Najib Saab 17/12/2015

As a good climate agreement was sealed in Paris last week, the Arab Forum for Environment and Development can be proud to have been part of the process. AFED’s flagship report in 2009, titled “Impact of Climate Change on Arab Countries,” provided solid arguments for negotiators that Arabs gain from a strong climate deal. From the outset of climate negotiations, AFED delegates were around to help Arab negotiators reach a balanced solution.

The historic Paris Agreement is a turning point. It concludes years of work from scientists, policy-makers, activists and organizations, including AFED and its partners, friends, sponsors and board.

The agreement is meant to halt the dreadful consequences of climate change, by reducing carbon emissions in the short term, with a commitment to decarbonize the economy by 2070. This sends a strong signal to planners, markets, investors and inventors to accelerate the shift to a zero-carbon energy sector.

The goal is to reduce carbon emissions, not to halt the use of fossil fuels. However, until a proven technology to burn fossil fuels without releasing carbon into the atmosphere becomes operational, the two cannot be dissociated. Thus the message from Paris is to get ready for phasing out fossil fuels in a few decades, maybe as little as 35 years.

While the agreement recognizes that rich countries have a historic responsibility for emissions, and thus should bear the burdens of the cost, all countries agreed to a reduction in targets. The assistance funds will be released conditional on the results achieved. This was combined with a call for developing countries to engage in internal housekeeping, especially regarding good governance, democracy and fighting corruption.

What made the deal possible was a new alliance, announced three days before the end of negotiations, between African, Pacific and Caribbean countries, along with the European Union, the United States and Canada, calling for a strong and binding agreement. They were later joined by Brazil. This broke the traditional lines between rich and poor countries, which prompted China and India to join after difficult negotiations.

With the new alliances it will be difficult for China and emerging rapidly growing economies to continue to hide behind poor countries in the group of 77 to gain more concessions. AFED had always called for a three-way track, whereby countries with rapidly growing economies are dissociated in responsibility from slow-growth developing countries.

Amazingly, 195 countries, including oil exporting ones, not only agreed on limiting the rise in temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius, but went further to support a target of 1.5 degrees. The sum of $100 billion pledged annually as of 2020 for the Green Climate Fund was considered a “minimum” commitment, to be revised periodically as required. National commitments to reduce carbon emissions will be revised in 2018, in view of increasing them as needed before implementation starts in 2020. Five-year reviews of progress will commence as of 2025. More striking is that 2050 was set as a target year to begin decarbonization, with a commitment to achieve that goal by 2070.

Some Arab countries were late in reading the writing on the wall. They continued until advanced stages of negotiations to oppose any sort of binding deal with strong targets, without offering a plan B. Left with Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia, they had to give up, feeling they were betrayed by China and the U.S.

The agreement will have a big impact on oil-exporting countries, as the shift away from fossil fuels is likely to be quicker than expected. They will have to diversify immediately and revisit the nature and size of their current growth targets. As consecutive AFED reports showed, this goal is feasible. Combined with regional cooperation, Arab countries can transform their economies in a sustainable manner by using oil income in the coming decades for further education, technology advancement and economic diversification toward a greater reliance on products and services. They can even become leaders in producing and exporting solar energy, as Morocco has done.

Arab non-oil exporting countries will have to prepare their economies for the new realities, taking advantage of the development assistance mechanisms expected to emerge from the climate agreement. This includes attracting private funds, potentially much higher than official development aid. However, this requires creating appropriate conditions to attract investments. For the private sector the message from Paris was to diversify investment and give appropriate weight to renewable and clean energy.

Hard work lies ahead and AFED has a crucial role to play in assisting Arab countries effect a soft transition. It is the responsibility of all concerned to build on the Paris agreement to shift to strong economies that no longer damage our climate.

Najib Saab is secretary general of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development.