By Hannah Sharland,
August 29, 2023
The world’s most prolific fossil fuel major is guilty of human rights violations along with its crimes against the climate. Who’d have guessed?
United Nations (UN) experts have written to oil firm Saudi Aramco and its financial backers challenging them on climate crisis-related human rights violations.
On Saturday 26 August, the UN published a cache of correspondence on its human rights special procedures website. The letters said UN experts had received information:
concerning Saudi Aramco’s business activities… which are adversely impacting the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change
Crucially, the allegations accused Saudi Aramco of having:
maintained crude oil production, exploration for further oil and gas reserves, expansion into fossil fuel gas, and misrepresentation of information
Furthermore, the UN argued that:
Such activities have negative impacts on the enjoyment of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
A number of experts, including the UN working group, sent the letters to Saudi Aramco and its backers on 26 June 2023. The letter signatories included special rapporteurs on human rights and transnational corporations, human rights and climate change, a clean and sustainable environment, management of hazardous substances, and safe drinking water and sanitation.
Largest emitter of greenhouse gases
The letters asserted that fossil fuels account for more than 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Crucially, the letters cited reports that claimed just 25 fossil fuel business enterprises are responsible for over half of these. They highlighted that Saudi Aramco ranks as the largest emitter. As a result, one letter stated that:
through its historic emissions, it is alleged that Saudi Aramco has already significantly contributed to adverse climate change-related human rights impacts.
On top of this, the letter highlighted the company’s current production and future plans further jeopardised human rights. It noted that:
The company’s current exploitation of fossil fuels and proposed business plans will continue to cause adverse climate change-related human rights impacts.
The UN experts also alleged that Saudi Aramco’s activities appear to be:
contrary to the goals, obligations and commitments under the Paris Agreement on climate change
Nations signed the accord in 2015 and set the target of limiting the world to a temperature increase of 1.5°c above pre-industrial temperatures.
Moreover, Saudi Aramco’s:
refusal to reduce its production of oil and gas – and continued exploration for more oil and gas – contributes to the risk of overshoot of the 1.5C carbon budget, with resultant significantly worsened climate change-related human rights impacts
Greenwashing climate efforts
Saudi Aramco is the main source of revenue for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s sweeping economic and social reform programme. Known as Vision 2030, the programme supposedly aims to shift the economy away from fossil fuels. However, the largely state-owned Aramco is undertaking investments to ramp up national production capacity to 13 million barrels per day by 2027.
On top of this, one letter accused the company of engaging in greenwashing. It noted that:
Saudi Aramco presents misleading information, including the premise that sustainability is a core concern of its business strategy, through widespread marketing and advertising.
In particular, this pertained to its failure to report its ‘scope 3’ emissions. These are downstream emissions that consumers generate from the burning of its products. As the Canary has previously reported, fossil fuel majors regularly omit these emissions from their greenhouse gas reporting, as they would account for the bulk of their GHG emissions.
This was a fact noted in the UN communication, which stated that Saudi Aramco’s:
Scope 3 emissions account for the vast majority of company’s emissions
As a result, the letter concluded that:
The harm can be aggravated where greenwashing inhibits climate action, as the messages promoted oppose or distract from the goal of reducing society’s dependence and consumption of fossil fuels.
Financial enablers of climate and human rights violations
The UN experts claimed that Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, along with 11 major international banks, investment banks and firms, were funding these activities.
The UN experts also sent letters to the home states of the company’s financiers in Britain, France, Japan, Saudi Arabia and the United States. These included JPMorgan, Citi, HSBC, SMBC, Crédit Agricole, Morgan Stanley, BNP Paribas, Goldman Sachs, Mizuho, Société Générale, and EIG Global Energy Partners.
Since 2019, the company has raised more than $70 billion through equity, bonds, and bank loans.
In 2022, Saudi Aramco reported record profits totalling $161.1 billion. This was the largest ever recorded profit for a fossil fuel firm. ClientEarth said that the UN’s letters showed that:
The banks must act on Aramco’s role in climate human rights harms. They should be using their leverage to prevent the oil giant from continuing to fuel human rights violations. That means Aramco ending its pursuit of fossil fuel expansion and aligning with the Paris Agreement. And if the banks lack sufficient leverage, they must consider terminating their relationships with the company.
Prolific record of human rights abuse
Primarily, the letters focused on the state company’s contribution to the climate crisis and the resulting violations of human rights owing to climate impacts. However, the state-owned oil giant also provides enormous revenue to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As Amnesty International has previously detailed, the Saudi government:
has an extensive and appalling record of human rights abuses, including executions, arbitrary arrests, detention without trial, torture, the suppression of free assembly and free expression, discrimination based on gender, and the criminalization of LGBTI people.
Moreover, as the Canary has consistently reported, Saudi Arabia continues to wage its criminal war on Yemen.
Back in 2019, a coalition of environmental non-profits wrote to several banks that were intending to finance the company. The group stated that it was concerned by the banks:
Eagerness to help raise billions of dollars for Saudi Arabia given the horrendous human rights record of the Saudi regime.
Specifically, the group referenced the ‘brutal murder’ of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the ‘indiscriminate airstrikes on civilians in Yemen’. Of course, the UN communication called out many of these same banks.
Given that the nations where they are headquartered supply finance and arms to the Saudi regime, their continued support for its state oil company is perhaps unsurprising. Moreover, Western banks’ involvement in Saudi Arabia’s oil riches tracks with their backing of the regime’s war in Yemen. As the Canary previously noted:
the oil and gas industry sits at the heart of the Western-backed war on Yemen. Specifically, Western nations view the Bab el-Mandeb Strait off the coast of Yemen as a key oil shipping lane. Moreover, Saudi Arabia intends to build an oil pipeline through Yemen to enable greater exports.
Impacts on the marginalised groups in the region
In addition, a letter noted that the area is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis. Referencing various reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it detailed the particular dangerous effects of climate-fueled extreme weather events in the region. This would include desertification, extreme heat, drought, sea level rise, and water stress.
It explained that:
These scenarios would disproportionately impact vulnerable populations such as children, older persons, and migrants (the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia hosts the third largest migrant population in the world).
A Lancet Planetary Health study in April corroborated the IPCC warnings for the need to slash emissions. It also found that cutting emissions to keep below temperature rises of 2°c would prevent 80% of heat-related deaths in the region.
Saudi Aramco and its financiers are therefore complicit in a multitude of climate-related human rights violations. The UN issued its letters and called for the oil giant to respond within 60 days. At present, the UN’s website has not published a response. However, the only answer Aramco can give that will resolve its rampant climate crisis-fueled human rights abuse is a commitment to its own abolition – and what are the chances of that?
Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse.
* This article was automatically syndicated and expanded from The Canary.