A sunrise over mountains. Wild animals running free. A field of pristine solar panels. These are the images at the top of a slickly produced promotional video for the Saudi Green Initiative, which pledges bold vision and leadership in the fight against climate change. It seems every country and company is airing similar greenwashing videos, never mind their lagging tangible action. But in the case of Saudi Arabia, viewers might find the video especially galling: Is a country that has made itself virtually synonymous with oil really going to lead the world out of the fire?
Not likely, according to reporting by the UK-based Centre for Climate Reporting (CCR), which on the eve of the COP28 climate talks in the United Arab Emirates uncovered a massive, multipronged strategy by Saudi Arabia to artificially boost fossil fuel demand for years to come. Known publicly as the Oil Sustainability Program, the strategy comprises everything from fast-tracked gas-guzzling supersonic commercial airliners to development projects in Asia and Africa—new roads, new airports, a deluge of low-cost cars—designed to hook emerging economies on Saudi oil.
Covering Climate Now spoke recently with Lawrence Carter, CCR’s founder and director and one of the reporters on the story. He shared his team’s approach to investigations like this and what reporters everywhere should make of leaders’ dubious promises of climate action. The conversation, with CCNow deputy director Andrew McCormick, has been edited for length and clarity. Find more of CCR’s reporting on its website.
Starting with the Saudi investigation, what was the germ for that idea?
The starting point was a story I did in late 2021, before COP26 in Glasgow. I was leaked a database of government and industry comments on a draft for the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s] Working Group 3 report, which is the UN’s most recent landmark report on climate science. There were thousands of lines of data, and as you’d expect there were a whole bunch of comments from Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries seeking to strike any sense of urgency from the report and opposing language about phasing out or phasing down fossil fuels.
That got me thinking: Given how rich Saudi Arabia is from oil, they must be doing more to secure the future of oil than just writing a few comments to the IPCC.
As a reporter, you come up with a lot of hypotheses that don’t go anywhere. But in this case, after quite a lot of desk research and time spent chatting with sources, I stumbled across a relatively innocuous-sounding Oil Sustainability Program. On the Saudi Energy Ministry’s website, it was framed as essentially this well-meaning development initiative meant to help emerging economies in Asia and Africa. But that was in English. When you flipped to the Arabic version of the ministry’s website, it was called the Oil Demand Sustainability Program, and the language was all about making sure the energy transition is financially sustainable for Saudi Arabia.
Then, in May 2023, a source of mine attended this pan-African petrochemical conference in Cape Town, where the head of the Oil Demand Sustainability Program, Mohammed Al Tayyar, spoke. From that, we got additional clues about the initiative—but you could still sense the Saudis were being very careful about how they framed the initiative for a large audience. Much of the presentation was about energy access for developing countries and things like “clean cooking” with [liquefied petroleum gas] stoves. My colleagues and I still didn’t feel we quite had the story; even if nearly everything we could find about the Saudi initiative in public was, we suspected, quite misleading, we couldn’t prove what it was up to.
Helpfully, though, in that Cape Town presentation, Al Tayyar had said the Saudis were looking for partners. The aim wasn’t for the Saudis to fund all these development projects themselves; they were trying to catalyze foreign investment—and they were open to working with anyone.
So, to carry the story forward, we decided to approach them undercover, posing as an investment fund.
What considerations went into the decision to go undercover? And what did you do to prepare?
The first thing we do in situations like this is a public interest balancing test. On one side, we have all the evidence we’ve gathered so far and what we believe we’re likely to discover. On the other, we have the reasonable expectation of privacy for the people we’d be approaching with subterfuge. In this case, we felt the evidence indicated overwhelmingly that it was in the public interest for us to proceed.
Once we decided we would engage in a limited subterfuge, the conversation turned to how. There’s only three of us working at the Centre for Climate Reporting, so it wasn’t difficult to work out who would meet with the Saudis, which was me and my colleague Tom Costello, who I’ve worked with for years, including on another undercover investigation, into ExxonMobil’s lobbying against climate legislation. To prepare, we thought: What if we were on the other side of this, if we weren’t investigative reporters, and if someone were approaching us to invest? How would we verify that person was who they said? So you need a website. You need a phone number that rings and an email address that doesn’t bounce back. It’s difficult in the modern day to create a false digital footprint, because at this point everyone goes pretty far back. I’m sure some longer-term investigations would call for a deeper digital footprint, but in this case we could only do so much for a story we hoped to report out in a matter of months.
The climate story is replete with government and business leaders pledging bold action while continuing to invest in the opposite. Was there something about this investigation that stood out to you uniquely?
Given how powerful Saudi Arabia is and how obstructive it’s been on climate, I’ve come to the view that it receives far too little scrutiny from journalists.
A lot of climate reporting—including my own in the past; I’m not pointing fingers—has revolved around the Big Oil majors, like BP and Exxon. I think, in part, that’s because these companies are what our audiences know; many in our audiences, if we’re talking about big media organizations, are likely more interested in a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange than they are in a foreign country. But arguably, beneath this veneer of glossy green propaganda, Saudi Arabia has had an even greater impact in blocking climate action.
A few years ago, for instance, I reported on BP’s greenwashing efforts and how, simultaneously, the company was lobbying the Trump administration to overturn a bunch of Obama-era climate policies. That was a bit surprising, because at the time BP was doing so much to assuage concerns about their company. But the scale of Saudi Arabia’s initiative, by comparison, is so much more vast. It’s essentially a whole Belt and Road for oil. Yet it’s been around since 2020, and seemingly no one knew about it. To an extent, I think that might be because of the nature of what Saudi Arabia is doing—shifting toward these developing countries. The story might not have gotten the attention it deserves because newsrooms’ audiences in the UK and US don’t have that track record of being very interested in foreign coverage.
Speaking of those developing Asian and African countries, sources from there in your story discuss the need for their countries to “leapfrog” fossil-fuel-centric infrastructures in favor of clean-energy economies. But on social media there are responses to your story from Saudi defenders that go something like: “Hey, these are win-win partnerships for these countries and Saudi Arabia, and isn’t it paternalistic or hypocritical for the West to weigh in one way or another?” What do you make of that?
I understand a response that says, “Well, hey, what’s wrong with a road-building program in this or that country?” And as a journalist and someone who doesn’t live there, indeed it’s not for me to say. But to me, the point of this reporting is the motivation for the Saudi initiative.
When we were on a video call with officials from the Oil Demand Sustainability Program, they showed us a slide—which is included in our story—depicting the metrics by which the Saudis select development projects. None of those metrics were about the great development outcomes in the countries in question. They were all about boosting oil sales. Certainly, if some of these projects proceed, and Saudi Arabia helps countries build needed infrastructure, there will be some positive outcomes. But that’s not how civil society groups we interviewed in these countries responded to these revelations. Instead, they were quite shocked and upset. One person described the initiative as “repulsive” and compared it to the tobacco industry shifting its attentions from the US and Europe to developing countries when regulations and public awareness about the dangers of smoking increased.
But I’ll add that I think there are two “bad guys” in this story. One is the Oil Demand Sustainability Program, and the other, sort of implicitly, is the Global North or the West—the rich world—which is largely responsible for climate change but whose governments have failed to stump up the funds they promised they would to support emerging economies with the energy transition.
In the absence of that support, the Saudis have spotted essentially an open playing field and said to themselves, “Well, the people in these countries need access to energy and they don’t have it. We produce energy, so we can get it to them. And we can benefit.”
This conversation will run after COP28, but we’re speaking while COP28 is ongoing. Just before the conference began, your organization along with the BBC revealed that Sultan Al Jaber—COP28 president but also CEO of the Emirati oil company ADNOC—intended to use COP28 to secure oil and gas deals. Like with the Saudi investigation, this belied public commitments by Al Jaber to champion climate solutions. How should all this evident bad faith inform journalists’ approach to global negotiations going forward?
I think journalists need to have a very healthy dose of skepticism. We should not take leaders’ very carefully and very expensively assembled talking points at face value.
Broadly, I’ve felt very positive about climate journalism in the lead-up to COP28. A lot of the work by climate-focused journalists, whether at the New York Times and The Guardian or at smaller, climate-specific newsrooms, has been very good.
But there’s a reason Al Jaber has invested so much time and money working with various PR consultancies to manicure his image, and certainly we’ve seen some quite positive, glossy profiles of Al Jaber, full of all these focus-group-tested lines about his plans for COP28—which on the surface always sound ambitious but in reality are more often than not preferential to the oil and gas industry. This is especially problematic, because the publications responsible for this type of coverage—the ones Al Jaber’s consultants have approached with invitations of access—are the ones read by elites and shaping their opinions. I wish newsrooms taking up offers from people like Al Jaber would more often hold power to account.
Stepping back, can you tell us about the Centre for Climate Reporting?
We set up in early 2022, with the goal of taking readers into the boardrooms and halls of power where decisions are being made to obstruct efforts to tackle climate change.
We aim for big reveals with the potential to move the needle on the public’s understanding of the climate issue. And we prioritize reporting techniques that cut through the spin and get to the truth. Those include a lot of source-based reporting and undercover work.
What helped you feel confident you’d identified a clear niche that CCR could fill?
Well, I’m always chasing the freedom to report on what I want—but to be honest, I’ve always been just a bit too scared to become a freelancer, which to me is the ultimate plunge.
In my previous role at Unearthed, Greenpeace’s investigative journalism project, I had a lot of what I wanted from a job. But although Greenpeace is international, Unearthed was still hosted by Greenpeace UK, so I didn’t have much geographic freedom. I felt there probably was a role for a new organization to invest in very long-lead, impact climate reporting, on a global scale.
I was quite lucky, because in seven years at Unearthed I’d built up a track record of stories with a fair amount of impact, and I also had a good sense of the philanthropic organizations that might be interested in funding us. Tom and I had just done that big story on Exxon, which I mentioned earlier, and it had resulted in two big US congressional inquiries and an apology from Exxon’s CEO. So our pitch was essentially: “We want to do more of this.”