‘Grave threat to life’: UN climate chief issues warning for MENA

Al Jazeera talks to UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa before the first-ever MENA Climate Week in Dubai.

Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
Patricia Espinosa says MENACW 2022 discussions will focus on national planning and economy-wide approaches to climate action [File: Seth Wenig/AP Photo]

The first-ever Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Climate Week runs from March 28 to 31 as one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to climate change seeks ways to address its dire threat.

About 600 million people, or 50 percent of MENA’s population, may be exposed to “super-extreme” weather events by 2100 at current projections, raising questions about “human survivability” in some areas.

While promises have been made to transition to renewable energy and green technologies, there are many urgent steps that need to be taken focusing on adaptation to extreme heat, water scarcity, and declining food production, among other ominous repercussions.

The following is an interview with Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, who will be in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Monday for the start of the conference.

Al Jazeera: This is the first-ever Middle East and North Africa Climate Week held by the United Nations. What are the main points of discussion on the agenda?

Patricia Espinosa: MENA Climate Week is a collaboration platform for governments, business leaders, civil society and youth to come together, engage in solution-oriented dialogue and share climate action. It is a venue for key stakeholders to learn what works in the region and forge partnerships to replicate and scale up action.

MENACW 2022 discussions will focus on national actions and economy-wide approaches to climate action, integrated approaches for resilient development and seizing transformative opportunities. Last year, regional collaboration emerged as a driver of global progress. This year, discussions on these topics are set to accelerate action on climate change even further.

Al Jazeera: At current projections, some areas in MENA could see temperatures potentially reaching 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit) or higher in the coming decades, rendering them uninhabitable. What adaptation strategies should governments be implementing right now?

Espinosa: In the climate change process, governments are working to limit average global temperature rise to as close to 1.5C [2.7F] as possible. For some places, like the MENA region, even a small increase in average global temperature can create very hot local conditions. It is a real social and economic risk.

Right now, governments should urgently develop and implement national adaptation plans that identify what is needed to adapt to climate impacts and strategies to meet those needs. Finance and support are crucial for developing nations.

At last November’s UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, governments agreed, among many other issues, that more support for adaptation is urgently needed. MENA Climate Week is an opportunity to carry these decisions forward, discuss regional risks and collaborate on solutions for this region.

Al Jazeera: There is debate around the notion that climate change has been responsible for some regional conflicts and the rise of “extremist” armed groups. What is the UN’s view of the relationship between global warming and armed conflict in MENA?

Espinosa: Climate change is a destabilising phenomenon that can impact food security, water security, energy security and human security. The severity of impacts and potential for social disruption make climate change more than a security threat. Climate change is a grave threat to life as we know it.

According to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, climate change “has a multiplier effect and is an aggravating factor for instability, conflict and terrorism”.

MENA region water, agriculture and energy challenges put the fundamental building blocks of healthy development at risk. This in turn threatens economic security and opens the door to instability and even criminality. Stakeholders in the region should accelerate climate action now to ensure a more stable and prosperous future.

Al Jazeera: Climate change has long been downplayed by governments and the private sector in MENA. Are hydrocarbon-reliant nations now taking the threat more seriously?

Espinosa: The recent IPCC Sixth Assessment report clearly shows that all nations need to take the climate change threat more seriously. We are pushing our planetary boundaries at our own peril, and some of those boundaries are at a breaking point. It’s time for every person, government and business to make decisions that reflect and respect those boundaries.

We have to reduce the global reliance on hydrocarbons and reduce emissions as soon as possible. Transformative change does not happen overnight, but firm plans in every sector to reduce emissions in the next two years will show if nations are truly taking the threat more seriously. Ambitious plans for immediate reductions will also get us on track to meet our mid-century net zero goals.

Al Jazeera: Severe water and food scarcity and the mass movement of “climate refugees” have been forecast as temperatures surge in the Middle East and North Africa. How should governments prepare for these dire predictions?

Espinosa: Right now, governments and stakeholders should urgently accelerate action to avoid the most dire predictions. We are all connected socially and economically and will all be impacted by climate change. We must be connected in action. The greatest thing governments can do is to submit more ambitious NDCs [nationally determined contributions].

They can always revise NDCs with bold commitments. And the greatest thing stakeholders can do is transform their policies and practices to achieve those national climate plans. Preparation for climate impacts is a focus of the first Middle East and North Africa Climate Week. Through collaboration, governments and stakeholders develop a better understanding of climate risks, forge partnerships and find solutions.

Al Jazeera: Some nations in the region are promoting the “circular carbon economy” model, in which yet-to-be proven carbon capture methods will be employed during the continuation of fossil fuel extraction. Is this a viable route with the increasingly urgent need to halt greenhouse gas emissions? Or does the strategy undermine ambitious climate policy involving mitigation targets and carbon-pricing mechanisms?

Espinosa: It is very clear that we need to move away from fossil fuels. As we do that, no potential solution to climate change should be overlooked. All innovation should be encouraged, and proven solutions should be urgently implemented. So, we must implement carbon-pricing, renewable energies and other measures to achieve ambitious climate commitments. We need to do that now. In parallel, unproven technologies should be tested and deployed if they can help transform our energy systems and achieve our climate change goals.

MENA Climate Week 2022 is a platform to connect with key stakeholders and share ideas with great potential. Collaboration and innovation are the spark that can ignite transformation here in the MENA region and around the world. We look forward to hearing these ideas now and seeing how they develop on the way to COP27 in Egypt.

Source: Al Jazeera