COP 21

In last days of climate talks, Saudi Arabia not the only spoiler

Sébastien Seibt | Saudi Arabia has been accused of acting as a spoiler in high-stakes COP21 climate talks in Paris

As representatives from 195 countries rush to deliver a climate-saving accord before the end of the COP 21 negotiations on Friday, Saudi Arabia has been accused of standing in the way of an agreement.


Saudi Arabia is the world's largest oil exporter, so it might come as no surprise that Riyadh would object to a deal that would drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions.

“Here (in Paris), they are blocking on pretty much every topic," Pascal Canfin, an analyst at the Washington-headquartered World Resources Institute told AFP. "For a long time, Saudi Arabia was not on the front line in these negotiations."

No single country has veto power at the Paris talks, but without broad consensus the COP 21 accord would have little weight.

Saudi Arabia is the largest Arab economy, and has often tried to position itself as a representative for all Arab nations at the Paris talks, according to Safa Al Jayoussi, spokesman for the Arab environmental activists IndyAct.

This creates a false sense of Arab unity against climate progress, and distorts the positions of nations like Morocco and Jordan, which are committed to expanding renewable energies, said Al Jayoussi.

‘Everything to lose’

Oil income accounts for more than 90 percent of public revenues in Saudi Arabia. The Paris accords seek to limit global warming to a maximum of 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) over pre-Industrial Revolution levels, which would mean a monumental shift away from the fossil fuels on which Saudi Arabia is so dependent.

On stage at the Paris climate conference, Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi called for "emission reduction policies that do not discriminate against any of the energy sources".

"That means 'you must not target fossil fuels', which is an unthinkable thing to say on stage just when the international community is trying to find ways to move away from them," said Celia Gautier of the Climate Action Network, a coalition of NGOs.

"They have everything to lose and not a lot to win”, said ActionAid climate campaigner Harjeet Singh to AFP.

Spoilers on both sides of the debate

Despite Saudi Arabia’s reputation as a spoiler, many countries at the Paris talks continue to resist consensus, but not all for the same reasons. In fact, the biggest divisions at COP 21 continue to be among countries that agree on the principle of capping global warming, but can’t agree on what the cap should be.

Venezuela, which relies on oil for half of its economic output, "is in the same situation (as Saudi Arabia)," Gautier said. "They refuse to use the word decarbonisation (eliminating carbon gas emissions from the world economy)" in the Paris agreement, she added.

But the Alliance of Small Island States (Aosis), representing many nations most vulnerable to climate change, objects to the current version of the accord because it won’t go far enough. They want to limit warming to no more than 1.5° Celsius (2.5° Fahrenheit) over pre-Industrial Revolution levels.

Meanwhile several big polluters, such as the United States, China and India, prefer a ceiling of 2° Celsius, which would allow them to burn fossil fuels for a while longer.

In a more than three hour-long session on Wednesday night, a host of nations stepped up to voice entrenched positions they warned could derail the effort.

"Many options cross our red lines," Luxembourg negotiator Carole Dieschbourg, representing the European Union, told other delegates.

After nine days of tense negotiations, French Foreign Minister and conference host Laurent Fabius released a draft Wednesday of the final accord to be used as the basis for a frenetic final 48 hours of talks.

"I am convinced we can reach a deal but to do so we must unite our forces and set our compass on the need for compromise," Fabius told delegates on Thursday.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning