‘A swift transition to renewables would be unfair and cause chaos’

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In a week which saw Nature Communications publish research predicting a 66% chance of keeping global warming beneath 1.5C if the world immediately halts fossil fuel production, the Saudi minister of energy bridled at the suggestion during a speech at Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week.

Khalid bin Abdulaziz Al-Falih, Saudi Arabia’s minister of energy, industry and mineral resources, said talk of halting oil production immediately would cause “chaos” and would unfairly penalize nations that rely on income from fossil fuels.

Speaking at the Future of Sustainability Summit – part of Sustainability Week – Al-Falih said: “I would like to set out a global energy transition strategy that is realistic, fair and above all pragmatic. Balancing CO² emissions and sinks will take decades, [otherwise] we risk chaos.”

In remarks that had echoes of the kingdom’s attempt in Katowice last month to join Kuwait, Russia and Donald Trump’s U.S. administration in resisting the rest of the world’s call for urgent action on fossil fuels, the minister added: “[The change] must be fair to all … it is unfair to curtail the right to economic development of developing nations. Policymakers must be agnostic when determining the future energy mix of technologies.

“Our strategy should be pragmatic however increasing energy demand … can be met over the long transition. And I emphasize long.”

‘Economics and technology – not ideology’

Al-Falih did make encouraging noises about renewable energy, as one would expect at a sustainability event, and said “cleaning the existing energy sources will be key” but, in a snub to environmentalists he added: “[We] urgently need consensus around an energy transition strategy … driven by economics and technology not blind ideology. Make it a reality, particularly when it comes to transformative economic development. If we fail in our mission then all nations, especially the developing and least developed world, will pay a heavy price they cannot afford.”

Saudi Arabia has a track record in announcing grand renewable energy projects, but has yet to enact substantive policy measures to encourage green energy.

By contrast, neighboring UAE has a better record on renewables, and is a beacon for clean energy among Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, through developments such as the massive Sweihan solar project – with a capacity of close to 1.2 GW – and the Shams rooftop initiative in Dubai.

However its energy minister – and current head of OPEC – Suhail Mohammed Faraj Al Mazroui, while less bombastic in his remarks than his Saudi peer, was similarly unprepared to write off fossil fuel exploitation any time soon.

“In the past we said will focus more on oil than renewables, hydrocarbon than renewables, but not any more,” he said at the launch of a GCC report published by the International Renewable Energy Agency earlier in the week.

“Hydrocarbons are not enemies of renewables, we are complementing each other. Oil and gas companies are becoming energy companies. We are in a different world than just looking at one side of the equation – we are complementing each other.”