Saudi Arabia shows region the way on climate action
This region faces climate change threats unlike any other region in the world. Many people have already witnessed the consequences of climate change in their countries.
For example, in 2017, Somalia suffered a drought that reduced cereal harvests by 70 percent, leading to livestock deaths and more than 360,000 malnourished children. In 2018, Oman and Yemen were devastated by Cyclone Mekunu, which was the most powerful storm recorded in that area’s history. A recent fisheries survey revealed that more than 85 percent of two key fish species in the Arabian Gulf were depleted. Experts are also sounding the alarm on the potential risks for coastal areas, which are at risk from rising sea levels and floods. Five Arab nations are among the 20 most-polluted countries globally, with three facing high death rates from air pollution.
Additionally, the region is poised to witness a significant temperature increase of 4 degrees Celsius by mid-century, resulting in reduced precipitation, greater erosion, and more droughts. By the end of the century, MENA is expected to face 200 days of extreme heat, when the temperature reaches 50 C, every year. Heatwaves will reach extreme levels, to the point of them being life-threatening.
The region is also the most water-stressed in the world, six times above the global average, and has access to less than 2 percent of the world’s renewable water supplies. In fact, 12 MENA countries, including the Gulf states, are classified as among the world’s most water-scarce. Marine ecosystems also face threats from unsustainable fishing practices, global warming and pollution.
Furthermore, two-thirds of the region’s countries have less than 5 percent of land used for arable farming. Due to the region’s hot climate, about 40 percent of cropped lands require irrigation, making it a challenge to sustainably farm. In fact, the region is considered the biggest food importer in the world, with many countries facing significant food trade deficits. Studies estimate that the yearly cost of land degradation is about $9 billion, or between 2 and 7 percent of individual countries’ gross domestic product.
Several factors are exacerbating climate change in the MENA region, such as water scarcity, aridity, stagnant agricultural productivity, population booms, unplanned urbanization, rising poverty rates, long-term conflicts, and the absence of sustainability strategies. Without resilience or mitigation strategies, the region faces a set of challenges that put it in an extremely fragile situation. Most importantly, climate change, if not dealt with, could exacerbate conflict in the region. This scenario played out during the global food crises of 2008 and 2010-2011, when major food-producing countries faced crop failures due to climate change. The sudden instability of production levels, prices and supply chains led to unrest in numerous MENA countries.
Without resilience or mitigation strategies, the Middle East faces a set of challenges that put it in an extremely fragile situation.
Unplanned urbanization leaves much room for the mismanagement of energy and water resources, in addition to the exploitation of natural resources. The lack of investment in technologies that boost productivity in agriculture also leaves room for potential famines and rising poverty, especially in rural communities. Furthermore, the lack of sufficient investment in research, development and technologies pertaining to environmental sustainability is also exacerbating the depletion of natural resources. The lack of green finance to support projects in this field remains an obstacle for many investors and inventors. Many industries are reluctant to comply with sustainability standards due to the risk of disrupting their operations, thereby continuing to increase their carbon footprints.
With such dire facts and projections for the region, it is imperative that MENA countries prioritize climate change on their public policy agendas. Saudi Arabia has been leading key environmental sustainability projects in recent years, with ambitious goals to shift the region’s mindset on the economic opportunities and social benefits arising from fighting climate change. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last week launched a game-changing environmental sustainability charter for the Kingdom and the Middle East. The Saudi Arabia Green Initiative and Middle East Green Initiative aim to combat the key climate change threats facing the region.
Saudi Arabia will spearhead the largest afforestation project in the world, with the aim of planting 50 billion trees in the region and contributing 5 percent of the global goal to plant 1 trillion trees. Other key projects include reducing the region’s carbon emissions by 60 percent, preserving marine and coastal areas, increasing natural reserves and vegetation cover, combating air pollution, regulating oil production, and accelerating the transition to renewable energy.
Most importantly, the initiatives aim to cement cooperation between Arab countries in an effort to collectively own and address these shared challenges. By investing in sustainability projects and enacting the necessary policies, Gulf countries could unlock more than $2 trillion in economic growth and create more than 1 million jobs by 2030, according to research by global consulting firm Strategy&. Furthermore, the initiatives will ensure natural resources are safeguarded and used sustainably. Governments will also become self-sufficient in terms of food and water supplies, so as not to leave their populations in precarious circumstances.
The MENA region is at a pivotal crossroads. It must reform its environmental policies in order to carve out a more sustainable future for its people. Sustainability strategies need to be a priority for every leader in the region.
- Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at www.amorelicious.com.