The successful global climate conference COP27 in Egypt in November and the planned holding of COP28 in the United Arab Emirates at the tail-end of 2023 are a matter of honor and prestige to everyone in the region. The holding of two back-to-back climate conferences is also an indication that the world is finally beginning to realize the criticality of engaging with the region in order to find lasting solutions to many of the issues of global concern.

More than anything else, it is on the issue of climate change that the international community and the Arab world will need to cooperate and coordinate extensively..
The region is acutely susceptible to negative impacts of climate change, including changes in weather pattern, rise in temperatures, increase in occurrence of flash floods and intensity of dust storms, decrease in precipitation, fall in groundwater levels, and a potential rise in sea levels. It is also an area with one of the largest footprints, both in terms of energy consumption, and in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gasses.

The vulnerability to, and culpability for aggravating climate change, makes engaging with the region crucial to any sustainable global strategies aimed at mitigating, adapting and reversing this global hazard. Reducing the region’s carbon footprint by diversifying the largely fossil-fuel dependent economies to more sustainable models of development, transitioning to energy efficiency and renewable energy sources, and curbing the unbridled business-as-usual market scenario, could make a significant contribution to reducing global CO2 emissions.

According to the World Bank data on CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, the 21 countries comprising the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region accounted for 6.8 percent of global CO2 emissions, or around 2.6 billion tonnes (Bt) of CO2 emissions in 2019, the latest year for which figures were available. This would make the MENA region the fourth biggest emitter of CO2, after China, which accounted for 9.8 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions (27% of global emissions), the US with 5.3 billion tonnes (15%), and the EU with 3.5 billion tonnes (9.8%).

The per capita emission of CO2 in the region is also high, considering that the total MENA population of around 473 million had a per capita emission rate of 5.5 tonnes. To put this in perspective, India with a population of 1.3 billion people had a per capita emission rate of 1.9 tonnes. Furthermore, when it comes to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states the regional emission figure gets even more skewed, with the average per capita emission for the six-nation bloc reaching 24.3 tonnes. No wonder then that all six GCC states rank among the top ten countries with the highest per capita emissions of CO2.

There is widespread consensus among scientists and research institutions around the world that carbon dioxide emissions are the primary driver of global climate change, and that fossil fuel use is the primary source of CO2. To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, the world needs to urgently reduce emissions and decrease the use of fossil fuels. Global annual emissions of CO2 are currently over 34 billion tonnes, which is nearly six times the 5.7 billion tonnes emitted in the mid-20th century. Although emissions growth has slowed over the last few years, they have yet to reach their peak.

Kuwait is among the world’s top fossil fuel producers and also has one of the highest emissions of CO2 per capita. According to online site ‘Our World in Data’ , although Kuwait’s total CO2 emissions of 106 million tonnes in 2021 could be considered relatively small, the country’s per capita emission of 24.97 tonnes of CO2 makes it one of the highest emitters of CO2 per capita in the world.

Although discussions on climate change tend to focus on CO2 emissions, it is not the only one precipitating global warming and climate change. While CO2 is the most dominant greenhouse gas (GHG), there are other potent GHG emissions such as from methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gasses that contribute to global warming. When the data on all GHG emissions are taken into account, the annual per capita emission of Kuwait rises to 32.5 tonnes.

Kuwait is not only among the largest per capita emitters of greenhouse gasses, it is also among the countries that are highly vulnerable to impacts of climate change. Higher ambient temperatures, reduced rainfall, increase in droughts, groundwater depletion, and a rise in sea levels are some of the hazards that could be precipitated by climate change.

Given the country’s vulnerabilities to climate change, one would have expected Kuwait to be in the forefront of reducing CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions. However, in its updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) for the period 2015-2035 submitted to the UNFCCC in October 2021, Kuwait committed to a meager 7.4 percent reduction in its emissions by 2035. The country added that this emissions reduction represented the country’s maximum ambition based on national conditions and economic, political, social and health developments.

Luckily, this view on reducing Kuwait’s carbon footprint appears to have changed. With the new government in place, the country’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Salem Abdullah Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, speaking on the sidelines of the COP27 climate summit in Egypt in November, said that the country is committed to becoming carbon neutral in the oil and gas sector by 2050, and in the rest of the country by 2060. He added that the plan to reach carbon-neutrality is “a solid serious pledge that we will commit to.”

His Highness the Crown Prince, Sheikh Meshal al-Ahmad Al-Jaber al-Sabah, has also affirmed Kuwait’s commitment to regional and international environmental resolutions and initiatives while addressing the Middle East Green Initiative summit held on the sidelines of COP27. He cited several projects are being planned and implemented to expand green areas. The Middle East Green Initiative was launched by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2021 as part of efforts to reduce the region’s carbon emissions.

The vulnerabilities of Kuwait to climate change have been underlined by numerous studies and research papers. There is ample documentation to show that Kuwait’s arid climate, aggravated by low annual rainfall, will lead to an increase in occurrence of droughts. Global climate change could potentially increase the duration, acuity and frequency of droughts, thereby depleting scarce groundwater sources and critically affecting agriculture, plant cover, and livestock production, besides increasing wind erosion and desertification.

Climate scientists have also long warned that the systematic warming of the planet is directly causing global mean sea level to rise. Two principal factors behind this rise are: added water from melting ice sheets and glaciers, and the expansion and increase in volume of seawater as it warms. Records show that global sea levels have risen by 103mm over the past 30 years, or around 3mm per year.

While this annual rise may not seem a significant risk, regional and local variations exist, including from variability in regional winds, ocean currents, uplift of sea-floor, ground subsidence, changes in water tables due to ground water extraction or other water management methods, and even due to the effects from local erosion. As global temperatures continue to warm, sea level will keep rising, with the magnitude of rise depending on future CO2 emissions and global warming, and the speed and frequency with which glaciers and ice sheets keep melting.

Any rise in sea levels by regional or local physical eventualities, or from the effect of global climate change, could have a drastic impact on Kuwait. The country, which is on average less than 5 meters above sea level, and has most of its urban agglomerations located along the country’s coastline, could suffer serious damage to infrastructure and livelihoods from sea level rises. Rising sea levels could also contaminate the scarce groundwater aquifers that provide part of water supplied to agriculture and natural ecosystems.

The country’s existing high temperatures are yet another factor that could be exacerbated by climate change. In the summer of 2016, a temperature of 54° C was measured at the weather station in Mitribah, in north west Kuwait, which was the third highest temperature ever reliably recorded on Earth. Such high temperatures could become the norm in future if climate change is not addressed urgently.

A new study by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in the United States that looked at the potential for heat-related deaths in Kuwait, shines light on the deleterious impact of rising temperatures on people. The quantitative assessment of climate change and temperature-mortality projections, revealed that by mid-century the average temperature in Kuwait — compared to a 2000-2009 baseline — could increase in the range of 1.80° C to 2.57° C under moderate and extreme climate change scenarios.

By the end of the century, the temperature could rise up to 5.54° C making life outdoors unbearable. The study further noted that by the end of the century, climate change could increase the number of heat-related deaths by 5.1 percent to 11.7 percent under the two climate scenarios. For every 100 deaths in Kuwait by then, around 13.6 deaths could be attributed to heat driven by climate change. This figure could rise to 15.1 per 100 in the case of vulnerable people, including migrant outdoor workers, elderly, and those with medical conditions.

Globally climate change mitigation strategies are far below aspired levels. A new report from the Systems Change Lab — an initiative organized by the World Resources Institute, the Bezos Earth Fund and its partners — shows that none of the 40 sectoral transformations required for addressing the climate crisis this decade is yet on track.

As we enter the fourth year of the decisive decade for averting catastrophic climate change, and given how little of our carbon budget remains, we no longer enjoy the luxury of pursuing business-as-usual market scenarios, or taking only the least-cost options to limit emissions. We need to accelerate the global transition to a net-zero economy, by bringing about drastic systems change across all domains of human activity — from how we grow our food and power our homes to how we build our cities and transport ourselves and our goods.

However, curbing human induced global warming will require global commitments and concerted efforts, a change in incentives, new regulations, laws, and innovative policies by the state, and a shift in behavior of people, but most of all it will need bold, unwavering leadership.

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