What does a 3°C temperature rise mean for Saudi Arabia?

The impact of climate change could hit many sectors - but the solutions are within reach, says report

Fish swim above a coral reef in the Red Sea near the city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Climate change could lead to coral bleaching. Lucas Jackson / Reuters
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A major report has outlined the challenges that Saudi Arabia, currently hosting this year's Middle East and North Africa Climate Week, could face in a world that warms by 3°C.

The “Climate Futures Report” examines how the country is experiencing climate change at a much faster pace than the rest of the world, potentially hurting ecosystems and stressing environments if action is not taken to counteract it.

The study outlines how a 3°C rise by the end of the century could also result in heat-related health issues, reduced agricultural productivity, rising sea levels, increased electricity demand for cooling and intensified desertification.

"The climate futures report fills a major gap, offering a comprehensive overview of the interlinked and cascading consequences that climate change will have on different sectors in Saudi society including the degradation of natural ecosystems, the increasing stress on urban environments and the direct impacts on human health," said Matthew McCabe, professor of remote sensing and water security at Kaust, and coordinating editor of the report.

The 130-page study is compiled by the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Kaust), the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Centre, and the Aeon Collective, a Saudi Arabian non-profit endowment fund.

It outlines how Saudi Arabia could face hotter temperatures that could cause crop failure due to heat stress, while erratic rain could put pressure on water.

The impact on agricultural production, said Prof Yoshihide Wada, a world-leading expert on water scarcity at Kaust, must be highlighted.

He pointed to the fact Saudi Arabia grows crops, such as wheat, which is water intensive. And it uses major amounts of water to irrigate its millions of date palms. Just one date palm, for example, can use up to 300 litres of water a day.

“We have to highlight the challenge food production is facing,” said Prof Wada, a professor in plant science, environmental science and engineering, and one of the authors.

No silver bullet to solve problem

Prof Wada told The National there was “no silver bullet” when it came to solving the problem and that a multifaceted approach was needed from policy decisions to individual action such as ceasing food waste.

The study also found that groundwater extraction, used to support agriculture, could be “severely compromised or even exhausted within the next 50 years” with desalination now providing 50 per cent of the nation’s drinking water, which itself can have knock-off effects of more warming emissions.

“When combined with expected increases in evaporative demand, any decrease in rainfall (or even changes in its distribution), could lead to reduced water resources, affecting agricultural production and domestic supply, as well as increased competition for water among different sectors,” it notes.

The report, released on Wednesday at the conference, also shows how warmer temperatures could lead to intensified coral bleaching, increased desertification and unbearable summers.

There will also be a toll on human health. Deteriorating air quality exacerbates respiratory issues and there's a growing concern that climate change might lead to more favourable conditions for vector-borne diseases, such as malaria and dengue, the report suggests.

Under the 2015 Paris deal, countries agree to “pursue efforts” to limit the global rise in temperatures to 1.5°C. But the world remains off track and could be headed for around 2.5°C of warming, the UN has said.

The report notes that for “each degree of global warming, the corresponding increase in regional temperatures is significantly more pronounced for the Arabian Peninsula, which has already warmed at a rate 50 per cent higher than other landmasses in the Northern Hemisphere”.

Under extreme scenarios the Middle East could experience warming of more than 5°C, scientists believe.

“There is still a lot of uncertainty, but we know for sure things are going to change,” said Hylke Beck, assistant professor of earth science and engineering at Kaust and one of the report’s authors, who was speaking to The National.

“Our actions and decisions right now will determine how our children are going to live. We cannot wait.”

Hope exists for the future

However, the report finds much hope for the future, with many of the solutions within reach, whether it is through tackling climate change by emissions cuts or scaling up less-water intensive farming methods.

It suggests the implementation of environmental awareness campaigns and urging businesses to embrace sustainability.

It states “urgency” is required to implement water conservation policies and suggests diversifying food imports and the production of alternative food sources.

Turning to the impact of extreme weather events, it highlights the importance of deploying early warning systems to protect citizens from extreme weather events right down to adding green spaces to provide shade and respite from the heat, thus decreasing heat-related illness.

Saudi Arabia has been ramping up efforts to tackle climate change. It announced the launch of a greenhouse gas-crediting and offsetting scheme at the Mena event, as it intensifies efforts to achieve net-zero emissions by 2060.

"Climate change doesn't only challenge our environment, it affects every facet of our lives: our health, food, water, as well as our economy,” said Princess Mashael AlShalan from Aeon Collective, and one of the authors.

“Our actions today will decide whether we can weather these challenges or face."

Updated: October 12, 2023, 10:38 AM