On the Glasgow train: climate action in the MENA region

In the few weeks leading up to the upcoming UN climate change summit in Glasgow, known as COP26, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region witnessed an unprecedented shift in its climate policy.

The MENA region has often had a complicated relationship with climate change and the actions needed to address it.

Regional greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise on all fronts. In fact, during the 40 years prior to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, the MENA region was the only one in which total emissions, per capita emissions, and emissions per dollar of gross domestic product (GDP) increased. Many of the countries in the region also have rentier economies that depend on fossil fuel exports and are therefore concerned about lost income. However, the region is also at disproportionate risk from the impacts of climate change, not only relative to its small share of historical greenhouse gas emissions, but also relative to its share of world population and global GDP. .

At the annual UN climate summits known as the Conference of the Parties, or COPs for short, countries in the MENA region have often played a role that reflects this complicated relationship. They often seemed reluctant to advocate for ambitious climate action and generally opposed rapid decarbonization on the grounds that it would harm their developing economies. Some countries demanded international financing, especially when it comes to adapting to climate change, while others demanded compensation for the possible loss of income from fossil fuels.

As a regular observer of the annual climate negotiations, I often felt that the region was trying to stem the tide. While the scientific community reached consensus on the transition to a low-carbon economy powered by renewables, and while world leaders were busy working out the details of this transformation, the region seemed like a laggard trapped in a puddle of oil.

Feeding the competition, eventually

The Paris Agreement, while restoring hope of avoiding the worst effects of climate change, did not immediately alter these dynamics. The agreement’s bottom-up approach allowed each country to voluntarily determine how much it is willing to commit to fighting climate change. Initially, this allowed countries to engage as little as possible, leading to a collective global commitment that did not meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 ° C.

However, the genius of the agreement only manifested itself in recent years, when it began to promote competition between nations to revise their commitments upwards. As the global transformation to a low-carbon world seemed inevitable, many countries realized that by committing to ambitious climate action sooner rather than later, they will be better positioned to shape this new world rather than be molded by him. Many nations also thought that, as pioneers, they could establish themselves as world or regional leaders through climate diplomacy.

So, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, developed economies made more commitments to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some nations also establish long-term strategies to achieve zero carbon emissions by mid-century, including the European Union, the United Kingdom, the United States, China, Canada, and South Korea.

Leaving the puddle behind

Already earlier this year, signs were emerging in the MENA region that climate diplomacy is becoming central to the diplomatic arsenal of their powers as they vied for regional leadership and to fill a perceived power vacuum. Yet in the run-up to COP26, all of these powers have picked up the pace by committing to long-term climate goals that weren’t on the cards less than a year ago.

In the past few weeks alone, we’ve seen a series of regional announcements from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) indicating their intention to go carbon-free by mid-century. A few months earlier, Israel had also announced a “near zero” carbon plan, pledging to cut its emissions by 85 percent in 30 years. Iran is now the only regional power that has yet to develop an ambitious climate goal or even ratify the Paris Agreement.

The Turkish announcement of its plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2053 was the first and was followed within days by the UAE’s Net-Zero Initiative 2050, which was hailed as the first goal of its kind by an outside oil exporter. of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. or OECD. The Saudi announcement earlier this week outlined the kingdom’s vision of achieving zero carbon emissions by 2060 as part of the Saudi Green Initiative and its regional vision, known as the Middle East Green Initiative. Bahrain immediately followed up with a similar promise.

Unsurprisingly, there are many commonalities between these ads. All included plans to dramatically expand its renewable energy capacity and improve energy efficiency. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel also share plans to use tree planting as a carbon sequestration measure, while Turkey and Arabia plan to develop an emissions trading scheme.

However, climate policy always reflects national circumstances and priorities. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have made clear that despite their commitment to reducing emissions from their oil and gas industries, their plan is to maintain their role as major producers of fossil fuels. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s climate commitments are conditional on its ability to maintain its fossil fuel exports.

Saudi Arabia’s green initiatives are also unique in promoting the Circular Carbon Economy, a new approach championed by the kingdom that proposes that fossil fuels are not removed immediately and advocates removing carbon from the atmosphere using trees in addition to carbon capture and storage technologies. .

Funding for these visions is also a differentiating factor; While Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel are making unconditional commitments and not seeking climate finance, Turkey’s move has likely been influenced by their efforts to access growing flows of climate finance.

Such announcements are nothing less than transformative economic visions. By introducing these emission reduction targets, regional powers are setting a direction of travel for their economies in motion for the next 30 to 40 years, shaping all future infrastructure spending and signaling their towns and companies to get started. to move towards products and services that have a minimal effect on the environment.

Work alone and succeed together

But long-term visions need short-term plans, and regional powers have also increased their emission reduction commitments by 2030 ahead of COP26, in line with their commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Saudi Arabia, for example, pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent by 2030, while the United Arab Emirates pledged a 23.5 percent reduction, in both cases compared to usual scenarios. Israel, on the other hand, committed to a 27 percent reduction in emissions compared to 2015. Other countries in the MENA region have also raised their targets for 2030, including Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan, Oman, Qatar and Sudan. Most of these revised pledges remain relatively modest, indicating that the path to zero carbon will be slow to begin with, but they are certainly moving in the right direction.

The new climate approach may also unite the region, as different countries try to lead regional climate efforts. Saudi Arabia has gone further than anyone in fostering a sense of regional collaboration around its vision by launching the Middle East Green Initiative and inviting 30 regional and international leaders as well as the Arab League to support it. It has also announced the establishment of a regional carbon capture and storage center, as well as an investment fund and a collaborative platform to support its Circular Carbon Economy approach.

This collaboration could not have come too soon in a region so vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Regional countries can succeed together or fail alone.

More commitment

Next week, when the world’s eyes turn to Glasgow, many would be looking to see if these impressive developments in the MENA region’s climate policy would translate into a different negotiating position and more international collaboration.

Individual countries in the region may have concluded that being at the table could help them shape the new world that is being forged. And while the priorities of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Israel vary significantly, a coalition around a regional climate plan could be in the offing, with a different focus than the European countries currently pushing for climate action.

How this plays out remains uncertain, but one thing is indisputable; the region wants to be more committed to shaping the future. The fact that Egypt has been selected to host COP27 next year, while the United Arab Emirates is the pioneer to host the next COP in 2023, is further proof of that.

Not only did the MENA region jump on the weather train, it may also be trying to control its steering wheel. Over the next several months and years, we will find out if it is successful and in what direction it could lead.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.


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