Climate change: Can the Middle East reach net zero emissions by 2050?

Iraqi men remove pieces of cracked earth from the marshes crossing the southern Iraqi town of al-Azeir, 02 April 2007.
6 min read
19 August, 2021

In early August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirmed that humans have unequivocally warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land. Their report predicts that global temperatures will reach around 1.5°C above the pre-industrial level by 2030. The common goal is to limit global warming to under 2°C, ideally keeping it below 1.5°C.

The IPCC scientists warned that global warming could exceed 2°C during the 21st century unless countries reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the IPCC report a "code red" for humanity.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has complex geopolitical and socioeconomic challenges. Within that context, freshwater scarcity, population growth, urbanisation, conflicts, and changing migration patterns have increased pressures on human ecosystems.

"The UN Secretary-General called the climate change report a 'code red' for humanity"

Climate change's impact on MENA

Climate change is already affecting the Middle East in alarming ways. In recent years, several Arab states have experienced an intensified water cycle, causing higher frequency and intensity of floods and droughts, and extreme weather events such as heatwaves, cyclones, and dust storms. As the IPCC noted, these effects will likely intensify in the coming years.

As the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UNESCWA) demonstrated in its 2017 Arab Climate Change Assessment Report, over 50% of the surface area of the Arab region's major cropland systems are exposed to water vulnerability. Climate-induced droughts and desertification could cause the further decline of water and food resources, including livestock.

In recent weeks, the MENA region has been burning. Blazes have hit Turkey, spreading across the southern coastline, displacing thousands of people, and causing at least eight deaths. Wildfires in northern Algeria have killed at least 71 people. Further fires in northern Lebanon have threatened houses, killed a 15-year-old boy, and spread across the border into Syria's Homs province. 

Wildfires engulfed Turkey's southern coast, 30 July 30, 2021. [Getty]
Wildfires engulfed Turkey's southern coast on 30 July 2021. [Getty]

Dr Fahad Saeed, a climate scientist at Berlin-based think tank Climate Analytics, told The New Arab that MENA is experiencing several different kinds of climate extremes with the potential to affect human health.

"Heat stress is an important indicator related to human physiology. The human body can tolerate a high level of temperature, around 45°C. But when you combine heat stress with humidity, the human body may experience health risks," he said.

He also warns of the dangers of "compound extremes", when two or more extreme events (i.e. heat and drought) occur simultaneously or successively, warning that MENA is likely to experience more and more compound extremes in the future.

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Climate change also has the potential to exacerbate socioeconomic tensions in the region

"If rain drops by 25% in Lebanon, it may have a significant impact on the agriculture productivity and rural livelihoods, with people moving from rural to urban areas in search of work, potentially leading to social instability," states Karim Elgendy, associate fellow at Chatham House, and founder of Carboun, an NGO promoting sustainable urban planning in MENA.

"Climate change has the potential to exacerbate socioeconomic tensions in the region"

Climate extremes may lead to "migration and competition over water resources to increase tension. The Jordan Valley is one of those locations where tensions could rise between countries as a result of climate change. The Tigris and Euphrates are other locations where reduction of overall water may increase tensions between Turkey on one hand, and Syria and Iraq on the other," he said.

The human impact of climate change will also depend on the resilience and capabilities of governments. "When extremes occur in the United States, China, or Europe, those countries are more resilient. But when extremes happen in the Middle East, the population is more vulnerable," says Saeed.

"The only thing we can do is reduce the emissions as global warming will be stronger in future," he concludes. 

Regional efforts to reduce emissions

So far, no Middle Eastern country has committed to fully decarbonising by 2050. However, there are many regional efforts to combat climate change, according to Elgendy.

"In terms of international cooperation, the region generally lacks collaboration on climate action. However, Saudi Arabia has recently announced an ambitious regional plan for climate action known as the Middle East Green Initiative," he said.

drought iraq - sopa
A traditional boat laying idle on a dry and cracked marsh in Southern Iraq, 2018. [Getty]

Saudi Arabia aims to reduce emissions by generating half of its energy from renewable sources by 2030 and plant ten billion trees in the coming decades. Additionally, the UAE aims to become the first petrostate to reach the net zero target by 2050. However, the government is still developing its policy and is expected to announce its roadmap before the COP26 climate summit in November 2021, according to Bloomberg.

However, some experts remain sceptical, as Gulf countries lay out ambitious sustainability plans while continuing to expand fossil fuel production. 

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"Oil and gas exporters in the region have already started diversifying their economies away from fossil fuel exports. Their climate change policies generally do not focus on their oil and gas exports, but they only consider their carbon footprint." However, Elgendy points out that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have recently joined the US, Canada, and Norway in the Net Zero Producers' Forum, a group of energy-producing countries which aims to "develop pragmatic net-zero emission strategies".

In April, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry met with several leaders from MENA countries during the UAE Regional Climate Dialogue. In a joint statement, they committed to reducing emissions by 2030 and working collectively to help the region adapt to the impacts of climate change by collaborating on mobilising investment in new energy economies.

"Although several countries are increasing their objectives in terms of national contribution to carbon emissions reductions, the Middle East is not ambitious enough on mitigation when compared with other regions"

Elgendy highlighted that some countries in the MENA region have great potential fossil fuel alternatives. 

"In terms of renewable energy, Morocco, Egypt, and Jordan are the regional leaders today, with the most active renewable energy programmes and largest installed capacity. Turkey is currently sourcing 46% of its electricity from renewables, but most of it comes from hydropower. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has an ambitious plan to reach 50% renewables by 2050, and the UAE is planning for 44% by 2050," he explained.

Although several countries in the region are increasing their objectives in terms of national contribution to carbon emissions reductions, the Middle East is not ambitious enough on mitigation when compared with other regions, such as Europe, according to Elgendy.

Scientists like Saeed advocate for wealthier countries to support the more vulnerable ones. "The role of the least developed countries in global emissions is very low. G20 countries must take action to reduce emissions, and reach the net zero target. But at the same time, they should help developing countries to follow a clean and green path," he said.

The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), which has been re-scheduled to take place in November 2021 will be fundamental to understanding regional and global strategies to reduce emissions by 2030. Furthermore, it will be the first test of the Paris Agreement's ability to get countries to increase their ambitions to reach global net zero by 2050.

Dario Sabaghi is a freelance journalist interested in human rights.

Follow him on Twitter: @DarioSabaghi