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Saudi Arabia can make the case for change at Cop28

The kingdom is making steps to protect its young population

Saudi youth celebrate the country's National Day. Reuters
Saudi youth celebrate the country's National Day. The average age in Saudi Arabia is less than 31, making it focused on the future

Earth’s annual environmental health check-up, also known as Cop, is approaching fast – and coming to our neighbourhood. In little more than a week, government officials, global citizens and businesses alike will gather in the UAE for the 28th edition of the UN climate change summit.

Cop28 is making history before it even begins: never before have UN organisers chosen to convene back-to-back sessions in the Middle East.

Their decision to return to this part of the world after holding last year’s Cop27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, underscores the region’s increasingly important role in the fight against global warming. 

While some people may consider the Middle East as part of the problem, Cop28 can show that it is central to the solution. Governments here are laying the foundations for a cleaner and greener future for generations of young Arabs, and the world is taking note.

Saudi Arabia is a vigorous advocate of environmental stewardship. Under its Vision 2030 strategy, the kingdom aims to strengthen and diversify the economy away from fossil fuels. It has committed to generate half of its power from renewable sources by 2030 and aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2060. 

Its strategy for attaining these targets is the Saudi Green Initiative (SGI), which sets out numerous measures to be taken including planting 10 billion trees by 2030 and protecting wildlife in 30 percent of land and marine areas. 

The government is also driving a collaborative regional effort, the Middle East Green Initiative, to combat climate change by creating a cross-border alliance to reduce emissions and safeguard the environment.

Real investment

These aren’t grandiose dreams. There is real action and money behind them.

Subsidiaries of PIF, the Public Investment Fund, are investing in green projects that range from recycling concrete waste to installing many gigawatts of renewable energy capacity.

The SGI entails an initial investment of more than SAR700 billion ($187 billion) in the green economy, while the kingdom has allocated a further $2.5 billion to support the Middle East Green Initiative.

All this activity has a broader significance. Saudi Arabia is by far the most populous country in the Gulf, and it’s the only Middle Eastern member (other than Turkey) in the G20 group of the 20 most powerful economies. 

What’s more, its people are among the world’s youngest.

The median age in Saudi Arabia is less than 31, according to the World Factbook published by the US Central Intelligence Agency. This gives the kingdom a natural orientation toward the future and the planet’s long-term wellbeing. 

Coral reef Red Sea GlobalRed Sea Global
Red Sea Global’s environmental goals in its projects include restoration of coral reefs

My company, Red Sea Global, is contributing to Saudi Arabia’s sustainability efforts. As we create two new tourism destinations – The Red Sea and Amaala – we are gardening and restoring corals to enhance our reefs and planting up to 50 million carbon-sequestering mangrove trees, and have installed more than 760,000 photovoltaic panels across five solar farms. We are also building the world’s biggest battery storage facility. 

We are currently exploring ways to produce hydrogen to propel boats and heavy vehicles, and have formed a partnership with a company called ZeroAvia to develop seaplanes powered by hydrogen fuel cells, thereby supporting the kingdom’s national hydrogen strategy.

Such efforts will help us toward our goal of achieving a 30 percent net conservation benefit across our developments by 2040. 

Saudi Arabia has drawn up a feasible template for achieving a low-to-no carbon future. But neither we, nor the kingdom, can accomplish much on our own. Global partnerships and collective action are essential if humanity wants to halt or reverse the harm from global warming. 

The clock is ticking, and the stakes are rising, and we all need a willingness to accept that we share responsibility for what happens next. 

Cop28 is an opportunity for Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Middle East to lead by example and inspire the world in the battle against climate change.

John Pagano is group chief executive of Red Sea Global

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