After Cop26, it is time for an 'Arab Climate Summit'

Global conversations on climate change are important, but so are regional ones

Plummeting water levels in Syria's portion of the Euphrates River are threatening water and electricity for millions amid the coronavirus pandemic and economic crisis. AFP
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The world is waiting for the Glasgow Climate Summit, set to take place in November. The decisions made there will be intended to help rescue the world from unprecedented warming. Inevitably, the attention will be on the world’s largest countries, who are responsible for much of climate change. But what are the environmental responsibilities for the countries of the Middle East and North Africa? What challenges do they face, and how do they overcome them?

Since the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, there has been a global consensus to keep the worldwide rise in temperatures to “well below” 2°C, but preferably 1.5°C. At 1.5°C, the number of people dying from heat and tropical diseases will still increase significantly in the parts of the world already plagued by them. At 2°C, the geographic range of those diseases will increase, introducing malaria, for example, to countries that presently don’t have it.

At 1.5°C, 6 per cent of the world’s insects, 8 per cent of plants and 4 per cent of vertebrate animals will lose more than half of their habitats. The knock-on effects from the threat to insects alone are bad enough – pollinating insects are responsible for keeping 70 per cent of the world’s plants alive. At 2°C warming, the impact on insects, plants and animals doubles or triples.

Although the share of greenhouse gas emissions from Arab countries is estimated to be a mere 5 per cent, the region is disproportionately affected by climate change, and already witnesses serious environmental deterioration in the form of desertification, water scarcity, the loss of vegetation and biodiversity, and rising temperatures.

Most Arab countries already experience severe droughts, and their effects are visible on agriculture, land, water sources and public life. It is not a brand-new phenomenon; in 2015, the World Resources Institute compiled a list of 33 countries facing real water scarcity in the coming decades. Seventeen of them were Arab countries.

The Mena region is home to 6 per cent of the world’s population, and only 2 per cent of its renewable water resources. A report issued by the Norwegian Refugee Council in August points out that more than 12 million people in Syria and Iraq do not have access to water, food and electricity as a result of high temperatures, low levels of rain and drought.

Most Arab countries already experience severe droughts

The politics of resource-scarcity and climate change, and a lack of regional co-ordination, factor in, too. For example, Turkish policies to dam water in the Euphrates River have led to a decrease in water levels in the Syrian and Iraqi portions of the river by more than five metres. In Syria, many irrigation stations have stopped functioning. More than 5 million Syrians are thought to be affected directly by this, and millions more indirectly.

Other Arab countries with large maritime boundaries will be affected further by a rise in sea levels of nearly a metre in the next eight decades. In many of these countries, populations are concentrated along the coast; without a major intervention to secure coastal housing and infrastructure, the rise in sea levels is sure to result in the displacement of millions in Mena.

And then there is the threat to the region’s culture. The Arab world has a strong maritime history, and as a result so much of its civilizational heritage is along the coast. According to the Climate and Security Centre, rising water levels could lead to the destruction of cultural heritage in Alexandria, Egypt, and the flooding of Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, by 2050, as well as large parts of Iraq’s two southern provinces, Maysan and Dhi Qar. Iraq, in particular, already suffers from armed conflict; this could only get worse with the stresses of climate change.

Now that we have addressed the threats and challenges, it is worth examining, realistically, what the existing solutions will achieve. At the last summit of world leaders focused on addressing climate change, hosted virtually in April by US President Joe Biden, Washington pledged a sharp reduction in American greenhouse gas emissions – 50 to 52 per cent – across industry, transportation and the energy and agricultural sectors by 2030. Mr Biden called on major economies around the world to do the same, saying: "The time has come to listen to the science. The signs cannot be denied."

The EU followed up with even more ambition, pledging to cut carbon emissions by 55 per cent over the next decade. The British government went further still, pledging a 78 per cent cut (compared to 1990 levels) by 2035. Perhaps the most remarkable announcement from the summit, however, was the commitment of oil-producing powerhouse Saudi Arabia to cut its domestic emissions by generating 50 per cent of its energy from renewables over the next decade.

These are promising steps, but will they be enough to rescue the Mena region? According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the World Meteorological Organisation, even if carbon is reduced to zero now, temperatures will inevitably touch 1.5°C in the coming decades, because of the huge amount of damage already done.

As a result, all efforts are now focused on avoiding a 2°C rise. If decisions related to reducing carbon are implemented during the next 10 years, and are extended further to reach zero carbon in 2050, the world will avoid high temperatures, along with many severe droughts, fires and hurricanes, and the spread of epidemics and diseases.

To achieve this, and to get the most out of Glasgow and what comes after, the nations of the Mena region require sustainable national and regional environmental policies. The Arab world has no time for regrets, and no time to dwell on the damage done other than for the purpose of learning from it quickly. Individual countries can come up with their own policies, and that will help. But regional co-ordination is the most important answer to what is ultimately a regional problem. Cop26 will be a global conversation, but the Arab world needs a regional one – an Arab climate summit to bring the issue home to those who will be impacted by it more than most.

Published: October 15, 2021, 4:00 AM
Updated: October 20, 2021, 11:40 AM