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A planet on fire: COP28 must be a launchpad for real action on climate change

A farm devastated by wildfires near Melloula, northwestern Tunisia, close to the Algerian border, July 26, 2023. (AFP)
A farm devastated by wildfires near Melloula, northwestern Tunisia, close to the Algerian border, July 26, 2023. (AFP)
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28 Jul 2023 02:07:30 GMT9
28 Jul 2023 02:07:30 GMT9

In recent weeks, the world has seen an alarming surge in long-lasting and extreme heat waves that should serve as a stark warning of the devastating effects of runaway climate change, as documented in previous years across parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Heat waves, like the one the region is currently experiencing, are becoming more intense and prolonged, lasting on average 24 hours longer than they did 60 years ago. This is driven by what scientists are calling turbo-charged climate change, and the consequences have never been more deadly or ominous.

While it is true that these intense heat waves are not solely the product of global heating, our addiction to burning fossil fuels has amplified the risk and frequency of such extreme events. These disturbing trends will only intensify unless the global community urgently embarks on very bold missions to not only curb emissions, but also to preempt the runaway risks of a planet on fire, literally.

In the Arab region, the implications of these extreme heat waves are profound, far-reaching and not exactly new. Several Arab countries are already plagued with numerous challenges, from the increasing scarcity of water to dwindling agricultural resources, rising poverty and a troubling history of instability. Continued and escalating climate change will only exacerbate these existing risks, threatening food security and displacing millions, as droughts, wildfires, heat stress and accelerated desertification grip the region. Moreover, as temperatures remain unrelentingly high and heat waves persist, the potential for increased illness and death will also skyrocket.

Already the globe’s most arid region, the Arab world stands on the precipice as record heat indices become the new normal. The sweltering temperatures stretching across the Middle East and North Africa are not isolated anomalies but rather chilling signs of the very grim future that lies ahead. This year, the formidable impacts of the Charon and Cerberus anticyclones, exacerbated by the El Nino weather pattern, have combined with mounting greenhouse gas emissions to produce life-threatening temperatures across parts of the Northern Hemisphere, particularly in Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean.

However, the peril is even more pronounced across the Arab world, where the prevailing aridity amplifies the heat’s severity. The recent heat waves, which are projected to last for at least another week, show that the region is way past the tipping point that climate scientists typically warn policymakers about — i.e., where the impacts of climate change are not just forecasted but are being experienced in real-time. Even worse, the stark reality is that these heat waves are not fleeting blips in the region’s climate record — their impact will resonate long after the mercury drops, resulting in a domino effect that compounds existing challenges or creates new ones.

Extended heat waves, particularly those that occur early in the season, pose the greatest threat to human life and health. It is essential to acknowledge the interconnected nature of global climate and, more importantly, take steps to mitigate the harm caused by human factors. After all, emissions and human activities have caused most of the warming observed since 1950. Disruptions in one region can reverberate globally, both directly and indirectly. For instance, droughts and erratic weather patterns can lead to harvest failures and supply disruptions in the climate-vulnerable countries that are the source of much of the Arab region’s food imports.

Such imbalances in supply and demand can result in skyrocketing food prices, which will ultimately affect a global economy still trapped by disproportionate post-pandemic recoveries, a war in Ukraine and the Global South’s debt crises. The Arab world must take even more drastic and immediate action to reduce the harmful impacts of runaway climate change on its lands, people, food, water, security and energy. Furthermore, the global community will have to support the region, working together to prevent catastrophic consequences from spilling over into other parts of the world.

A world where Arab countries face unprecedented heat waves and droughts is not just an occasional hazard of climate change — it is a wake-up call for immediate, bold and comprehensive action. It is high time we transitioned en masse to renewable energy sources, invested in climate-resilient infrastructure and prioritized cooperation between nations in addressing this crisis before it is too late.

The upcoming COP28 climate summit in Dubai, a city nestled in the heart of the Middle East, is perhaps the best platform for world leaders to demonstrate their serious commitment and take bold, decisive actions. It is not enough to simply acknowledge the crisis; the planet’s focus must shift from rhetoric to results because there is no “Planet B.”

The World Meteorological Organization forecasts that, within half a decade, the global average surface temperature is anticipated to breach the critical 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold above pre-industrial levels. By most accounts, breaching this ceiling might trigger a series of potentially irreversible climate events — ice sheet collapses, abrupt permafrost melt, menacing sea-level rises and even longer, more extreme heat waves.

It reminds us that the 1.5 C target is not merely an aspirational figure, but a line of defense against catastrophic climate change that must be fortified. Despite the Paris Agreement’s formidable ambition — it aimed to hold rising global temperatures well below 2 C and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 C — the upcoming summit’s global stocktake demonstrates a perilously off-track trajectory. However, the beauty of boundaries is that they pave the way for transformative action — in this case, an opportunity to steer the world back onto a safer course.

So, what can the world expect at COP28, in terms of demonstrating bold, decisive action?

Firstly, the summit must yield strengthened targets for emissions reduction, aiming for a peak in global emissions by 2025. The Paris Agreement was a start, but COP28 will be the moment to double down on commitment and ambition, amplifying what each country can do unilaterally to achieve emissions reductions. Of course, this will require a turbo-charged dedication to green energy, expeditiously phasing out fossil fuel consumption.

The peril is even more pronounced across the Arab world, where the prevailing aridity amplifies the heat’s severity.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

Secondly, we must address how to scale up finance, engaging both the public and private sectors, to help developing countries transition toward low-carbon economies. The goal is not just billions of dollars anymore; we need to grandly stride toward the trillions. Beyond just mitigation strategies, COP28 must carve out more substantive investment plans for climate resilience and adaptation, especially for the most vulnerable nations. After all, to keep the 1.5 C target alive, the planet will have to build up renewable energy capacity at a staggering cost of $35 trillion over the next seven years. For context, the estimated total global gross domestic product is only $112.6 trillion.

Lastly, the summit needs to go beyond just formulating plans and assessing progress — it should be the launchpad for real action. The conference takes place in Dubai, hosted by the UAE, a leading oil and gas producer, underscoring the need for fossil fuel-dependent economies to make the giant leap toward a clean energy future. It should not just be another meeting but a testament to the planet’s collective will to navigate away from the precipice of irretrievable harm. A success would demonstrate our ability to not merely acknowledge a crisis but to display our capacity for action, our inherent ingenuity to adapt and even thrive when the odds are stacked against us.

If this is the Rubicon to be crossed, we had better do it with gusto and resolve.

  • Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, and the former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell
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