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Arab states should do their part to combat climate change

The world celebrated Earth Day on Saturday, an annual event held since 1970 that is observed by governments, civil society and individuals alike. The event was founded in the US but went global in 1990 and, by the last count, at least 190 countries mark the occasion which is meant to underline environmental awareness and the reality of climate change and its impact on nations worldwide.
Naturally, the event is taken seriously in Western countries, where the effects of global warming are recorded and studied and where laws and regulations have been enacted and modified to provide better protection for the environment and the quality of life.
Last year witnessed the historic signing of the Paris Climate Agreement, the main goal of which is to limit greenhouse gas emissions starting in 2020. It was particularly important that the US, the biggest energy consumer and a major polluter, committed to it and so did China. Both countries ratified the agreement last year.
Such news rarely makes headlines in the Arab world. The environment is the least of people’s concerns as they struggle to eke out a living in most Arab states. The events of the so-called Arab Spring, an oxymoron term today, had a major negative impact on the lives of tens of millions of Arabs in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Aside from the terrible cost of civil wars, terrorism, displacement of people, destruction of cultural icons and entire towns, the ecological impact has been huge. Oil fields were burned, rivers polluted and dams destroyed. The use of chemical weapons, phosphorus munitions and depleted uranium (dirty) bombs in Syria and Iraq will leave its poisonous mark on the land for decades.
But aside from the horrific effects of wars and political chaos, the Arab world stands to be among the major areas affected by global warming and climate change. Drought has killed tens of thousands in Somalia and Sudan and upset the delicate environmental balance in sub-Saharan Africa, affecting Algeria, Libya, Tunis and Morocco. Soil erosion is a big problem as the desert continues its slow march northward, burying arable land and displacing people.

With the Arab world finding itself at the center of climate change impact, environmental awareness and positive action is urgently required. Governments cannot afford not to play their part in enacting laws and regulations that aim to protect the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.

Osama Al-Sharif

Water scarcity is already a big developmental challenge in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. Water demand continues to rise in GCC countries, forcing governments to invest more in water desalination plants that consume energy and contribute to rising temperatures.
The effects of climate change can already be felt in many Arab countries. Freak flash floods have become a regular annual occurrence in Saudi Arabia while the frequency of dust storms hitting parts of the Arabian Gulf seaboard has dramatically increased. Rising sea levels are eroding coasts in Egypt and Libya, while increasing demand for Nile water is triggering tensions between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.
Jordan is one of the poorest countries in the world in terms of water resources and Amman is now seeking billions of dollars in funding for water desalination and nuclear energy projects.
Arab states have their share in producing greenhouse emissions. A UN study found that Qatar recorded the world’s highest per capita emissions with 56.2 tons of carbon dioxide in 2006, while Egypt emitted just 2.25 tons. One controversial US study predicted that high temperatures and humidity in the Gulf at the end of this century could make it difficult for people to be outdoors during certain periods. The study concluded that “unless greenhouse-gas emissions are curbed in the UAE’s major cities, the wet-bulb temperature would exceed the level at which humans could survive between 2071 and 2100.”
The debate over the reality of climate change continues among conservative political and religious circles in the US. But scientific research has presented a water-tight case that leaves no doubt about the relationship between human activities and global warming.
With the Arab world finding itself at the center of climate change impact, environmental awareness and positive action is urgently required. Governments cannot afford not to play their part in enacting laws and regulations that aim to protect the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.
As the debate over reforming school curricula intensifies, it will be timely and necessary to incorporate ecological science and environmental protection into school books and tie them to civic duty. Governments can do the heavy lifting in terms of laws and regulations but individuals and civil society groups can do a lot in changing the way we view and interact with the environment on a daily basis.
It would be timely for Arab states, within the framework of the Arab League or as groups, to initiate workshops and provide the framework for agreements to work collectively to offset the impact of climate change and global warming. This is not a luxury as a critically threatened ecosystem is linked directly to achieving the goals of economic sustainability and political and social stability.

• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.