Arab nations at COP26 blow hot and cold on climate duties

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (R) greet Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani as they arrive for day two of COP26 at SECC on November 1, 2021
05 November, 2021
Given the pressing nature of this year's extraordinary climate disruption, climate organisers have called on world leaders to act decisively at COP26. But how has the Arab world conducted themselves, many of whom benefit from greenhouse emissions?

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, abbreviated as COP26, has provided cause for optimism and concern. On the one hand, more than half the world’s countries have pledged to curb methane emissions by 30 percent and stop deforestation by 2030, crucial steps toward limiting the effects of global warming.

On the other hand, the international community will have to go much further if it intends to avoid the most catastrophic eventualities of the climate crisis. Within the Arab world, the debate over how to proceed may soon reach a boiling point.

The “provisional list of registered participants” for the summit in Glasgow, Scotland, features big names as well as notable absences. Attendees from the energy superpowers include Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud.

Nonetheless, other players in the petroleum industry, such as Algeria and the United Arab Emirates, have refrained from dispatching their most prominent officials to COP26.

"Some of the most star-studded delegations to COP26 came from Arab countries that benefit little from greenhouse gas emissions but have the most to lose from the climate change crisis"

From a diplomatic and economic perspective, it might come as little surprise that some of the Arab energy superpowers would feel reluctant to deploy their heads of state or government to Glasgow.

In the Persian Gulf, in particular, a number of countries rely on fossil fuels to maintain their wealth and their spheres of influence. Even so, the unsustainable costs of this dynamic are becoming clearer by the day.

In August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a grouping tied to the UN, issued a report on fossil fuels' unquestionable role in global warming.

Some of the most star-studded delegations to COP26 came from Arab countries that benefit little from greenhouse gas emissions but have the most to lose from the climate change crisis.

Names on the guestlist range from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Jordanian King Abdullah II to Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Moroccan Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch. Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Morocco are bracing themselves for global warming.

The Arab world’s energy superpowers, like their less wealthy counterparts in North Africa and the Middle East, recognise the dangers of the climate crisis and are diverting significant resources to address it.

Saudi Arabia is building a city designed to run on renewable energy, and the UAE and several of its neighbours have made major investments in rainmaking, also known as “cloud seeding,” to tackle droughts. At the same time, these countries’ exports of fossil fuels are accelerating global warming and the environmental disasters that accompany it.

An article on the “Gulf Cooperation Council countries’ climate change mitigation challenges” published earlier this year in Applied Sciences cited research observing “that the GCC region contributes significantly to the global CO2 emissions produced by the combustion of oil and gas.” Saudi Arabia has the second-largest oil reserves in the world and the most of any country in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, better known as “OPEC.”

Perspectives

The rapid consumption of oil from the Gulf and elsewhere has contributed to environmental disasters across the globe, including the Arab world. This summer, wildfires struck Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, and Tunisia. In August, one such inferno claimed dozens of lives in Algeria, itself a top exporter of fossil fuels.

Sea level rise resulting from global warming will also have serious implications for countries such as Comoros, an impoverished island nation and Arab League member state that could see much of its coastline submerged later this century.

As the climate crisis’ potential to wreak devastation comes into focus, pressure on Arab beneficiaries of the petroleum industry has grown. In response, several of the Arab world’s energy superpowers have tried to defend their privileged position. “Some governments continue to place a heavy emphasis on the negative consequences of international climate change response measures,” noted a 2020 report by the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

"Even if a handful of energy superpowers profit from fossil fuels today, the climate crisis will soon ravage countries throughout the world without regard to wealth"

The UAE caught the world’s attention with an early October announcement that Emirati officials aim to achieve “net-zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 despite concurrent plans to increase the UAE’s extraction of oil by a million barrels a day in the next ten years.

However noble this initiative, the UAE’s strategy of continued reliance on oil speaks to the fundamental disparity at the heart of the climate crisis: if wealthy countries keep producing and burning fossil fuels, their poorer counterparts in the Arab world and elsewhere will bear the consequences.

The scientific consensus holds that, if the world hopes to avert the worst-case scenarios for the climate crisis, the international community must start taking drastic steps to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels now.

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Given Emirati officials’ ambitions to host COP28 in 2023, the UAE and other Arab energy superpowers must begin asking themselves what more they can do to slow global warming. Otherwise, environmental disasters will multiply across the Arab world.

Even if a handful of energy superpowers profit from fossil fuels today, the climate crisis will soon ravage countries throughout the world without regard to wealth.

Whether rich or poor, every government in the Middle East and North Africa has a major incentive to curb greenhouse gas emissions. From Abu Dhabi to Cairo, the region’s power brokers have little time to spare.

Austin Bodetti is a writer specialising in the Arab world. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired. Any opinion or analysis expressed in his work is by him alone and is not associated with any other entity with the exception of appropriate source attribution