COP26: How the Middle East will Tackle Climate Change

David Vergara Schleich is a second year international relations student. He is German-Colombian and lived the majority of his life in Egypt. He is currently the Middle East Editor for IR Today, his interests lie particularly in revolutions and authoritarian states, as well as Middle Eastern geopolitics.

This year’s COP26 conference on climate change is noticeably different for a variety of reasons— not least because of its year-long postponement due to Covid-19. Chief among the reasons, however, is that during this year’s summit, the Middle East is said to finally get tough on climate change. The Middle East is warming twice as fast as the global average and is predicted to be one of the worst affected regions of climate change in the coming decades. For obvious reasons, the wealthiest “petro-states” have long been subject to intense criticism for their continued reliance on fossil fuels, with Gulf states like Qatar, the country with the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world, at the center of it. Despite the economic reality, it seems as though the Middle Eastern countries are finally heeding the call to implement comprehensive climate change policies in an effort to diversify away from fossil fuels. This article will evaluate the current efforts of Middle Eastern states in conforming to the “Green Wave” propelled by COP26 and outline some of its gravest implications. 

Comprehensive Reform: Greenwashing or Genuine?

In anticipation of the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Middle Eastern countries and especially the Gulf states have announced far-reaching environmental and energy policies. Most notably among them is Saudi Arabia, which in a bid to come out as the leader of Middle Eastern climate change efforts, has spearheaded the “2021 Middle East Green Initiative Summit” in which it promised to achieve “net-zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2060. In a similar fashion, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has announced its intentions to ​​reduce its emissions by 23.5% in the next decade and to become completely neutral by 2050, one-upping the Saudi plan by a decade, much to the discontent of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

Beyond the diplomatically convenient timing of these initiatives (ahead of COP26), there is considerable skepticism by environmentalists of their feasibility and, especially, authenticity. In fact, these buzzword-laden plans to achieve greenhouse gas neutrality seem hollow considering that fossil fuels will continue to be integral to their economies for decades to come. The Middle East remains heavily reliant on oil and gas exports, constituting 70% of total exports in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait. Moreover, states are not planning to scale down fossil fuel production anytime soon. Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company Aramco has announced plans to increase oil production from 12 to 13 million barrels a year by 2027.

The question remains — how do these states purport to achieve “net-zero” emission economies within the next four decades despite relying on one of the most carbon-intensive energy sectors?

The answer lies in the way the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) measures the greenhouse output of states. The IPCC method is focused on the end-users of goods, not the producers. As Karen E. Young, senior fellow and founding director of the Middle East Institute’s Program on Economics and Energy, explains:

“…exports of hydrocarbons do not count as domestic emissions. … A net-zero target has a business case behind it. It brands a state hydrocarbon producer in a class of the solution-finders, rather than the obstructionists, even as hydrocarbon production continues ahead”

It is through this technical loophole that fossil fuel exporting states are able to announce superficially exhaustive green initiatives, whilst at the same time safeguarding and future-proofing their export-oriented oil and gas production.

In the end, the affluent Middle Eastern fossil fuel producers’ “net-zero” plans, such as the ones rolled out by the UAE, Saud Arabia, and Kuwait, must be taken with a grain of salt. This is not to completely discredit the truly monumental leaps the Middle East is taking to protect the future of this earth. Reducing greenhouse gases and developing infrastructure to absorb more carbon dioxide to achieve “net-zero” is an immensely beneficial step for some of the most per capita polluting states in the world — for those who can afford it, that is.

Energy Inequality: The Gulf versus the Rest

One common feature the readership may have picked up on is the fact these green initiatives all originate from Gulf states. Needless to say, the Middle East is a complex region, and any discussion of the Gulf states falls short of accurately evaluating the Middle East’s response to climate change as a region. In an International Energy Association report, it was concluded that the Gulf states are uniquely poised to tackle climate change as they possess “all three elements needed to switch to renewables: capital, sun and large tracts of vacant land.” These are precisely the qualities that many other, less affluent, Middle Eastern countries lack.

Unlike the Gulf states, other fossil fuel-producing countries including Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, do not have at their disposal sovereign wealth funds worth billions of dollars. They are unable to appease the environmentalist West with flashy initiatives at international summits such as COP26. For them, the global transition away from fossil fuels poses an acute existential economic threat.

The success of the Gulf states’ reforms is rooted in the government’s ability to garner public support, or more accurately, stifle political opposition. The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour argues that the Gulf monarchies have been able to “numb public opinion” by providing large subsidies for utilities and foodstuffs, in combination with low taxes, all financed by petro-wealth. This is in contrast to states such as Iraq, Egypt, and Iran, which despite their autocratic nature, cannot rely on financial cushioning to push through far-reaching reforms which will affect exports, jobs, wages, and increase electricity costs for households.

This energy anxiety is exacerbated by the false promises and inadequate responses developing countries in the Global North have given to developing states. In the 2009 Copenhagen summit, developed nations promised 100 Billion USD in annual assistance to developing countries to help their national energy assistance. Since 2009, this target has never been met. This has fueled the broader global debate on energy hypocrisy, alleging that developed nations are “kicking away the ladder” by expecting developing nations to immediately switch to more expensive renewable energies.

Just this October, a huge” document leak from the IPCC obtained by BBC revealed that developed nations such as Switzerland and Australia have actively attempted to influence the panel’s preparation for COP26, with the specific aim to water down the emphasis on financial commitment developed countries would pledge to developing countries to curb climate change.

It is therefore crucial that policymakers and the global community at large do not conflate the experiences of climate change experienced by the rich petro-Gulf states and those of the relatively poorer fossil fuel producing countries such as Iraq, Egypt, and Iran, who cannot be expected to launch ‘radical’ initiatives. Especially if the global north is not willing to help pay for it.

Conclusions: A New Era of Climate Action Diplomacy in the Middle East?

This article has sought to highlight two underlying trends the Middle East is facing in regards to climate change and the current momentum of COP26. The affluent Gulf-states are in fierce competition to come out on top as the most progressive green reformers. They are best situated to make the transition from fossil fuel reliance to diversifying their economies towards service-based industries and technological innovation hubs of the region. However, one must remember that as of yet, these initiatives are still a far cry from decreasing the export of oil and gas, which is currently being disincentivized by the method through which the IPCC measures greenhouse emissions. Parallelly, the potential for a seamless transition of the Gulf-states is to the detriment of the rest of the Middle Eastern fossil fuel producers, which given their economic development and fiscal constraints, are unable to commit to any far-reaching energy transition plans at this time, and fear being “left behind”.

An obvious solution, which has been hinted at by both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, is that in the process of diversifying their economy, Gulf states could increase their green foreign direct investment into their neighboring states in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the Middle East is known for its volatile capital flows and there is a long road ahead to establish better economic and business ties for potential transnational environmental projects (such as solar farms) between Gulf states and the rest.

Notwithstanding the evident challenges, getting climate reform “right” in the Middle East is perhaps one of the most critical tasks which lie ahead not just for the embattled states in the region, but also for the developing countries who must be held to their word to help fund it. This responsibility is also bestowed upon the United Nations, the IPCC, and COP26+ whose daunting task is to make global climate change policy more coherent.

Image Credit: Kuwait’s Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah at COP26 in Glasgow

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