The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)?in Rio de Janeiro touched off what has become a long list of international gatherings, each aimed at achieving global consensus on what all ? or at least most ? agree is a universal and increasingly urgent problem. These began with the initial Conference of the Parties (COP1) in Berlin in 1995 and the Kyoto Protocol of the same year, and have wended their way through a variety of bodies ever since, from G8 and G20 summits to the UN General Assembly and the Major Economies Forums. Last year saw Durban, South Africa, host COP17, and now Doha is hosting COP18.
These displays of apparently regular high-level attention have attracted significant media coverage and occasional doses of pomp and circumstance ? but thus far they have singularly failed to seal a deal. The reasons for this are numerous, but a few demand mention. The developed world has not provided the necessary leadership. Securing an agreement among 194 parties on legally binding greenhouse-gas emission limits was always going to be an incredibly complex challenge, and several of the major countries, already the biggest polluters, have also proved themselves the most insurmountable obstacles.
Now the failure to act quickly has some suggesting that we cannot afford to act at all, at least not until Europe and North America recover from the effects of the economic and financial crisis under way since late 2008. And as these Western markets go, so goes much of the world. Fears of higher costs and losses of competitiveness ? real or imagined ? have been made particularly acute in a time of worldwide economic fragility.
Despite these difficulties, COP17 managed to provide renewed optimism by, inter alia, gaining the commitment of the governments concerned to a legally binding climate change agreement no later than 2015, an implementation date no later than 2020, and a ?roadmap? on how to reach these destinations. The hope is that the global economic situation will have improved markedly by 2015, allowing sufficient momentum for the pact to take effect five years later. Now as ever, the enemy is complacency. For this reason, it is essential that COP18 reinforce the progress achieved in Durban, ensuring that the 2015 and 2020 goals remain within our collective grasp.
It is fitting that COP18 has turned out to have such crucial timing, for nowhere is the success of the UNFCCC process more essential than in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Much of the area between the Atlantic and the Gulf is inordinately vulnerable to environmental pressures and their side-effects. Low-lying regions like the Nile Delta, one of the continent?s most important food-growing assets, could be swamped by rising sea levels, threatening tens of millions of people with floods, epidemics, and outright starvation. Likewise, the extensive deserts of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula could become even hotter and drier, and/or expand into the previously arable zones abutting them, sparking wildfires of terrible ferocity and ruining habitats for humans, livestock and wild fauna. This is not to mention the havoc to be expected if and when climate change brings yet more of the catastrophic weather phenomena (e.g. tornados and typhoons) that have become noticeably more common over the past few years.
Several parts of MENA, especially its Mediterranean components, have been roiled by political upheaval for the past two years, but come what may ? and rule who might ? the environmental challenge facing the region?s peoples will not go away and must remain a top priority. On the other hand, many MENA countries, especially those of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), are among those that satisfy the international markets? voracious appetites for the very fossil fuels responsible for a good part of the climate change problem; instead of being spectators, however, they have responded by taking on key leadership roles, including the financing of research and development for greater use of alternative energy sources and technologies.
This combination of foresight and resolve must not be allowed to wither away. Political instability in North Africa, for example, has been a major distraction for those determined to tackle climate change. Perhaps the most damaging setback has been the stalling of Desertec, a monumental plan to power much of MENA and the EU with cutting-edge solar-thermal plants and heat storage tanks in Africa whose output would be carried by high-voltage direct current transmission lines rather than traditional alternating current facilities. In addition to helping meet growing energy demand, Desertec would help reduce carbon emissions, accelerate the pace of economic development, and provide badly needed potable water by allowing far greater use of desalination, all of which would have the added benefit of enhancing regional security and stability.
Across the MENA region, the need to increase awareness, study problems and execute solutions grows more pressing by the day. Take, for instance, the 2012 Ocean Health Index, a study founded by Conservation International, National Geographic, and the New England Aquarium that ranks countries? commitment to their shares of the sea based on a comprehensive set of biological, physical, economic and social criteria reflecting 10 core public goals. The top-performing MENA country was Oman, which ranked 26th out of 171 countries and territories, while the worst was Algeria at 162nd. Overall, the Index revealed that while many MENA countries are making serious efforts to clean up their acts, we still have very far to go ? and several have yet to begin.
Some of the countries involved lack significant financial resources, but all have younger generations of budding activists whose enthusiasm can compensate for considerable material weakness. In the run-up to the COP18 talks, for example, about 20 environmental campaigners from 15 MENA countries met in Cairo to form the Arab Youth Climate Movement, which is dedicated to regaining and preserving the climate stability enjoyed by their parents and grandparents.
Regardless of wealth, all countries have the capacity, too, to design climate-science projects and programs that can attract funding and other forms of assistance from the ?have? countries in the region. And none are prevented from accessing the amazingly informative ? and therefore potentially curative ? information provided by foreign government agencies like America?s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA). From localized air temperatures and carbon-dioxide readings to the meanderings of volcanic ash and desert dust, the observations of such agencies are an effectiveness multiplier for would-be solution-providers around the world.
In many ways, MENA?s oil- and gas-producing nations have taken the lead in helping global energy producers and consumers alike to bridge the gap between current and future energy models. In the real world, where fossil fuels will remain part of our energy mix for a long time, it only makes sense to find ways that reduce or offset ? directly or indirectly ? one?s own contribution to climate change.??
In Saudi Arabia, the focus has primarily been on improving efficiency in the production and use of energy, and on forestation through the creation of Eco-Parks.? Saudi Aramco, for instance, has remained committed to a massive environmental master-plan adopted in 2001, since which time more than USD120 million has been spent or pledged on a number of conservation projects.? In the coming years, Aramco plans to reduce energy consumption at its existing facilities by 2% annually, to cut fresh water consumption by 70% over the next decade, and to implement the Flare Minimization Program for all remaining plants, including oil-production sites.?
In the United Arab Emirates, the Mubadala Development Company?s Masdar unit is presiding over and/or participating in some of the world?s most ambitious green projects. These range from a central role in the world?s largest offshore wind farm, in Britain?s Thames Estuary, to Masdar?s signature venture, a ground-breaking new city on the UAE coast designed to be powered entirely by solar and other renewables, maintaining a zero-carbon, zero-waste system. In addition, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) is actively implementing the government?s Strategic Health, Safety and Environmental Objectives, which also address climate change impacts. ADNOC has taken a number of actions aimed at ultimately eliminating hydrocarbon flaring and continuous venting hydrocarbon disposal, and at minimizing or eradicating the environmental impacts of oil drilling.?
In Kuwait, the Environment Public Authority has gained wide praise for its own role in reversing the effects of various forms of human activity. Its most important achievement thus far may have been the establishment of the Environmental Monitoring Information System of Kuwait (eMISK), which uses advanced geospatial data and geographic information system technologies to help provide both state and non-state actors with clearer pictures of entire ecosystems.
And here in Qatar, the ultimate beneficiary of per capita hydrocarbon wealth is plowing much of those returns back into a wide range of environmental science, research and commercial applications thereof. The petroleum industry is pursuing a range of standards inspired by Kyoto, making considerable investments in greener extraction and processing. This is the country that has championed the development of cutting-edge gas-to-liquids products, including fuels that both reduce emissions and enhance engine performance. In 2009 Qatar Airways famously flew the world?s first passenger flight powered by a specially blended GTL jet fuel, and if all goes according to plan, planes refueling at the new Doha International Airport to open next year will receive this cleaner alternative. Even as COP18 has been proceeding, Doha has launched an ambitious new recycling program, and a new solar test facility has opened at the Qatar Science and Technology Park, where extraordinary people are being empowered to do extraordinary things.
These initiatives show the importance some of the major oil and gas producers in the region and the Gulf attach to improving their environmental quality, while at the same time reducing their carbon foot prints in contribution to minimize the climate change impacts of their economic activities.? They are acting locally with positive global impacts.They also demonstrate that acting on environmental concerns need not constitute a competitive disadvantage. On the contrary, climate change and other environmental considerations can and should be integrated into economic strategies as a means of achieving healthy growth and sustainable development. The same can be said of individual companies, particularly given the increasing extent to which consumers base their decisions on green issues.
Even and perhaps especially when it comes to the energy sector itself, there is plenty of room to mix profit with responsibility. Energy security approaches can be very climate-friendly when focused on appropriate objectives like renewables and clean coal technologies. Those countries and companies that gain an early lead in research and development on harnessing wind, solar and other alternative sources will reap tremendous rewards as the rest of the planet grows increasingly determined to expand the use of renewables in the coming decade(s).
While we can and should compete for technological and commercial advantage, though, the MENA countries also must seek out and grasp opportunities to cooperate ? with each other and with other parts of the world ? on a host of issues affecting our common destiny. Energy security and more sustainable energy mixes would both be well-served by collaborative strategies, as would the design and realization of agendas to protect biodiversity: pollution, climate change and other manmade hazards have no regard for? borders, so the search for solutions should be just as transnational. Cooperation and exchanges of information with leading providers of research in the field, including the aforementioned NASA and ESA, would accelerate the formulation and implementation of practical, innovative answers to the most crucial questions of our times.
Indeed, finding ways to work together is what the COP process is all about. In the long run, all the delays will have been worth it if the end-results include concrete measures that actual countries and actual peoples can actually stick to. To ensure that whatever ?legally binding? steps we agree to are universally respected, COP18 would be a great time to lay the groundwork by helping less fortunate signatories to meet their targets without suffering undue hardship.
With this in mind, operationalizing the ?Green Fund? to assist developing nations with implementation should be a key consideration for those gathered here in Doha. Estimates of the cost for these countries to adopt clean energy solutions in support of badly needed economic growth run to approximately USD 100 billion ? frankly a small price to pay for helping them achieve greater self-sufficiency without undue environmental damage that affects all of us. COP18 can have a lasting impact by setting up a mechanism for the Green Fund to support programs undertaken by these nations to green their economies.
In southern and eastern Africa, for example, the development of significant hydropower resources with the associated high-voltage transmission line interconnections would help to meet regional energy needs for decades, contributing mightily to social and economic development while helping to minimize the use of fossil fuels and therefore to lessen impacts on climate change. The cost for southern Africa would amount to about USD150 billion over the next 10-15 years, but the returns would be worth many times that in both tangible and intangible terms. Green Fund support would be instrumental in making this happen, as would the participation of other multilateral institutions; the latter could render considerable service to investors and promoters of green energy by, inter alia, extending political-risk guarantees across the spectrum of renewable energy and pollution-reduction industries.
The Doha round can also make a mark by shepherding governments toward an agreement on a global carbon price and joint development of an appropriate legal and regulatory framework for a future based on low-carbon energy. The continuing financial crisis and the worldwide economic slowdown are still imposing onerous restrictions on funding for all manner of spending, and climate change is no exception. This only intensifies the need for all countries to redouble their efforts to work together toward reducing emissions and buttressing overall environmental quality. It also makes the Doha talks a signal moment for the cause of bequeathing a cleaner and more sustainable world to subsequent generations.???
The 2015 date is fast approaching, so whatever can be accomplished here and now, in late 2012, gets us all that much closer to a comprehensive package of workable climate-change measures. Attainable goals at this summit include completing the framework on emissions and controls, as well as expanding incentives to encourage greater energy efficiency at homes and businesses. We also need new and better ways to get all levels of the private sector interested in the new technologies, materials and processes required for better insulation, more efficient tools and appliances, and more affordable versions of the hybrid and fully electric cars and ships already on the market.?
As a species, we need not just to put our shoulders to the wheel, but also to put all of our combined brainpower to making that wheel more efficient and more productive. And once we?ve demonstrated our ability and willingness to act in concert for the sake of the global climate, imagine the experience and the confidence we?ll have to team up against other evils like hunger, poverty, and armed aggression/occupation.
Roudi E. Baroudi is CEO of Energy and Environment Holding, a Doha-based energy consultancy, and Secretary General of the World Energy Council ? Lebanon Member Committee.