to support the electric car industry’s future expansion in the country and to underline the government’s futuristic and battery-powered vision. Finally, Saudi Arabia has also emphasised inter-city rail networks, such as the Haramain Express linking Mecca and Medina via Jeddah to resolve traffic congestion and alleviate air pollution caused by high volume of traffic.
- 4.76% of Saudi’s territorial space is protected, as are 2.49% of Saudi’s marine seas are considered Marine Protected Areas.
- Per Yale’s Environmental Performance Index, 84.29% of the Saudi’s population is urbanised.
- Yale EPI ranked Saudi Arabia 113rd in the world in terms of ecosystem vitality, which measures how well countries preserve, protect, and enhance their ecosystems and the services they provide.
- According to the World Bank collection of development indicators, forests covered 0.454% of Saudi’s land in 2018. In 2010, Saudi Arabia had 0Mha of natural forest, extending over 0% of its land area. There are around 2.7 million hectares of woodlands in the mountains of Saudi Arabia and 15 protected areas for biodiversity, covering almost 4% of Saudi’s territorial area.
- Per the Convention on Biological Diversity, there are 93 mammal species, 432 bird species, 9 freshwater fish species, 103 reptiles and 7 amphibians found in Saudi Arabia. Primary threats to biodiversity include overgrazing, overhunting, intensive modern agricultural practices, pollution, habit destruction and fragmentation and urbanisation.
Saudi Arabia currently maintains 15 protected terrestrial and marine areas, and plans to develop woodlands, rangelands, marine resources to preserve biodiversity within the country. However, around 70% of Saudi’s plant and animal species are declining in population size, and ⅓ of them have been listed as under threat of extinction. To reverse this ecological crisis , the Saudi government publicly announced its National Biodiversity Strategy Action Plan in 2008. It displays 17 strategic goals for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, including the support of environmental education and scientific research, the expansion of protected areas and the enforcement of environmental legislation. The Plan also emphasizes that all the official agencies, non-governmental organisations, scientific institutions and local Saudi’s stakeholders will need to participate.
In view of this, Saudi Aramco has been taking an active financial role in the growth of marine life with planned artificial reefs and the practical works have been undertaken by professional scientists from more than thirty countries. Most of the coral reefs in the Arabian Gulf are under risk of disappearance due to excessive fishing, marine pollution and climate change. As such, the first artificial reefs were deployed at 25 sites in September 2015 and Saudi Aramco has deployed around 1000 tonnes of artificial reefs along the Arabian Gulf in 2019, thus boosting the Arabian Gulf’s fisheries resources and creating productive habitats. Saudi Aramco has also differentiated 10 biodiversity protection areas within their private lands, covering 977km2 and assisted to protect more than 500 types of animals and plants. In short, Saudi’s government has been collaborating with private enterprises to maintain the resilience of the countrys’ biodiversity.
- Per the global NGO Earth’s Endangered Creatures, Saudi Arabia possesses 217 endangered species, of which 3 are plant species and 214 are animal species.
- Saudi Arabia has signed and implemented a law on the Humane Treatment of Animals. It protects all animals from its owners and caretakers and avoids any form of inhumane treatment or they would be fined up to SR400,000 ($106,651 USD).
The Saudi Wildlife Authority and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced an ambitious partnership to protect nature across the Arabian peninsula. This 5-year collaboration will aim to enhance biodiversity protection and protected areas management that will upgrade Saudi experience to the global conservation community. Saudi Arabia possesses crucial and unique biodiversity, and is geographically located at the centre of various important migration routes for rare marine and bird species. In particular, there are coral reef ecosystems with excellent condition near the Farasan Island so it can contribute to significant scientific research of coral reefs in the future. As IUCN’s international standards also include the IUCN Green List of Protected and Conserved Areas, this mutual collaboration can let Saudi’s protected areas achieve “Green List Standard” to strive for global recognition. The Saudi Wildlife Authority expects that at least ten Saudi protected areas will enter the Green List as they have been closely collaborating with international standards to rescue threatened species and ecosystems.
Saudi Arabia passed an Animal Welfare Act in 2014 so people convicted of torturing animals could be fined between SR 50,000 to SR 400,000. The Saudi Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture will carefully consider every case of mistreatment of animals at pet shops, livestock markets and farms with a joint committee with several ministers. Animal rights violations include trading in sick and endangered animals, and beating animals with no understandable reason whatsoever. If the Committee received a complaint within 60 days, culprits would be sentenced and fined in accordance with the Animal Welfare Act. Since then, 29 violators of the Animal Welfare Act have been fined for a total of SR 1.7 million in 2021. The violations included selling unsafe animal products for human consumption, transporting animals without full health certificates and mistreating animals by not acconomating a suitable environment for them. Furthermore, the Saudi government has been collaborating with private NGOs, government agencies, commercial sectors and individuals to raise the overall standards of animal welfare and offer education, legislation and support for licensed voluntary associations in Saudi Arabia.
- Per IQAir, in 2020 Saudi Arabia averaged 23.3µg/m³ (micrograms of air pollutants per cubic metre of air), ranking 29th out of the 106 countries and territories where data was collected.
- Saudi Arabia has twice the PM2.5 concentration of the WHO exposure recommendation. This implies that Saudi Arabian people are living in a place with moderate air quality.
- In 2019, Saudi Arabia had on average 1.5 to 1.8kg of waste per capita daily while the country generated around 15 million tons of solid waste annually.
According to the World Health Organisation, Saudi Arabia has unsafe air quality as the country’s annual mean concentration of PM 2.5 is 88 µg/m³, which exceeds the recommended maximum of 10 µg/m³. Vehicle and industrial emissions are the main factors of Saudi’s air pollution because an ambitious urbanisation plan exacerbates air and water pollution due to unprecedented levels of energy consumption. The consumption of fossil fuels is tremendous as Saudi Arabia has a luxurious standard of living and plenty of oil resources. For instance, the Saudi government subsidises energy use so this encourages wasteful energy practices. As of 2014, energy subsidies accounted for USD$43 billion each year. Dust storms also worsen Saudi’s air quality because the level of seasonal pollution is extremely high from March to May. In short, both natural and human-caused pollution contribute to Saudi’s poor air quality.
Oil production is the biggest culprit of ambient pollution in Saudi Arabia. As one of the largest oil exporters in the world, oil production-associated incidents such as hydraulic fracturing, oil spills and air pollution are relatively common occurrences in the country. For example, the Gulf War oil spill badly damaged Saudi’s marine ecosystems in 1991 and has since continued to cause ecological problems. Saudi Arabia has demonstrated a commitment to mitigate impacts through their waste management targets contained within Vision 2030. These are targeting for all Saudi’s municipal solid waste, ⅗ of its construction waste and 85% of industrial waste to be diverted from landfill. What is more, Saudi Arabia has a high waste-to-energy potential, a process by which mostly organic waste can be combusted and turned into usable energy. 250-300 tons of garbage can produce around 3-4 MW of electricity, providing an outlet for Saudi’s heavy waste quotas.