The first novel I read after coming to the US for the first time as a student in 1977 was The Tomorrow File by Lawrence Sanders. A best-selling science fiction thriller published two years earlier, in 1975, the novel is set in what was then the remote future of 1998, only two years before the end of the 20th century. Like other novels of this genre, it interweaves politics, economics, science and powerful emotions, much as we have experienced in real life in the little more than two decades since 1998, during which time many of the novel’s “futuristic” visions have become reality while others appear to be on their way to realisation. What was particularly interesting to me, as a young student coming from the Arab world, were the parts of the plot having to do with oil.
The substance was not treated as a motor of the industrial revolution, a contributor to the Allies’ victory in World War II or a vital ingredient of human activity ever since the automobile came to define an entire epoch. Instead of a combustible substance that can be used to generate the energy for propulsion, the value of oil now resided in that crucial element of its composition: carbon, which could be converted into food. That quantum scientific breakthrough threatened the interests of the “Seven Thieves” that dominated the world’s oil industry and jeopardised the international balance of powers (The October 1973 War was clearly in the back of the author’s mind).
What actually occurred in the decades since the novel was written was that the story of oil had changed. The oil producing countries came into their own and took possession of their natural resources, and OPEC acquired the notoriety of an all-powerful “cartel”. Whereas once oil and petroleum-based substances lit up cities, drove transportation, helped rescue millions from poverty, fuelled industry and fertilised fields, and helped sustain institutions from universities to amusement parks, it was now held responsible for driving the planet towards extinction because of emissions from fossil fuels. The multimedia image of oil became associated with earthquakes, violent storms and the flight of terrestrial beings to other planets inhabited by ugly savage space beasts.
Fortunately, other stories have emerged as counter themes to that grim tale and to the debate on fossil fuels versus renewable energy. A new outlook in energy related affairs now sees “carbon-based energy” as a planet-friendly contributor to sustainable growth. The Tomorrow File is on its way to becoming “The Now File.”
The idea originates in Saudi Arabia, which is eminently poised to lead the way, being one of the world’s foremost pioneers in energy. Saudi Arabia produces more than 10 million barrels of oil a day and sits atop 267 billion barrels of reserves. It is one of the top 10 producers of natural gas, with known natural gas reserves of over 9,000 billion m3. From this perspective as a pivotal protagonist in the field of energy, the kingdom has unveiled the concept of the economic cycle of carbon. It posits that it is possible to remedy carbon emissions from all petroleum fuel sectors by capturing the various gas emissions, pressurising them and processing them so that they can be reused for energy or other purposes.
The idea, essentially, is to imitate what takes place in nature by generating an artificial carbon cycle based on recycling greenhouse gas emissions and reintroducing them into the life cycle through any number of uses. What this means is that we are on the threshold of a new way to meet the challenges of sustainable development, an aim that is open to many choices and encourages all possible efforts to reduce the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere while simultaneously facilitating global economic growth.
Simply put, the world cannot dispense with oil and fossil fuels in general because renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, cannot meet mankind’s growing energy needs and uses in a world with a population of over seven billion that is on the move to development and progress. Moreover, there are important economic sectors involved in the industrial and transportation processes that cannot easily dispense with fossil energy.
In fact, there are precedents in the recycling of carbon emissions. In 1980, Saudi Arabia began to recycle methane gas, a by-product of oil production, in order to produce a number of chemical substances. The Saudi petrochemical sector gave rise to new industrial cities, generated thousands of job opportunities, spurred GDP and fuelled energy generating stations and desalinisation plants. It is estimated that the recycling/utilisation of methane has eliminated more than 2.8 gigaton of carbon dioxide equivalent from the atmosphere since then.
According to reports from this year’s Future Investment Initiative Conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is in the process of totally overhauling its environmental impact. The kingdom currently operates the largest carbon capture and utilisation plant in the world, turning half a million tons of CO2 annually into products such as fertilisers and methanol. It also operates one of the region’s most advanced CO2 enhanced oil recovery plants, which captures and stores 800,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually. This is nothing less than a revolution in the approach to one of the most crucial contemporary dilemmas: how to realise the right of peoples throughout the world to sustainable development and progress without jeopardising the safety of the planet.
The solution to this problem is to seek inspiration from nature, which plays an important part in eliminating CO2 from the atmosphere. In this spirit, Saudi Arabia is taking other important measures to realise this aim, such as expanding forests, farms and green spaces on land, and seaweed and coral beds in the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf. It is certainly a field that has plenty of scope for expansion at higher levels through regional and international cooperation and, indeed, it appears that Saudi Arabia plans to bring this up in the 2020 G20 Summit which will be held in Riyadh.
Given the available information on carbon cycle applications in the world and Saudi Arabia’s pioneering efforts in this domain, one would think that the Arab media would be more actively engaged with this qualitative shift in how to contend with one of the most important dilemmas in today’s world. There is a widespread impression that the Arabs are perpetual consumers of technology and ideas and that when they utilise them it is not always for the best of mankind. It is high time for such perceptions to change.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
**A version of this article appears in print in the 14 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.