Iraq is already a “victim” of a warming planet but the global move away from fossil fuels means the country's oil-based economy must tackle its own greenhouse gas emissions and clean up the industry, its climate envoy has disclosed.
Speaking at international affairs think tank Chatham House in London, Fareed Yasseen said Iraq was working towards diversifying it economy, using the country’s current oil revenue, to help combat its climate-related challenges. “Iraq has revenues that are quite considerable that we can put towards reinventing ourselves, to become a country that can adapt and be resilient to climate change,” he said.
Iraq has faced environmental disasters on a number of fronts. The depletion of its river system due to dams in upstream neighbouring countries has had devastating effects on arable land and ecosystems, causing migration from the country’s historic marshlands.
Toxic emissions from its gas flaring during oil extraction has caused deadly air pollution in Iraq’s cities. Rising temperatures are leading to droughts and soil erosion has increased the intensity of sand storms.
The Iran-Iraq war led to the destruction of Iraq’s date palm fields, and then-president Saddam Hussein drained the southern marshes to punish the tribes living there for participating in an uprising against him. Though the marshes were restored in 2016, animal life has since struggled to survive there.
Decades of conflict and authoritarian rule meant Iraq became a “very late comer” to global climate-change initiatives, Dr Yasseen said. It wasn't until 2009 that it signed the UN’s climate change convention, 17 years after its first signatories.
Whereas other oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia had begun capturing their methane as early as the 1970s – instead of burning it – Iraq’s methods of oil exploitation has not changed in more than half a century. “We’re still producing the same way that we did in the 1960s,” Dr Yasseen said.
Though solutions to Iraq's climate crises were available, more time was needed for efficient laws and knowledge to be put in place, drawing on the lessons and expertise of other countries. “Solutions do exist, we just need to be able to implement them correctly,” he added.
An increasingly repressive political climate has led to concerns for the safety of Iraq's environmentalists, who have pressured Baghdad to move faster. Jasem Al Asadi, an activist leading the protection of the marshes in southern Iraq, was kidnapped for two weeks this year. "Our environmental activists are heroes," Dr Yasseen said.
But there are signs that things will change for the better. Dr Yasseen – previously Iraq’s ambassador to the US – was speaking days after a series of events in Iraq dedicated to addressing the country’s climate crisis.
Iraq is seeking new technology, including wind power to generate electricity, to help address climate change.
Its main priority was the reduction of methane flaring, which is the practice of burning the natural gases emitted from oil extraction, rather than capturing and converting them into energy. “It’s a waste of resources, waste of money and it poisons people,” Dr Yasseen said. “You have no idea how much money we’re burning.”
Iraq's carbon emissions from flaring increased by 0.3 per cent in 2022 from the previous year. Its emissions were the second highest in the Middle East after Iran, and contributed to a third of the region's emissions that year, according to the Energy Institute's Statistical Review of World Energy.
The toxic gases are a major contributor to global carbon emissions and the pollutants have been linked to a rise in cancer in Iraq’s southern oil-producing city of Basra, according to a BBC investigation.
Iraq joined the Global Methane Pledge to reduce methane flaring by 30 per cent by 2030. Its main “emphasis” now is developing legislation enabling it to commercialise the captured gas, Dr Yasseen said. “We’re getting all sorts of proposals from oil companies willing to capture our flared gas. We can only proceed once we have the proper legislation in place."
Alongside this, a “reinvention” of Iraq’s agricultural traditions – which became obsolete after the creation of the national oil industry – is needed, drawing on expertise from regions with arid climates including Australia and the US. “Agriculture was invented in Iraq,” said Dr Yasseen, drawing on the land’s ancient history.
Another major challenge is how to handle the depletion of its two rivers among neighbouring Turkey, Iran and Syria, all of which had built dams upstream.
Experts on the panel with Dr Yasseen feared Iraq lacked the military and economic influence needed to negotiate a better arrangement with these countries. Greg Shapland, a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics, recommended “a dialogue between the UK and Iraq, on finding ways to help Iraq to best negotiate with its neighbours".
There is no “international regime” that a downstream country like Iraq could adopt to protect its waters and share it fairly with its neighbours, Dr Yasseen said. The country’s biggest Arab partner in this issue is Egypt, which faces the same challenges, he added.
Iraq could use data from space programmes such as those set up by the UK and the Netherlands, which monitor water content and pollution levels through satellite imagery, he said.
He hoped instead that the Gulf countries could form a “negotiating block” to address climate change-related issues, including Iraq’s water crisis. This idea was first put forward by Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani at the UN General Assembly in September, and Dr Yasseen sees Cop28 as an “opportunity” for the grouping to be created.
“Many issues like dust storms and heatwaves can only be addressed on a regional scale and if we reforest in an area in Iraq, it will have positive impacts down in the Gulf,” said Dr Yasseen. “Iraq is a small country – the only way to get yourself heard is to be part of a powerful coalition that can push your views forward."