The cost of climate change in Middle East

 By Criselda Diala-McBride

An overheating planet poses greater economic and social risks to the region, including water scarcity, which could dramatically worsen humanitarian crisis. We explore these threats and what governments and the private sector are doing to tackle the impact of rising global temperatures…

Recent scientific studies present an apocalyptic vision of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), if climate change remains unrestrained. According to scholars at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the wet-bulb temperature – a measurement of heat and humidity – in the Arabian Gulf region would increase beyond the human body threshold of below 35 degrees Celsius by 2070 under the current rate of carbon emissions.
The findings, published in the journal Nature Climate Change in October 2015, underscored that severe heatwaves would eventually make the Arabian Gulf, which includes countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait, virtually uninhabitable.
A collaborative research paper published in May 2016 by Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany and The Cyprus Institute, offered a similar grim prediction. The study found that even if MENA governments adhere to the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to well below two degrees Celsius, the effort would do little to prevent the region from overheating. So much so that by the middle of this century, the mercury would top an average 30 degrees Celsius at night and 46 degrees Celsius during the day.
The research also noted that by the end of this century, “midday temperatures on warm days could reach 50 degrees Celsius,” making the region “uninhabitable.” But that future appears to have already arrived.
In the UAE alone, midday temperature rose more than 50 degrees Celsius in June this year. Summer heat in the country had been so intense that there were several reports of cars bursting into flames. Iraq experienced the same searing temperature in August, forcing the government to give state employees a day off. In July last year, Iraq’s southern city of Basra broke global heat records when it became the “hottest place on earth outside of Death Valley,” as temperature hit 54 degrees Celsius, prompting the government to declare a four-day holiday.

People swim in the Shatt al-Arab waterway in Basra to beat the heat (Nabil al-Jurani, The Guardian)

The MENA region is feeling the heat – literally and figuratively – of climate change. The rising temperature has also exposed its vulnerabilities. Majority of the region has an arid climate and despite its rich fossil fuel reserves, its water supply is extremely limited, which makes water and food security a critical concern.
According to the World Bank, MENA has less than 1,000 cubic meters (m3) of renewable water resources per person, compared with 4,500 m3 in East Asia Pacific and 9,000 m3 in the United States. Prolonged drought during summer has put intense pressure on the agriculture sector in countries like Morocco, Egypt and Sudan, while increasing the prevalence of sandstorms in Arabian Gulf nations.

Unusual heavy rains, meanwhile, have caused dangerous flash floods in some parts of the region, and raised the sea levels, which threatens the Nile River delta, where Egypt grows most of its crops. Other than agriculture, key sectors such as tourism and energy will bear the brunt in an era of rising global temperatures. In addition, climate-related challenges could exacerbate geopolitical tensions, such as civil wars and refugee crisis.
Early this year, the Emirates Wildlife Society and World Wildlife Fund (EWS-WWF) highlighted the economic and social risks of climate change in the UAE. The numbers are quite impressive: by 2050, humidity levels in the country will increase by 10 percent; air-conditioning demand will rise by as much as 35 percent; overall energy consumption will grow 11 percent annually; and utility costs for residents and building owners will reach $834 million per year. To meet this skyrocketing demand for energy, the UAE would have to build 18 solar-powered plants, each with a capacity of 100 MW.
As population expands, other countries in the region will have a similar need to raise power capacity in order to meet subsequent cooling demand.
But aside from highlighting the risks, climate change also unveils the economic and social disparity in the MENA region. For example, while oil- and natural gas-producing nations may be able to afford building district cooling facilities to cool buildings and protect residents indoors, construct water desalination plants, and modernize infrastructures to address seasonal street flooding; poorer countries such as Yemen will struggle to cope with the adverse impact of global warming.
To bridge this gap, World Bank launched its MENA Climate Action Plan in November last year, with a $1.5 billion annual funding geared towards financing initiatives to help countries in the region transition to low-carbon energy, secure food and water supplies, build sustainable cities that adapt to new climate conditions and protect underprivileged countries that are most at risk of climate change.
Governments across the region, both oil-producing and oil-importing countries, are also actively pursuing a national transformation agenda that puts emphasis on developing green economy. Saudi Arabia, for example, aims to raise its renewable energy capacity to 9.5 GW by 2023 by investing between $30 billion and $50 billion into the sector. UAE is pouring $163 billion in developing green energy projects, as it aims to free up fossil fuels and generate 44 percent of its power needs from renewables. Egypt, Jordan and Iran have also launched initiatives to lure investors to its renewables energy sector.
Regulatory reforms, such as the promotion of energy efficiency, green building codes and sustainable transport have also been introduced to limit greenhouse gas emissions in the region.
While an overheating planet is a reality that MENA countries have to contend with, public and private sectors are laying the groundwork for a green future across the Arab world.

READ MORE: MENA’s insatiable appetite for LNG by Criselda Diala-McBride

about the author
Criselda Diala-McBride
Dubai-based journalist with 20 years of experience writing and editing finance, aviation, tourism, retail, technology, property and oil and gas articles for a range of print and online publications.