The MENA region faces a unique set of environmental challenges as it looks to support the global transition to sustainability, and can teach important lessons to the world at COP27. Chris Seekings reports
The eyes of the world will turn to the Middle East in November, as political leaders, NGOs, the global media and other various stakeholders descend on Egypt’s Sharm El-Sheikh for the latest UN Climate Change Conference (COP27).
Known for its sandy beaches, clear waters and coral reefs, the resort city will provide an idyllic backdrop for the negotiations – and a reminder of what’s at stake.
“The pressure on the Egyptian government has increased due to hosting COP27, and everybody is on their toes,” explains Professor Ali Hassan, an expert in environmental sciences at Ain Shams University in Cairo and an IEMA Fellow. “The government is taking serious steps around sustainability, but the economic pressures are high.”
The story is similar for countries worldwide, still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and now also dealing with a cost-of-living crisis as energy prices skyrocket. Climate finance and adaptation are set to be at the top of the agenda at November’s summit.
Although it is taking place in Africa, COP27 presents an opportunity for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to demonstrate its commitment to tackling climate change, and to share insights from one of the planet’s hottest regions.
While many countries in the region rely on fossil fuels, governments have come to accept the need for diversification amid the shift to renewables. Hassan, whose university was the first in the region to offer specialised environment and sustainability courses during the 1980s, says that “very few people” were talking or thinking about the environment back then.
“There has been a big increase in the number of students studying environmental sustainability, including applied sciences in agriculture, health, engineering and so forth,” he says.
“We’ve seen a great shift with the government’s initiatives to expand green jobs and green skills, and my faculty has also been working with IEMA to develop internationally-recognised programmes.”
“We need an increased realisation that there is a massive amount to be learned from the Middle East”
Although fossil fuels will remain important to many MENA countries in the short term, there are numerous opportunities there for sustainability professionals who are looking to make an impact.
Harry Sealy, environmental and sustainability manager at engineering firm Jacobs and an IEMA Fellow, has been living in Doha, Qatar, for more than 10 years.
“The Middle East continues to be a highly dynamic place to work as a sustainability professional, and there is an awakening of concepts that have fundamental importance,” he explains. “Over the last decade, there has been a rapid growth in awareness of the need for environmental, social and governance across sectors, and while the oil and gas sector will continue for the foreseeable future, revenues can be invested in the testing and development of green technology. These can facilitate exploration of concepts not possible elsewhere, particularly in the context of extreme heat environments.”
Lessons to be learnt
Temperatures in the Middle East have increased by 1.5°C during the past 100 years — a rise 50% higher the global average. Cities in Kuwait, Oman and Iraq topped the list of hottest cities across the world on 18 June this year, with temperatures ranging between 49°C and 50.4°C.
The region’s inhabitants have had to deal with these sorts of conditions for generations, adopting a range of ingenious techniques to survive. With Europe registering record-breaking temperatures this year, countries in the West can learn much from MENA nations as they look to adapt and build resilience to climate change.
“As Europe faces unprecedented droughts and heatwaves, there is a wealth of experience to be learned from Middle East,” explains Sealy. “Experience developed in water conservation, food production, air conditioning systems, and climate resilience in road building and design are becoming increasingly relevant.”
“There are also ancient systems of land management, which people have forgotten because of modern agriculture, while disturbance of ecosystems is also acute in extreme desert environments due to the longer time taken for natural recovery.”
The shift to renewables will take decades, and, at least in the short term, liquefied natural gas is seen by many as the ‘least bad’ fossil fuel to use during the transition. “You can’t just switch oil and gas off, because the alternative energy market isn’t sufficiently developed to fill that gap,” Sealy says. “Internationally, the transition to cleaner energies is dependent on sourcing reliable natural gas supplies, further exacerbated by current unfortunate geopolitical circumstances in Europe. So there’s an energy security element, in which countries like Qatar will have a critical role to play.”
However, extreme weather conditions, combined with social and political issues, also create a unique set of environmental challenges for MENA countries, and many are looking to developed nations for support.
Water security, energy security, food security, land degradation and desertification are five of the main environmental challenges facing MENA countries.
States in the western half of the region, from Morocco to Tunisia, through Algeria, Libya and Egypt, and then to Jordan and Syria, are under two additional stresses that are “checkmated by climate change”, according to Hassan. “The first is economic stress, as many of these countries are not as rich as those in the Gulf, like Qatar and Saudi Arabia,” he says. “The other one is governance, because not all countries have the same level of maturity in terms of democracy, community participation, and discussion of issues related to climate or other issues.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturns have caused many countries to put environmental initiatives on the back burner as they prioritise short-term financial gains. This is particularly true of the poorer MENA nations.
“When governments are faced with economic pressures, they put more weight on financial issues at the expense of the environment, nature conservation and other issues like that,” Hassan continues. “Some countries have gone into environmental deregulation – for example, they had a ministry and downscaled to an agency. They have expelled environmental experts, and tend to bypass the need for environmental assessment or impact assessment to push development.”
These pressures are exacerbated by rising populations – the region is experiencing the fastest growth in the world, and it is estimated that its population will have doubled to 724 million by 2050. Existing political and social issues don’t make matters easier.
Although things are changing, the role of women in the Middle East has traditionally been to take care of family matters, such as raising children and preparing food. They are often left out of decision making when it comes to developing climate policies at the highest levels of government, despite frequently being those hardest hit by climate change impacts such as floods or heatwaves.
“Existing gender inequality in economic, social and political domains could multiply the effects of climate change that women experience, since gender inequality and gender-specific capacities for adaptation and resilience are intertwined,” explains Masako Ueda, regional migration, environment and climate change specialist at the UN’s International Organization for Migration. “Despite existing challenges, women in the MENA region are increasingly finding ways to reflect their concerns and voices in policies as politicians, academia, civil society leaders and youth activists.”
One such person is H E Mariam bint Mohammed Almheiri, the UAE’s Minister of Climate Change and Environment. “It is key that women help shape the response to climate change, as they bring a unique perspective and valuable skills to the table,” she tells me. “It’s a great source of pride for me to be the first woman to hold this position. Our job as is to create an environment that unlocks women’s potential through education, training and re-skilling.”
“Governments faced with economic pressures put more weight on financial issues, at the expense of the environment”
In a region plagued by war and political instability, climate impacts make mass migration more likely, leading to more displaced people as climate refugees cross neighbouring borders. If they remain in MENA, more pressure will be placed on countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, for which refugees make up around 25% of the population. Again, the effects here are most likely to be felt by women.
“Livelihood loss due to climate change could lead to the migration of men from rural to urban areas, leaving women to deal with climate change impacts such as water scarcity and finding alternative sources of immediate income,” Ueda continues. “On the other hand, the household needs for adapting to climate change impacts can create new opportunities for women’s empowerment and leadership. However, it is imperative to continue advocating for the involvement of women in the decision-making process at all levels.”
Many of the politically fraught issues discussed at last year’s COP26 summit are set to rear their head again in November as negotiators look to secure their own interests. Egyptian officials have already made their priorities clear. Speaking in Glasgow last year, the country’s minister of environment, Dr Yasmine Fouad, said: “We hope to make progress in priority areas such as climate financing, adaptation, and loss and damage, to keep pace with the progress that the world hopes to achieve in mitigation and carbon neutrality efforts.”
Alongside pledging more ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions, developed countries’ commitment to mobilise US$100bn a year to support developing countries on climate action is set to be a key issue. Professor Hassan knows that this will be difficult due to the economic climate. “We understand these pressures, which is why developed countries’ support for MENA and Africa is not just about money, it is also about assisting in science, technology, policy, strategy and regulation,” he says. “Sometimes leaders from developed countries have the idea that developing countries just need money, but it should be about clear mechanisms, transparency and disclosure of climate finance.”
The outcomes he would like to see from this year’s summit include more active roles for NGOs, more space for democracy and community participation, science-based strategies and high-priority climate-change risk setting, as well as lessons for new national climate finance models. Ueda wants greater recognition of the human mobility that is linked to climate change. “We would also like to see increasing support for climate change adaptation action, measures and resources to avert and minimise displacement, when and where possible, and to strengthen people’s resilience,” she adds. “Furthermore, we would like to see strengthened support for the countries and people most vulnerable to climate change impacts, with specific attention to gender-specific needs for building adaptation and resilience capacities.”
For Sealy, COP27 is a unique opportunity for reciprocal co-operation and respect between the MENA region and the West. “Discussions and closer collaboration between non-Middle Eastern and Middle Eastern entities, to fast-track the upscaling of technologies that the world needs, are key. We need an increased realisation within non-desert countries and nations that there is a massive amount to be learned from the Middle East.”