Thursday, 10 December 2015 Manuel Almeida

Contrary to previous international conferences on climate change, the weeks that preceded the U.N. Climate Change Conference currently being held in Paris were not marked by high-profile attempts to cast doubt on the threat of climate change, or the extent of human responsibility in the process.

The growing and alarming evidence has already ruined the climate change sceptics’ case. With schools in Beijing closed this week due to the highest-possible warning level for air pollution, the international media has picked up scary numbers from a scientific study published earlier this year. According to the authors of the study, all researchers at the University of California in Berkeley, more than 4000 people die in China every day due to the effects of pollution.

Also the Middle East and the Gulf in particular has been the subject of alarming studies on the future effects of climate change. A study published in October in an American science magazine concluded that, in just a couple of decades, temperatures in Dubai, Abu Dhabi or the Iranian coast could make human survival very difficult in the absence of mitigating measures. Weather officials in the UAE did however cast doubt over the claim.
A threat to the region

The findings and conclusions of these and other studies have often been unhelpfully inflated by the media. For example, general reporting on this study about unbearable temperatures in the Gulf claimed various cities in the region could very soon become uninhabitable, whereas it generally failed to explain the report’s conclusion that those extreme conditions would still be rare.

However, as much as the media tends to exaggeration, the last few summers saw heat waves in Iraq, Iran and Kuwait push temperatures over 53 degrees Celsius, while feels-like temperatures were far higher.

Extreme weather conditions such as very high temperatures, droughts and floods carry various problems and threats for all the countries in the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula. These include rising sea levels and salinization of the soil, crop failures and increasing food insecurity, as well as severe water shortages. This could generate mass migrations and either increase the likelihood of armed conflict or worsen existing ones.

Experts rightly note poor populations will inevitably suffer the most. Yemen, the region’s poorest country, with a huge deficit of energy sources and almost no resources to counter the extreme dependency of food imports and a severe water scarcity problem, is particularly vulnerable.

In this context, the Paris climate summit, or COP21, which aims to produce a legally binding agreement among all participants that can replace the Kyoto Protocol as the key global strategy to combat climate change, is of great relevance for the countries of the region. Participants hope to reach an agreement to set a goal to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, although a large group of countries is pushing for a 1.5 degree target.
The GCC’s economic challenge

Yet what all participating states decide during the Paris conference can also bear particular relevance the economic future of the Gulf states, leading oil and gas producers and exporters.

Although coal-fired power plants are the biggest source of man-made CO2 emissions, oil and gas come next. Thus, any decisions under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change to reduce emissions could result in a reduction of the global demand for oil and gas.

Each of the GCC states submitted their plans, which focus either on reduction of emissions or enhancement of the mitigation potential, or in some cases both. They propose to achieve that mostly via improvement of energy efficiency in various sectors (industry, construction and transportation), investment in renewable and nuclear energy and development of large networks for carbon capture, usage and storage.

Saudi Arabia, for example, plans to build the world’s largest carbon capture and use plant. Ali Al-Naimi, Saudi Petroleum and Mineral Resources Minister, explained in Paris how the Saudi Energy Efficiency Center would play a key role in creating awareness among the population about the need for much greater energy efficiency. Qatar’s plan also places a lot of emphasis on building awareness and investment in education to build an environmentally aware society. Among other measures, Dubai has joined the C40, a group of 82 megacities joined together to fight climate change.

Although the GCC states represent a tiny proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions, per capita they are among the world’s highest emitters, largely due to commodities for export that involve high levels of greenhouse gas emissions during the production process.

The prospect of low oil prices had already pushed the GCC states to make serious steps toward economic diversification and sustainable development. With low oil prices now a reality for over a year, plus the constant discovery of new gas fields all over the world, that shift is more pressing than ever. The GCC governments seem to have rightly interpreted the Paris climate summit as a key and unmissable opportunity to push forward that agenda.

Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.