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The Middle East's journey to 50 billion trees

"As a large global producer of oil, we are well aware of our part of the duty in furthering the battle against the climate challenge, and we will act to lead the coming green period as we did in stabilizing energy markets throughout the oil and gas era," – The Crowned prince.

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Trees, with their natural ability to trap carbon from the atmosphere and lock it up as wood, are a simple method to address the climate problem.

At the Middle East Green Initiative Summit at Cop27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman expressed that he wants to plant 50 billion trees in the Middle East, 10 billion of them in Saudi Arabia, to cut global carbon emissions by 2.5%. 

A goal that would need every individual on the planet to plant six and a half trees. The goal of planting trees will be reached through a long-term plan with many parts and work done over many years.

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Combating land degradation and deforestation is viewed as a critical fight in the fight against climate change, with fragile ecosystems under unprecedented strain from misuse and urban sprawl.

Progress is already being made. In the last year, 60,000 trees were planted in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, with 8.4 million trees planted across the country. 

A quarter-million saplings have been grown from seeds or cuttings in nurseries around the World Heritage Site AlUla. The work that everyone does together will help restore important ecological functions, improve air quality, and stop sandstorms.

What is the Saudi green initiative?

Along with the net zero plan, which will see the kingdom rapidly grow its already significant investment in renewable energy, Saudi Arabia will aim to repair, conserve, and manage a billion hectares of land by the end of 2040.

The Saudi Green Program seeks to plant 10 billion trees, which is equivalent to restoring 200 million hectares of degraded land. The goal also accounts for 4% of the global effort to reverse land degradation and 1% of the effort to plant 1 trillion trees.

As part of the plan, 30% of the kingdom, or 600,000 square kilometers, would be designated as protected areas, and efforts would be made to safeguard coastal habitats.

A similar concept for the region is the Middle East Green Initiative. Saudi Arabia will collaborate with other countries to plant 50 billion trees in the Middle East.

The green initiative goals are:

  1. Plant ten billion trees in Saudi Arabia and fifty billion throughout the Middle East.

  2. Reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the Middle East by 60%;

  3. Renewables will generate 50% of Saudi Arabia's electricity by 2030;

  4. Divert 94% of waste that is now being disposed of in landfills.

  5. Increase the percentage of protected areas to more than 30% (including marine and coastal habitats)

  6. Using clean hydrocarbon technology reduces carbon emissions by more than 130 million tonnes.

  7. Zero net emissions by 2060;

  8. The Saudi Green Initiative program intends to bring down carbon emissions by more than 278 Mtpa by 2030.

  9. The kingdom will join the Global Methane Pledge, which is aimed at reducing global methane emissions by 30% by 2030.

  10. Through the initiative, offer food to more than 750 million people worldwide.

Global relevance of the middle east environmental projects 

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This is partly due to the region's obligations to international climate change mitigation goals, such as the 2015 Paris Agreement.

According to the Crown Prince, the kingdom and the region are facing environmental issues such as desertification, which constitute an economic risk.

The Green Initiative seeks to improve vegetation cover, lower carbon emissions, battle pollution, and protect marine life.

Sandstorms alone, he claims, cost the region $13 billion every year, and air pollution is expected to shorten life expectancy by 18 months.

The ambitious programs aim to cut carbon emissions in the region by 60%.

The world's largest forestation project, covering an area two times the size of the very Great Green Wall in the Sahel region, will constitute 5% of the global tree planting target and is set to plant 50 billion trees.

Currently, only 7% of the total energy production in the Middle East is clean. The initiative aims to reduce global carbon emissions by more than 4% by cutting more than 130 million metric tons of carbon emissions.

To cut down on greenhouse gas emissions even more, the kingdom has set ambitious goals for renewable energy, such as making better use of wind and solar power. By 2030, half of the country's electricity will come from these sources.

What the crown prince has to say

"The whole region faces many environmental problems, such as desertification, which threatens the region's economy because sandstorms in the region are estimated to cost $13 billion each year and air pollution from greenhouse gasses is thought to have cut the average age of residents by one and a half years."

"Through the Saudi Green Initiative, we will work to increase vegetation cover, cut carbon emissions, combat pollution, and land degradation, and protect marine life."

As part of the Saudi Green Initiative, the Crown Prince announced ambitions to reduce carbon emissions by more than 270 million tons per year, attracting investments totaling more than 700 billion riyals ($186.63 billion).

Read more on how reforestation can improve biodiversity

"Through an initiative, we will build an investment fund for the circular carbon economy and an international economic endeavor to provide food for more than 750 million people worldwide."

"We are gathered today at this summit to coordinate efforts towards protecting the environment and confronting climate change and to develop a road map to reduce carbon emissions in the region by more than 10% of global contributions and plant 50 billion trees in the region, according to a program that is considered the largest tree-planting program in the world," he said at the Middle East Green Initiative Summit.

Why are these projects relevant to Saudi Arabia?

Vision 2030 is a big national reform plan in Saudi Arabia that aims to make the country less dependent on oil money. One aspect is environmental protection and climate goals, which include shifting energy production away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources.

As the region's largest economy, Saudi Arabia has long sought to be a driving force in shaping the region and coordinating regional responses to crises ranging from conflict to hunger to climate change.

The initiatives will lay out a plan for environmental protection in the country and region.

How has Saudi Arabia historically preserved the environment?

The two green initiatives are based on the kingdom's aim to help protect the world, which was central to its G20 presidency in 2020.

However, it has long advocated for the so-called "circular carbon economy," a paradigm that focuses on lowering carbon emissions and finding ways to reuse and recycle emissions.

The Saudi Energy Efficiency Program, a cornerstone of the country's plan to cut carbon emissions, was begun in 2012.

In the futuristic megacity of Neom, the monarchy is also developing a vast new hydrogen fuel factory, as well as the world's largest carbon dioxide purification facility, with a capacity of 500,000 metric tons per year.

King Salman officially introduced the Circular Carbon Economy National Program, or CCE, in November last year.

Crown Prince Mohammed said at the G20 leaders' summit last year that the CCE "allows for the holistic management of emissions to mitigate the challenges of climate change and advance cleaner and more sustainable energy systems, as well as stable and secure energy markets and energy access."

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How does the Saudi populace feel about it?

Saudis think their country is doing more to make people aware of the environment and is committed to preserving nature and developing in a way that is good for the world.

Marine experts have praised the kingdom's recent efforts to conserve coastal and marine species.

Ghada Kamel, a marine biology student and scuba diving instructor from Saudi Arabia who is 27 years old, thinks that the programs are a good way to teach young people about the need to deal with climate change and protect the environment.

"Since last year, the Shura Council has made the rules and punishments for breaking them stricter. This is to protect marine life." "I hope they keep raising public awareness about everything from plastic pollution to marine biodiversity," Ms. Kamel told The National.

Maliha Alshareef, a Saudi architect, said the kingdom's young people were becoming more aware of environmental challenges.

"In the past seven years, the way people in the kingdom interact with nature has changed in a fundamental way," she said.

"In recent years, people have become more informed about recycling, reusing, and advocating for more sustainable ways to consume and make things." "This started with education in schools." This was not available when we were little.

Parting words

Being among the world's largest producers of fuel doesn't come without consequences; however, the Middle East isn't shying away from the implication of its actions. Billions of dollars are being spent to make sure that the initiative to plant 50 billion trees is put into action. This is, without a doubt, a feat that will play an important role and contribute to solving the global climate challenge.

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