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Towards COP28: A sustainable future for the Middle East

Published on November 07, 2022
Communities across the Middle East and North Africa have first-hand experience of the worst effects of climate change, which is impacting lives and livelihoods in a region where communities depend on traditional farming and fishing practices. Here, Cyndi Teulon, Environmental Advisor at RSK Middle East, explains why it is so vital that debates at COP27, and COP28 next year, result in practical and tangible solutions, for people across the region, that support adaptation while safeguarding traditional livelihoods.

The Middle East is a region of stark contrasts. It is home to both advantaged and disadvantaged, developed and developing, energy rich and energy poor. High carbon footprints are fuelled by a dependence on air conditioning, relentless construction and freshwater scarcity. Some countries are swimming – one might say drowning – in oil, but still face daily energy challenges. It is hoped that, at COP27 in Egypt and COP28 in the United Arab Emirates, we will finally see tangible movement in the shift to clean renewable energy and resilient water infrastructure. The problems are, however, complex and make implementation challenging. Through my work with RSK across the Middle East, I have first-hand experience of this; here are some of the challenges, and the opportunities that can achieve the most benefit for the region.

UAE objectives

The COP27 and COP28 debates are expected to deliver a shift to implementation and solutions. To be successful, they also need to be inclusive of all needs and regions, and commit to widespread support. Sharing solutions with developing countries is paramount if we are to create an equitable and resilient future for all.

The good news: there is significant interest in achieving these ambitions. The United Arab Emirates government’s Net Zero by 2050 Strategic Initiative – one of the first across the Middle East – commits to carbon neutrality by the year 2050 not only at home, but globally, recognising that emerging economies and developing nations are part of the solution. The UAE has invested US$17 billion in renewable energy projects in more than 70 countries across six continents. Even with this commitment, however, significant hurdles remain for the UAE and wider region to realise these aims.

Middle East water challenges

In the Middle East in particular, we see two parts to the water challenge: quantity and quality. Quantity is declining and the quality has deteriorated to a point where consumption of even municipally supplied water has health impacts in some countries. The carbon cost of water treatment is high and the resources – both the water itself and the finances to build the infrastructure – increasingly scarce.

In Basra, for example, decades of degradation of water sources and supply networks have been a persistent problem. In the summer of 2018, this became a real crisis when at least 118,000 people were hospitalised due to water-quality-related symptoms. Poor management of upstream sources, inadequate regulation of pollution and sewage, and chronic neglect and mismanagement of water infrastructure have not helped.

I have seen how lives are being impacted by deteriorated water quality and reduced quantity: water insecurity disproportionately affects developing countries, making them less resilient to climate crises and more reliant on climate financing support. We see farmers in Iraq who have had substantive impacts on their livelihoods as, in an already arid environment, the lack of available water resources impacts crop growth; multi-generational fisherfolk have been forced to pivot towards hunting in order to support their families; and Bedouin move more frequently than ever to ensure water and food supplies for their herds – or, worse, are forced to give up their traditional nomadic lifestyle altogether. In order to combat the growing water challenges faced by the regions, COP27 must bring the impact this has on livelihoods to the forefront.

Renewables in sun-soaked countries

Sun- and oil-rich countries such as the UAE, Iraq and Saudi Arabia have recently announced initiatives for renewables, recognising that this shift is an inevitable one. Countries need to reassess their production and consumption of energy, along with their energy export and import strategies. Fundamental shifts to renewable, clean energy sources and away from fossil fuels are no longer optional.

One cannot escape the sun in the Middle East. This potential for renewable energy is juxtaposed with the insatiable demand for air conditioning. This summer in Iraq, the Ministry of Electricity announced a state of emergency as temperatures rose above 50°C in the south. The government forecasts ongoing increases in peak demand, with a new peak record set this summer. Despite being an energy-rich country, a lack of infrastructure prevents sufficient generation to meet needs. Challenges such as this motivate governments to look to other options to overcome the energy deficit, but knowledge gaps, contracting hurdles and technology barriers stall progress in renewables.

Climate finance – the Middle East is giving and getting

At COP26, delegates agreed to create more funds for developing countries through climate finance contributions to support the process of adaptation and, among other approaches, accelerate renewables. While developed countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia have pledged substantial funds, the mobilisation has not exactly made it to the ground yet. Developing nations such as Iraq are still looking for real solutions and implementation support for mitigation and adaptation measures. One of the UAE’s objectives, realised through its COP28 presidency, aims to address this: it has pledged to help developing countries transition from old energy generation methods to renewables.

Agriculture and food security in the land of sand

The links between food, water and energy are undeniable. As we have already explored, the region faces significant challenges that will affect its ability to produce food. At COP27, Egypt will launch its Nexus of Water Food and Energy programme, a mechanism to promote the implementation of green development projects in these three vital sectors by attracting foreign funds. This climate financing is integral for Egypt and other countries where energy poverty, water scarcity and food security are paramount.

The UAE has committed to investment in climate-smart agriculture and food systems, not just as a COP initiative but altruistically. As part of its National Food Security Strategy 2051, the UAE aims to achieve zero hunger with a strategy specifically aiming to implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and that help maintain ecosystems. When considering the impact of climate change in the context of traditional livelihoods, farmers are on the front line, and the risk of destruction is far too imminent. To change this, industries must be developed, knowledge transferred and the technology implemented. Action needs to be seen at COP.

What needs to come from COP28 for it to be deemed a success?

The world will be coming to the United Arab Emirates to find out the answer. Inevitably, it will need to be practical solutions to help farmers and enable fisherfolk to go back to their livelihoods and the Bedouin to their traditional, preferred lifestyle. Real money needs to start creating solutions targeting those most vulnerable to climate change. The UAE will be putting words into action next year at COP28, but preparation must begin at COP27.

Cyndi Teulon is an Environmental Advisor at RSK Middle East and a specialist in environmental and social impact in the Middle East, especially in the petroleum industry. Discover more about the debates around climate adaptation in the Middle East and North Africa region at COP27 by catching up on RSK – COP27: Let’s #ActOnESG live event, which is available to watch below.

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Cyndi Teulon

Environmental Advisor, RSK Middle East

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Cyndi Teulon is an Environmental Advisor at RSK Middle East. She has more than 27 years of experience working in environmental and social management in the petroleum sector. She has a particular focus on the field of impact assessment and has worked on many projects supporting the petroleum industry and making its operations more sustainable.

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