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Climate change: Time for Middle East to seize the day

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27 Dec 2023 04:12:05 GMT9
27 Dec 2023 04:12:05 GMT9

As the clock ticks toward a climate tipping point, the Arab world finds itself at a crossroads. Climate change, once a distant, nebulous threat, has now emerged at the forefront of regional concerns, casting a long shadow on the future of its economies, societies and geopolitical stability. The region, already grappling with political instability, economic volatility and conflicts, now faces an escalating climate crisis that exacerbates existing challenges and presents new ones.

Statistics paint a grim picture. The UN warns that, if countries continue their current trajectories, the world could warm by about 2.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, far exceeding the 1.5 C limit set under the Paris Agreement. These temperature variations, while seemingly minor, will have devastating consequences and the Arab region is already on the front line of the gradually escalating impacts. Multiple countries have already been hit particularly hard, from sweltering heat waves, droughts and saline water intrusion to desertification and a sharp upswing in dust storms blighting the once-fertile cradle of civilization.

Even from a fiscal perspective alone, the costs are enormous and only continue to grow. While climate change is a planetary threat, the Middle East and adjacent regions face a harsh, sobering reality — temperatures are rising twice as fast as the global average and rainfall is becoming scarcer and less predictable. For the past three decades alone, dramatic shifts in temperature and rainfall patterns have had significant impacts on per capita incomes across the Arab region and the sectoral composition of national output and employment.

Meanwhile, climate-induced disasters have resulted in permanent gross domestic product losses of 1.1 percent in the Middle East and North Africa — a figure that is likely to rise as the economic burden of these adversities is amplified by existing societal issues, such as inflation and unemployment.

Furthermore, recent studies are increasingly linking climate change with the potential to further undermine public health, which has yet to recover from the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbating poverty and widening inequality gaps. This can lead to strained sociopolitical landscapes, enduring instability and possibly conflict, making future failed states out of currently fragile ones.

September’s Derna disaster in Libya is the most recent example of how the economic consequences of runaway climate change can become particularly pronounced in states strained by conflict and governance failures. As a result, these states experience four times higher output losses following climate-related weather shocks, which are likely to worsen in frequency and intensity. Apart from natural disasters, there are warnings and a growing body of evidence showing how climate change could worsen the region’s water security and food production, potentially leading to state failure and creating fertile ground for terrorism and violent extremism.

In the world’s most arid region, climate-related water scarcity is especially potent, with estimates that dwindling freshwater supplies could cost Arab nations between 6 and 14 percent of their GDP by 2050. In one particular year, the Arab region suffered a $12 billion GDP loss due to water scarcity alone — a consequence of delayed responses that, if left unchecked, could endanger as many as 100 million North Africans.

Yet, amid these challenges, the region has also emerged as a global leader in climate diplomacy, hosting successive climate summits, including the pivotal COP28 in Dubai. For all the criticism targeting these gatherings, they remain the foremost platform for the region (and the world) to promote cross-border collaboration and demonstrate an unyielding commitment to climate action, underscoring the scale of the task at hand and its increasing urgency.

At present, mitigation and adaptation efforts are falling far short, as action and support remain disjointed, gradual and focused on specific sectors, leaving some areas neglected. With the clock ticking, the planet’s current trajectory still leads to a substantial increase in global temperatures. Meeting the existing commitments would result in about a 2.5 C temperature rise by the end of the century, while current policies are on track for an alarming 3 C increase.

As evidence, the global average temperature briefly exceeded the critical 1.5 C threshold in both March and June 2023.

The region risks putting the cart before the horse if it does not prioritize and sequence its climate interventions effectively.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

The main contributor to rising temperatures is the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, particularly from fossil fuels, which account for more than 75 percent of total emissions. In 2022, emissions exceeded pre-pandemic levels, but governments around the world are planning to produce double the amount of fossil fuels by 2030, far exceeding what is sustainable for limiting global warming to 1.5 C. To avoid surpassing the warming threshold set in Paris, global emissions must decrease by nearly half in the next seven years, when compared to 2010 levels, and hit net-zero by 2050.

To achieve that and reduce the mounting costs of climate change, the world needs to take comprehensive, collaborative and urgent action. Not only will the potential benefits be significant, the future of the Middle East and the resilience of its economies depends on it. At a global level, it is believed that the accumulated benefit of limiting warming to 1.5 C rather than 2 C could exceed $20 trillion. To realize that, however, governments in the Middle East, for instance, may need to invest up to 4 percent of GDP annually to sufficiently boost climate resilience and meet their 2030 emissions reduction targets.

This seems daunting given the region’s tense geopolitical dynamics, economic headwinds and untested capacity to foster collaboration between rival interests. This is against the backdrop of increasing fragmentation, owing to the rise of self-assured, self-interested middle powers. Regardless of which path Arab nations take to achieve their planned targets, attracting more private finance will be key to bridging financing gaps and reducing disparities between the region’s economies. Governments could also ease the funding burdens by implementing measures such as accelerated fuel subsidy reforms and carbon taxes, alongside other interventions.

The UAE and Qatar, for instance, are investing heavily in renewable energy projects, while countries like Morocco, Jordan and Tunisia are improving water management practices. These initiative-taking steps not only help to mitigate the harmful impacts of climate change, but they also have significant economic benefits. However, these efforts must be scaled up. The region’s current adaptation and mitigation policies must be expanded and reinforced. This will require a comprehensive strategy that addresses both immediate crises and the longer-term consequences of climate change.

Future climate policy in the Middle East must strike a balance between managing economic trade-offs and taking decisive action to mitigate the devastating impacts of climate change on the region’s economies, sociopolitical fabric and development. While there is tangible progress today, climate interventions in the Middle East will need doses of realism far more than an emphasis on grand plans. Pragmatism and right-sized responses will be essential, otherwise the region risks putting the cart before the horse if it does not prioritize and sequence its climate interventions effectively.

The convergence of initially disconnected threats, compounded by climate change-induced disasters, can lead to a complex web of challenges that will be next to impossible to unravel without risking the collapse of entire economies. Moreover, even if there was an abundance of climate financing readily available for the region’s poorer countries, the focus will be less on mitigation or adaptation strategies. Rather, the more pressing needs will be reducing volatility by relieving pressure on tattered safety nets, closing inequality gaps, investing in infrastructure and tackling unemployment — especially among youths and women. Failing to align climate intervention priorities with these urgent socioeconomic needs could lead to mismatched priorities that only fuel civic antipathy, unrest and, ultimately, conflict.

To significantly reduce emissions and contribute to the global climate change fight, Arab countries must consider more ambitious mitigation strategies. Bright prospects lie in capitalizing on eco-friendly industrial initiatives, which not only help decrease emissions but also address other objectives such as poverty eradication and closing inequality gaps. Additionally, just and fair transitions, created by collective, participatory decision-making processes, will be crucial to reducing the disruptive impacts on jobs and communities as countries transition away from fossil fuels. This entails strengthening transparency in reporting on climate adaptation actions, particularly actions driven by the needs and situations of local communities.

Of course, these actions will need to run concurrently with a rapid scaling up of financing for climate adaptation, targeting developing countries. While the establishment of a fund for climate-related losses and damages is a promising development, funds pledged so far are only a tiny fraction of the $400 billion in estimated losses incurred by developing countries annually.

For now, the Middle East needs to adopt a comprehensive, pragmatic and inclusive approach toward climate change mitigation and adaptation. With the right strategies and their successful implementation, the Arab region can bridge its current gaps and take decisive steps toward combating climate change, while ensuring prosperity for its own population. By aligning these actions with global efforts, the Middle East can chart a path toward a more sustainable and resilient future.

• 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.

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