Can MENA countries fight climate change the same way?
With Egypt’s COP27 less than six months away, experts are calling attention to the Middle East and North Africa region’s transition to clean energy.
Global climate talks are coming to the hottest and driest part of the planet.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region will host the next United Nations climate change conference where decision-makers from around the world will come together to agree on actions required to limit rising temperatures.
Last year, governments made a pact during COP26 – the climate summit that took place in the United Kingdom’s city of Glasgow, to prevent the planet from heating more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by mid-century, a threshold that if surpassed could have catastrophic results for humans and ecosystems.
At the same time, Egypt was selected to host COP27 this November in Sharm El-Sheikh, a resort town located between the desert of the Sinai Peninsula and the Red Sea. Incidentally, COP28 will also happen in MENA in the United Arab Emirates the following year.
Since the UN meetings began back in 1995, the region has accommodated the international climate change conferences known as COPs only a few times – twice in Marrakesh, Morocco, and once in Doha, Qatar, almost a decade ago.
Climate meetings are where leaders present national targets and proposals for cutting back emissions of greenhouse gases. The main objective is to get governments to prevent the release of large quantities of emissions into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels.
The problem, however, is that about 80 percent of the world’s power comes from coal, oil and gas, and most nations are heavily reliant on these for their energy needs. Current energy mixes need to be replaced with greener alternatives, but in practice, fossil fuels are still very much running the show.
The International Energy Agency recorded the highest yearly level of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions for the energy sector in 2021.
Secure a pathway
Transforming energy systems is costly and is a difficult undertaking worldwide. For oil and gas producers in MENA, this task is even harder given that 95 percent of their electricity is generated from fossil fuels.
Climate change has also been drying and warming the region faster than anywhere else on Earth, making it more vulnerable to extreme weather events such as drought.
A pathway for the region that is safe and fair must be created and COP27 can serve as the platform to do that, analysts have said.
“Climate change negotiations tend to focus mainly on energy and decarbonisation while other important issues such as justice and water scarcity are not getting the attention they deserve,” Kaveh Madani of United Nations University and head of Iran’s delegation to COP23 told Al Jazeera.
“Prescribing identical solution measures is wrong because not all countries have access to equal resources and opportunities,” Madani added.
MENA watchers have used the negotiations in Egypt to bring the region into focus, particularly regarding the challenges it faces in transitioning to clean energy.
The most recent assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change left no doubt that quick and deep emission cuts will have to take place across all economies, including in MENA, to prevent the worst effects of global warming from happening.
To do that, predominantly fossil fuel energy mixes in the region will need to start including more alternative sources. Renewables such as solar and wind have been considered possible alternatives.
Hydropower, however, may be the least desirable because electricity is generated by reservoirs of water barricaded by large dams and excessive dam building for energy and agricultural purposes in the region has already contributed to major rivers in Iran, Syria, Iraq and Egypt drying up.
“Water, energy, and environment are three interconnected factors. They are the pillars that define the quality of life in any country … If one goes wrong the others follow,” said Essam Heggy, a scientist at the University of Southern California.
So, whether it is at the climate summit in Egypt or the UAE, “any discussion on clean energy in MENA will have to address the issue of water management in the region,” added Heggy.
A fair transition
Most countries in the Middle East and North Africa have economies that depend solely on revenue derived from the production and export of oil and gas.
Energy transitioning means complying with international climate agreements, a scenario in which, by the year 2050, all greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere are offset.
For this to happen, MENA countries will need to move from fossil fuels to renewable energy. However, not all governments can commit to this timeframe simultaneously.
With COP27 on the horizon, it is likely that more nations, including Egypt, will be pressured into submitting decarbonisation plans faster. Some wealthy countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have already done so.
But green financing opportunities are not equal across the region. Iran, for example, one of the highest carbon emitters in the world, is prohibited from receiving foreign investment to develop its renewable energy sector because of US sanctions.
War-ravaged nations, such as Iraq and Syria, in the Middle East will also have trouble allocating the money needed for reconstructing cities and industries with clean energy.
Moreover, decision-makers in MENA have said developed economies, such as the United States, the EU, and China – the most responsible historically for greenhouse gas pollution, should help pay for the technology they need for decarbonisation.
According to a survey published by management consultancy McKinsey, lower-income fossil fuel-based nations will have to spend significantly more on transitioning given their high exposure to climate change and its damages.
In their defence and the interest of fairness, mitigation cannot be expected to occur the same way across the MENA region.
As Ali Ahmad, energy and climate change specialist at the World Bank told Al Jazeera, “obstacles facing the region are very country specific, each one has its own political economy considerations that shapes the pace and depth of its energy transition pathway.”
Bridging the gap
Global oil and gas markets have changed significantly since COP26 concluded in Glasgow, Scotland, last November with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the plethora of sanctions that followed on Moscow.
To keep the security and costs of its energy sector in check, the EU will have to find a new partner to provide it with the gas it currently gets from Russia. Specfically, countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
Iran, Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt have some of the world’s largest gas reserves, and possess the expertise in using it for both domestic energy intake, as well as for exports.
“It’s really likely that over the next few years Europe will start replacing its gas imports from Russia, and so basically the gas that is produced in MENA will find a renewed market at possibly a higher price,” Ahmad said.
Egypt and Qatar are already reaping the rewards having signed major deals with the Europeans for the development of the liquefied form of natural gas (LNG), which can be easily delivered by tankers rather than pipelines.
Even though natural gas is notoriously bad for the atmosphere and releases huge amounts of methane – the second-leading contributor to human-induced climate change – it is being championed as a bridging agent that can help pave the way for MENA’s transition to clean energy.
Natural gas emits about 45 percent less CO2 than oil and coal and has been recognised as the cleanest form of fossil fuel by the International Energy Agency.
Solar, wind, and green hydrogen are better options to constitute MENA’s future energy mixes, but “we need to check and evaluate which one of these fuels has a well-established supply chain and existing infrastructure to fill the gap in energy transition for now, and the answer is natural gas,” Farid Safari, visiting research fellow at Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, told Al Jazeera.
Ultimately for the Middle East and North Africa, “the energy mix will differ by country and really depends on the region and the range of circumstances – including renewable resources, access to capital, and available alternatives,” Ali al-Saffar, Middle East and North Africa programme manager at the International Energy Agency, told Al Jazeera.