Hosting Cop: co-operation is key to Middle East leadership on climate change

Even as the UAE takes the baton from Egypt for next year's Cop, the region has already set a positive agenda

UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed and Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed attend Cop27 at Sharm El Sheikh this month. Reuters
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In advance of Egypt’s Cop27, which ended last weekend, UK Environment Secretary Therese Coffey described it as not a "big political" summit. Ms Coffey wasn’t alone in undermining the conference. The annual Cop gatherings have become associated with – as former UK prime minister Boris Johnson in his opening speech put it – a "corrosive cynicism". And yet, Egypt and the Middle East have confounded the pessimists with an extraordinary win through uniting historically disparate Global North and South interests in a new fund for loss and damage. Inside and outside the Middle East, co-operation is the only way to stave off the worst effects of the climate crisis. With next year’s Cop28 again to be hosted in the Middle East, there is a unique opportunity to maintain momentum.

Already hosting the world’s International Renewable Energy Agency, 2023’s Cop28 will be hosted by the UAE. Egypt’s success in bringing countries together towards meaningful outcomes presages the UAE’s emphasis on practical solutions and substantive steps forward for its time in the eco-spotlight. Global leadership coming from the region should not be surprising. The Middle East has always been at the crossroads between West and East and North and South. Economically, North Africa is positioning itself as a pivot between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa and politically, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have played mediating roles between the West and Russia following the latter’s invasion of Ukraine. In the context of a more active Middle East on the world stage, the issue of climate change is one where the region is asserting itself – and this too is hardly surprising.

Research released this year suggests the Middle East is warming at almost twice the rate of the global average. This summer, workers in Iraq were given time off as temperatures soared above 50°C, with heatwaves in recent years becoming more frequent and intense as a result of climate change. Across the Middle East, the precipitation rate is falling and leading to more frequent droughts and greater water scarcity. According to recent simulations, the Middle East will be unable to meet its water needs by 2030.

The Middle East understands that climate change is a trans-border challenge requiring co-operation

According to the World Bank, precipitation in Cop host country Egypt has fallen by 22 per cent in the past 30 years. The implications for food security are urgent and stark, with the UN warning the region’s crop production could drop 30 per cent by 2025. The Middle East is already one of the world’s most food insecure regions, where more than 50 million people are undernourished. In 2020, the Middle East’s share of the world’s most food insecure people stood at 20 per cent, despite it having only 6 per cent of the global population.

There are also social and political implications to climate change. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has rightly made the connection between extreme weather, increased food and water scarcity and social stability and security leading to opportunities for terrorists. The Middle East already faces a range of structural challenges, including ongoing armed conflicts in places like Yemen and Syria, corruption and governance issues in countries such as Lebanon and Iraq, as well as consequent economic growth challenges in a region that has the world’s largest proportion of unemployed young people. Described as a "force-multiplier", the effects of climate change will exacerbate the challenges the Middle East already faces.

Perhaps better than anywhere else, the Middle East understands that climate change is a trans-border challenge requiring co-operation. The redoubled commitment at Cop27 among Israel, Jordan and the UAE on clean energy and sustainable water supplies is just one example of unity in a historically fragmented region. Countries from Turkey and Saudi Arabia to Israel and Bahrain have pledged to decarbonise by 2050. The prioritisation of climate change is leading to collaboration, such as Saudi Arabia’s Green Initiative, which aims to grow 50 billion trees to combat desertification.

The UAE and Egypt sign an agreement to develop an onshore wind project in Egypt, on the sidelines of Cop27 this month. EPA

There is a strong economic case for the Middle East to use the attention of the world to show what can be achieved through co-operation. Projections from Oxford University’s Martin School has shown what is possible when countries collaborate. Co-operation between Israel, Palestine and Jordan focused on renewable energy generation would save all three countries $18.3 billion by 2030, representing 9.4 per cent of what they are expected to spend separately on reaching emission reduction goals by 2030.

Following 2020’s Abraham Accords, scientific collaboration and joint research is accelerating and the evidentiary case for greater cooperation is clear. Indeed, the combination of rapidly maturing scientific, institutional and technology capabilities of several regional states coupled with shared deep expertise of security policy suggests an opportunity for regional leadership in the development of adaptive responses to climate-security nexus risks. Responses to the climate crisis cannot be isolated and the Middle East needs committed partners in advance of Cop28 to make sure action progresses to support every country who are today at the frontlines of the climate crisis.

Few in the West acknowledge the pivotal role Middle East nations can play. Recent polling of the US, UK, France and Germany show only 23 per cent envisage a future where the world looks to the Middle East for global leadership. Egypt’s Cop united the world at a critical moment and the UAE’s Cop looks set to build on this success. Unity and co-operation are happening in a once-fragmented region and the world must heed this example.

Published: November 24, 2022, 4:00 AM
Updated: November 25, 2022, 9:36 AM