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A warmer world we need to prepare for

A verified reading of 54ºC was set in Kuwait, in the city of Mitribah in 2016, and the highs keep coming. Last year, the country’s local media outlets reported that 53ºC had been recorded in Al Jahra, making it one of the hottest places on the planet.

By Sheikha Suhaila Al Sabah
Managing Editor

Scorching high temperatures and dry summers fanned by the northwesterly shamal wind are an inevitable part of living in Kuwait. However, in recent years there has been a troubling trend in the form of a marked increase in the number of days when temperatures stay at record highs. Not only are the hottest days in summer becoming hotter, they are also lasting longer and coming earlier each year.

Climatologists and meteorologists claim the rise in summer temperatures and increase in the number of hottest days are a bellwether of the planet getting warmer due to the global climate crisis. The higher temperatures are also a stark reminder of the need for everyone, and at every level, from governments to businesses, civil society organizations, and individuals, to do their part to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and avert a potentially catastrophic future.

Global warming and climate change is intensifying heat-waves in Kuwait, making summers hotter and increasing the periods of extreme heat from what was earlier just a few days, to over a month in recent decades. Meteorological records confirm that the number of days of extreme heat has tripled since the year 2000, and in the last few years heatwaves have pushed temperatures above 50°C for several continuous days.

Warmer, longer summers are also predicted to go from a month, to several months at a stretch in future. New studies have projected that average temperature could increase by 1.8°C to 2.57°C by mid-century compared to the early 2000s, with a possibility of reaching 5.54°C by the end of the century. The envisioned higher temperature would make outdoor life in summer almost unbearable for all life forms. Additionally, rising temperatures pose significant challenges to electricity infrastructure and utility supplies, as well as to agricultural production, exacerbating an already precarious food security situation.

In addition, higher temperatures present a serious health risk to people, increasing heat-related illnesses and death. Extreme heat compromises the body’s ability to regulate its internal temperature, which can lead to heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and hyperthermia, a condition where the body absorbs or generates more heat than it releases.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the strain put on the body as it tries to cool itself at extreme temperatures stresses the heart and kidneys, causing a worsening of chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, cerebrovascular disease, and diabetes-related conditions. Extreme heat is also especially potent to vulnerable sections of society, including the elderly, infants, pregnant women, and migrant workers toiling outdoors.

A recent Harvard study on the impact of climate change in Kuwait, estimated that there could be a 5 percent increase in heat-related mortality by 2100 under a moderate heat scenario, and a 12 percent increase using an extreme heat scenario. The study added that by 2100, over 14 percent of all deaths in Kuwait would be due to increased heat; most of those deaths would be of migrant workers.

Higher temperatures and climate change are also expected to exacerbate the country’s water vulnerabilities — Kuwait is already among the top-three most water stressed nations in the world. Water paucity combined with extreme temperatures not only lowers agricultural productivity and aggravates food insecurity, it also increases evaporation, aggravates soil salinization, and widens land desertification. High heat also disrupts the natural balance of Kuwait’s unique ecosystems, such as its coastal areas and wetlands, which lead to biodiversity loss.

Rising temperatures are also a significant threat to the energy system and economy. With economic stability overwhelmingly dependent on revenues from oil exports, Kuwait is impelled to continue producing and exporting oil. But, the extraction, refining of oil and burning of the fossil-fuels are a major source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Highly potent GHGs produced such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O) amplify climate change that induces the heat surge being experienced in Kuwait.

A recent report by the London School of Economics (LSE) estimates that emissions by Kuwait’s energy sector account for nearly 95 percent of the country’s total CO2 emissions, and contributes to raising the annual per capita CO2 emissions of Kuwait to 21.6 tonnes. This is not only far higher than the average global per capita emissions, it is also higher than that of the European Union, and most countries in the Middle East.

The energy consumption pattern in Kuwait is also unsustainably high. At a per capita energy consumption of 15,590 kWh, which is projected to triple by 2030, Kuwait’s humongous per capita power utilization is among the highest in the world. Growing population and increasing industrialization have led to a surge in electricity demand to run the cooling systems during the scorching summer months. However, the country’s power-generation capabilities have failed to catch up with this demand, leading to unprecedented electricity outages and supply cuts in summer.

The higher energy consumption pattern also generates more CO2 emissions and adds to the country’s growing share of GHG emissions that catalyze climate change, and precipitate the excessive heat witnessed in recent years. The irony is that it was higher heat that prompted increased demand for cooling in the first place. Kuwait’s climate conundrum highlights the untenable nature of today’s high energy consumption rate, and underlines the need to conserve and reduce energy usage in a world growing increasingly warmer.

And, the world is warming. According to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), last year was an exceptionally hot year and indications are that 2024 could follow suit with the country already experiencing one of the hottest summers on record. Unprecedented global temperatures from June onwards led 2023 to become the warmest year on record — overtaking 2016, the previous warmest year recorded.

Not only was 2023 the hottest calendar year since 1850, but the year also marked the first time on record that every day of the year exceeded 1°C above the 1850-1900 pre-industrial level. Close to 50 percent of days in 2023 were more than 1.5°C warmer than the 1850-1900 level. and two days in November were, for the first time, more than 2°C warmer. The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement had pledged to try and prevent global temperatures rising by more than 1.5C.

A critical driver of the unusual high temperatures experienced throughout 2023 was the unprecedented high surface sea temperatures (SSTs). Records from C3S show that global average SSTs remained persistently and unusually high in 2023, reaching record levels from April through December. The excessive SSTs were associated with marine heatwaves around the globe, including in parts of the Mediterranean, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and North Pacific, and much of the North Atlantic.

Rising SSTs have a profound effect on global climate, as it causes the amount of atmospheric water vapor over the sea surface to increase. The raised level of oceanic water vapor feeds weather systems that then increase the risk of cyclones, heavy rains and devastating floods in many countries. Changes in sea surface temperature can also shift weather patterns, potentially contributing to droughts in other parts of the world.

In Kuwait, building more power stations to increase supply capacity to cope with higher temperature will prove futile over the long-term, unless serious efforts to effectively reduce and rationalize consumption are undertaken. We need to also implement strategies that diversify our fossil-fuel reliant economy, transition towards renewable energy sources, ensure a sustainable pattern of consumption and economic development, and reduce our GHG emissions. These initiatives are imperative if we are to ensure our economic and social development in a future of higher global warming.

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