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Warning over climate impact of Saudi giga-projects

The King Abdullah University report says Saudi Arabia's coastal areas will be most at risk and suggests a range of approaches to mitigate this Neom/Unsplash
The King Abdullah University report says Saudi Arabia's coastal areas will be most at risk and suggests a range of approaches to mitigate this
  • Projects could stress ecosystems
  • Global 3C rise ‘means 4C for Saudi’
  • Call for national study programme

Saudi Arabia’s vast giga-projects could have a damaging impact on the environment if they are not managed properly, a report from a Saudi university has found. 

“While diversifying the economy, giga-projects will increase the number of people living or visiting coastal areas, placing an additional burden via waste generation and disposal, water desalination and energy consumption, as well as add pressure to the overuse of local resources,” according to the report from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. 

“To manage this, it is imperative that such developments proceed in a sustainable manner, so as not to impose further stress on a system already under considerable strain.” 

The King Abdullah University report warned that the kingdom faces significant climate change-related challenges, having so far warmed at a rate 50 percent faster than landmasses in the northern hemisphere. Its vast pipeline of mammoth real estate projects could place ecosystems under further threat, it added.

Giga-projects being built under Vision 2030 include the tourism developments Neom and the Red Sea on the west coast, the Diriyah cultural project close to Riyadh, the Qiddiya entertainment complex and Jeddah Central urban regeneration plan, among others. 

The combined value of giga-project related construction projects awarded in the kingdom last year swelled by 103 percent to reach $24.6 billion, according to a Meed Projects report in February.  

King Abdullah University’s study acknowledges that the Vision 2030 economic diversification roadmap “places a significant value on the protection, restoration and creation of… ecosystems over their destructive exploitation”. 

It recommends the government and other organisations delivering giga-projects make greater investments in research, development and training in sustainable development: “The foundation of sustainable development lies in recognising that the health of the environment, humans and all other organisms are interdependent and connected.”

Marine impact

The report highlights coastal giga-projects as having the most potentially damaging impact on fragile marine ecosystems, and proposes actions the kingdom can take to prevent this from happening. 

They include launching environmental awareness campaigns to instil a sense of responsibility in the public, equipping local governments with the scientific background and resources to manage ecosystems effectively, and offering economic incentives and rewards for businesses that prioritise sustainability. 

“Ultimately, the long-term success of any economic diversification efforts will be inextricably linked to the health of Saudi Arabia’s marine ecosystems,” Kaust said.

Heat dangers

The report explores other ways in which climate change is affecting Saudi Arabia. Because the kingdom experiences hotter than average temperatures – even within the Gulf – if the global average temperature increases by 3C as per forecast from the United Nations and others, “it will likely translate to a 4C change in Saudi Arabia”, the report said.  

Rising temperatures could lead to heat-related health issues, reduced agricultural productivity that impacts food security and increased electricity demand for cooling, with many other cross-sectoral implications, it added.

The study calls for the establishment of a dedicated national research programme to “identify and track” the potential impacts of climate change on different industry sectors.

“The report fills an important gap in our understanding of how climate change will impact the Saudi economy, which is a key prerequisite to further our understanding and guide our adaptation strategy,” said Mohamad Hejazi, one of the report’s co-authors and director of the Climate and Sustainability Programme at King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Centre. 

There are opportunities too, added Yoshihide Wada, professor of plant science and environmental science and engineering at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. 

He told AGBI: “The report highlights opportunities within the agriculture sector, including aquaculture, which is one of the fastest growing sectors in Saudi Arabia, growing at an annual rate of 5 to 7 percent.”

Ecotourism is another, as Saudi is aiming to attract 70 million international visitors a year by 2030. 

“However, these ambitions are contingent with nurturing the environment and ecosystems,” Wada said. “Environmental degradation like heat stress, groundwater depletion and increasing salinity and eutrophication over the Red Sea could impact those economic activities.”

The kingdom aims to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2060 and expanding the low-carbon economy is a key plank of Vision 2030.

A survey of 1,000 adults living in Saudi Arabia by the Serco Institute, published this week, found that 85 percent of respondents agreed the move towards a green economy is “important” for the kingdom’s future.

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