On the bandwagon to Glasgow: Climate action in the MENA region

Countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE not only jumped on the climate bandwagon, but they may also be attempting to control its steering wheel.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently announced his country's plans to become carbon natural by 2053 [Dado Ruvic/Reuters]

In the few weeks leading up to the upcoming UN climate change summit in Glasgow – known as COP26 – the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region witnessed an unprecedented shift in its climate policy.

The MENA region has often had a complicated relationship with climate change and the actions required to address it.

Regional greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow on every front. In fact, during the 40 years preceding the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, the MENA region was the only one where total emissions, emissions per capita, and emissions per dollar of gross domestic product (GDP) all increased. Many of the region’s countries also have rentier economies that are dependent on fossil fuel exports, and so are concerned about the loss of revenues. Yet the region is also disproportionately at risk from climate change impacts, not only relative to its small share of historic greenhouse gas emissions, but also relative to its share of the global population and global GDP.

In the annual UN climate summits known as Conference of Parties – or COP for short – countries of the MENA region have often played a role that reflected this complicated relationship. They often appeared hesitant to advocate for ambitious climate action and generally opposed rapid decarbonisation claiming it will damage their developing economies. Some countries demanded international funding especially when it comes to adapting to climate change, while others made claims for compensation for possible loss of fossil fuel revenues.

As a regular observer of the annual climate negotiations, I often felt that the region was trying to hold back the tide. While the scientific community reached a consensus on transitioning to a low-carbon economy fuelled by renewable energy, and as world leaders were busy working out the details of this transformation, the region looked like a straggler stuck in a puddle of oil.

Fuelling competition, eventually

The Paris Agreement, while restoring hope in averting the worst effects of climate change, did not alter these dynamics immediately. The accord’s bottom-up approach allowed each country to voluntarily determine how much it is willing to commit to the fight against climate change. Initially, this allowed countries to pledge as little as possible, which led to a collective global commitment that fell short of the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit global warming to 1.5C.

However, the genius of the agreement only transpired over the last couple of years, when it started driving competition between nations to revise their commitments upwards. As the global transformation to a low-carbon world appeared inevitable, many countries figured out that by committing to ambitious climate action sooner rather than later they will be better positioned to shape this new world rather than be shaped by it. Many nations also figured that as first-movers, they could establish themselves as global or regional leaders through climate diplomacy.

So despite the COVID-19 pandemic, more commitments for deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions were made by developed economies. Some nations also set long-term strategies to reach zero carbon by the middle of the century including the European Union, the United Kingdom, the United States, China, Canada, and South Korea.

Leaving the puddle behind

Earlier this year, signals were already emerging in the MENA region that climate diplomacy is becoming central to the diplomatic arsenal of its powers as they competed for regional leadership and to fill a perceived power vacuum. Yet in the run-up to COP26 these powers have all picked up the pace by committing to long-term climate goals that were not on the cards less than a year ago.

Just in the last few weeks, we saw a flurry of regional announcements from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) signalling their intention to become zero-carbon economies by the middle of the century. A few months earlier, Israel had also announced an “almost zero” carbon plan, by pledging to reduce its emissions by 85 percent in 30 years. Iran is now the only regional power that is yet to develop an ambitious climate target or even ratify the Paris Agreement.

The Turkish announcement of its plans to reach carbon neutrality by 2053 came first and was followed within days by the UAE’s 2050 Net-Zero Initiative which was hailed as the first such target by an oil exporter outside of The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development or OECD. The Saudi announcement earlier this week outlined the kingdom’s vision to reach zero carbon by 2060 as part of the Saudi Green Initiative and its regional vision, known as the Middle East Green Initiative. Bahrain immediately followed with a similar pledge.

Unsurprisingly, there are many commonalities between these announcements. They all included plans to dramatically expand their renewable energy capacity and improve energy efficiency. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel also share plans to use tree planting as a carbon-capturing measure, while Turkey and Arabia both plan to develop an emissions trading scheme.

Yet climate policy always reflects national circumstances and priorities. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have made it clear that despite their commitment to reducing emissions from their oil and gas industries, their plan is to maintain their role as big fossil fuel producers. In fact, the Saudi climate commitments are conditional on its ability to maintain its fossil fuel exports.

Saudi Arabia’s green initiatives are also unique in promoting the Circular Carbon Economy – a new approach that the kingdom is championing which proposes that fossil fuels are not immediately phased out, and advocates removing carbon from the atmosphere using trees in addition to carbon capture and storage technologies.

Financing these visions is also a differentiating factor; while Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel are all making unconditional commitments and do not seek climate funding, Turkey’s move is likely to have been influenced by its efforts to access the growing climate finance flows.

Such announcements are nothing short of transformative economic visions. By introducing these emission reduction targets, the regional powers are setting in motion a direction of travel for their economies for the next 30 to 40 years, shaping all future infrastructure spending, and signalling to their peoples and businesses to start moving towards products and services that have minimal effect on the environment.

Working alone and succeeding together

But long term visions need short-term plans, and regional powers have also increased their 2030 emission reduction pledges ahead of COP26, in line with their commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Saudi Arabia, for example, committed itself to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent by 2030 while the UAE committed to a 23.5 percent reduction, both compared with business-as-usual scenarios. Israel on the other hand committed to a 27 percent reduction in emissions compared with 2015. Other countries across the MENA region have also raised their 2030 targets including Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan, Oman, Qatar, and Sudan. Most of these revised pledges remain relatively modest, indicating that the journey to zero carbon will be slow, to begin with, but they are certainly moving in the right direction.

The new climate focus may also be bringing the region together, as different countries attempt to lead regional climate efforts. Saudi Arabia has gone further than anyone else in fostering a sense of regional collaboration around its vision by launching the Middle East Green Initiative and by inviting 30 regional and international leaders as well as the Arab League to support it. It has also announced the establishment of a regional centre for carbon capture and storage, as well as an investment fund and a collaboration platform to support its Circular Carbon Economy approach.

This collaboration could not have come a moment too soon in a region so vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Regional countries can either succeed together or fail alone.

More engagement

Next week, as the world’s eyes turn to Glasgow, many would be looking to see if these impressive developments in the MENA region’s climate policy would translate into a different negotiating position and more international collaboration.

The region’s countries might have individually arrived at a conclusion that being at the table could help them shape the new world being forged. And while the priorities of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, and Israel vary significantly, a coalition around a regional climate plan might be in the offing, with a different approach than that of European countries currently driving climate action.

How this plays out remains uncertain, but one thing is indisputable; the region wants to become more engaged in shaping the future. The fact that Egypt has been selected to host COP27 next year, while the UAE is the frontrunner to host the following COP in 2023, is further proof of that.

The MENA region not only jumped on the climate bandwagon, but it may also be attempting to control its steering wheel. Over the next months and years, we will find out if it succeeds and what direction it might steer it towards.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.