2021 Year in Review: When climate change got real and the world took notice 

2021 Year in Review: When climate change got real and the world took notice 
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Updated 29 December 2021

2021 Year in Review: When climate change got real and the world took notice 

2021 Year in Review: When climate change got real and the world took notice 
  • Apocalyptic warnings by the IPCC underscored the urgency of tackling global warming
  • Saudi Arabia launched two initiatives to emphasize its leadership role in the campaign 

DUBAI: 2021 could go down in history as the that year when climate change made the transition from being mainly the concern of youthful activists to becoming a real and present threat for all of us, and especially for the Middle East.

The climate change agenda accelerated throughout the year, fanned by a background of raging forest fires in, for example, Australia and Turkey, extreme and fatal summer heat on the US Pacific coast, deadly floods in central Europe and South Asia, and rampaging tornadoes in the US Midwest.




Ginny Watts (C) hugs her friend as they help cleaning her destroyed home in Dawson Springs, Kentucky, on Dec. 14, 2021, four days after tornadoes hit the area. (AFP)

Each new climate disaster was received as proof, if any more were needed, of the seriousness of the climate situation; each fresh extreme event chipped away at the convictions of the deniers.

Perhaps no one better illustrates the changing sentiment on climate change better than Mark Carney. A former executive at giant US bank Goldman Sachs and governor of the Bank of England, Carney is now a UN special envoy on finance and climate change.




Local residents fight the wildfire in the village of Gouves on Evia (Euboea) island on August 8, 2021. (AFP)

At COP26 in Glasgow in November, he was received as a hero by environmentalists. He declared: “Finance is becoming a window through which ambitious climate action can deliver a sustainable future that people all over the world are demanding.”

And it is not just Carney. Politicians of all persuasions, multi-billion-dollar investment fund executives, and even the bosses and owners of the global oil industry — the producers of the “fossil fuels” the activists love to hate — are increasingly vocal and assertive in their demands that “something” has to be done about global warming.

One key event of 2021 was the publication in August of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which — in language verging on the apocalyptic — set the tone for much of the debate for the rest of the year.

 

“Many of the changes observed in the climate are unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, and some of the changes already set in motion — such as continued sea level rise — are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years,” the report said.

The authors had no doubt as to the reason for these changes.

“Emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are responsible for approximately 1.1 degrees Celsius of warming since 1850-1900. Averaged over the next 20 years, global temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming,” it concluded.

The Paris Agreement of 2015 set a goal of “less than 2 degrees Celsius” by 2050 if the planet were to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic warming. Now the experts have said that there was little chance that could be met.

That presents a unique challenge for the hydrocarbon-producing countries of the Arabian Gulf. Oil and gas production has been responsible for the huge advances in economic and lifestyle well-being in the region, but at the same time the abundance of hydrocarbon fuels has led to inefficient use of these fuels.




A general view shows the Shams 1, Concentrated Solar power (CSP) plant, in al-Gharibiyah district on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, UAE. (AFP)

Gulf countries — which in the past had no second thoughts about burning oil to generate electricity — have among the highest per capita carbon footprints in the world.

The possible repercussions were highlighted in some new research by the Saudi-based energy think tank Aeon Collective. Global warming in the Gulf could lead to extreme and fatal heatwaves, a jump in atmospheric pollution and threats to public health from previously unknown diseases. It could even threaten the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Makkah, one of the fastest-warming cities in the Kingdom.




An extreme climate change could even threaten the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Makkah, one of the fastest-warming cities in the Kingdom. (SPA file photo)

Fortunately, regional policymakers appear to have developed an enhanced awareness of the specific dangers to the region’s economy and public health from global warming.

For one thing, the Vision 2030 strategy is aimed specifically at reducing Saudi Arabia’s dependence on fossil fuels — alongside similar strategies in the UAE and other GCC states.

But the Kingdom went a significant step further in October with the launch of two major initiatives designed to show that it was playing a leadership role in the global campaign against climate change.




A view of the Saudi capital, Riyadh. (AN file photo)

When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced the Saudi Green and Middle East Green Initiatives at a special event in Riyadh, it was a landmark event in the region. Not only did it contain a goal for Saudi Arabia to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2060, but it also stepped up the amount of harmful emissions that would be reduced under the nationally determined contributions schedule agreed with the UN and climate bodies.

In addition, the Kingdom pledged to eliminate oil from the domestic power generation cycle completely by 2030, replacing it with cleaner gas and renewables. Multi-billion-dollar investment programs to plant trees in the Kingdom were also launched, among other environmentally sound strategies.




A general view shows the solar plant in Uyayna, north of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on March 29, 2018. (AFP)

Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the Kingdom’s energy minister, underlined the seriousness of the campaign against global warming. “It is most daunting challenge that we are faced with. We have, I think, the most humane initiative that we could ever come up with, and we’re willing to enlarge it if everybody wants to enlarge it. I’m sure that people have noticed that we have been repositioning ourselves,” he said at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh in October.

These developments in the Middle East set the stage for the decisive climate change event of the year: COP26 in Glasgow, the annual gathering of energy policymakers, experts and activists. Expectations were high that the Glasgow gathering could lead an advance against climate change of comparable significance to the Paris meeting six years earlier.

Two weeks of intense negotiations eventually produced what became know as the Glasgow Climate Pact. This fell short of a commitment to a hard 1.5 degrees Celsius target by 2050 and resisted some of the wilder calls from the extreme environmentalists for an end to fossil fuel investment and production, but had enough for everybody to claim COP26 as a success.

“The Pact charts a course for the world to deliver on the promises made in Paris,” was the verdict of Alok Sharma, the UK president of COP26.

Some were disappointed that there was no commitment to “phasing out” coal as a fuel source, but — with the Glasgow event taking place in the middle of an energy crisis in which every ton of hydrocarbon was needed — the general feeling was that it was good enough, especially in view of the coal-burning necessity in places like India and China.

A few days after the COP26 delegates had departed, a rather different energy forum convened in the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi. ADIPEC is one of the biggest oil and gas gatherings in the world, but is definitely an industry event. There were no parties of Amazonian natives among the delegates there.

However, attendees noted a distinct empathy between COP26 and ADIPEC21. Badar Chaudry, senior vice president for the energy sector at UAE bank Mashreq, said: “There was enough overlap in the agendas and outcomes of both events to reach the conclusion that there is a consensus that climate change is the big issue facing the world today, and that the hydrocarbon industry has recognized that and is stepping up to play its part.”




Saudi Aramco's Shaybah plant in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. (Supplied)

For the Middle East, the climate change challenge gets very real indeed from now on. COP27 will take place next year in Cairo, and COP28 is earmarked for the UAE in 2023.

The two biggest oil producers in the region — Saudi Arabia and the UAE — are set to increase oil production in the years ahead to fuel economic growth and take advantage of their low production costs at a time of rising prices.

How they can square this strategy with the self-declared aim of reducing emissions will be a key focus for the next couple of years.


Iran protesters seek justice as building collapse toll rises

Iran protesters seek justice as building collapse toll rises
Updated 12 sec ago

Iran protesters seek justice as building collapse toll rises

Iran protesters seek justice as building collapse toll rises
TEHRAN: Hundreds of people took to the streets in southwestern Iran demanding justice after a tower block collapse killed 24 people, news outlets in the Islamic republic said on Friday.
A large section of the 10-story Metropol building that was under construction in the city of Abadan, in Khuzestan province, crumbled on Monday, causing one of Iran’s deadliest such disasters in years.
Images published by Fars news agency showed hundreds of residents marching along Abadan’s streets on Thursday night, mourning those who lost their lives by banging on traditional drums and hitting cymbals.
Some shouted “Death to incompetent officials” and hailed the “Martyrs of Metropol,” Fars said.
People also took to the streets of Khorramshahr city, in the same province, expressing their sympathy with the families of those who died and calling for “a decisive and serious” trial of those responsible, it added.
Similar protests were held on Wednesday night in Abadan, state TV had reported.
More than four days after the tower block’s collapse, rescue teams were still recovering bodies from under slabs of cement.
A video posted on Tasnim news agency’s website on Friday showed rescuers carrying a gurney with a body wrapped in a black bag.
Abadan governor Ehsan Abbaspour, cited by ISNA news agency, said the number of people killed in the disaster stood at 24, up from 19 previously.
Officials said 37 people were also injured, although most have since been discharged from hospital.
It remains unknown how many people may still be trapped under the rubble.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had called for perpetrators to be prosecuted and punished, in a statement posted on his official website on Thursday.
The provincial judiciary said at least 10 people were arrested following the incident, including the mayor and two former mayors, accused of being “responsible” for the collapse, the Judiciary’s Mizan Online website reported.
An investigation has been opened into the cause of the disaster in Abadan, a city of 230,000 people, 660 kilometers (410 miles) southwest of Tehran.
First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber visited Abadan on Friday to “investigate the dimensions of the building collapse incident,” according to ISNA.
In a previous major disaster in Iran, 22 people, including 16 firefighters, died in a blaze that engulfed the capital’s 15-story Plasco shopping center in January 2017.

Iran summons Swiss envoy over US seizure of Iranian oil

Iran summons Swiss envoy over US seizure of Iranian oil
The ministry called for an immediate release of the ship and its cargo. (Reuters)
Updated 27 May 2022

Iran summons Swiss envoy over US seizure of Iranian oil

Iran summons Swiss envoy over US seizure of Iranian oil
  • The US seized Iranian oil from a Russian-operated ship near Greece

Iran on Friday summoned the envoy of Switzerland, which represents US interests in Tehran, to protest against the US seizure of Iranian oil from a Russian-operated ship near Greece, the foreign ministry said in a statement quoted by Iranian media.
The ministry called for the immediate release of the ship and its cargo, the IRNA state news agency quoted it as saying.
The United States on Wednesday imposed sanctions on what it described as a Russian-backed oil smuggling and money laundering network for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force.
A spokesperson for the US Department of Justice declined to comment on the oil seizure.
“The Islamic Republic expressed its deep concern over the US government’s continued violation of international laws and international maritime conventions,” IRNA and other media quoted the foreign ministry as saying.
A source at Greece’s shipping ministry told Reuters on Thursday that the US Department of Justice had “informed Greece that the cargo on the vessel is Iranian oil.”
It was unclear whether the cargo was impounded because it was Iranian oil or due to the sanctions on the tanker over its Russian links. Iran and Russia face separate US sanctions.
Three sources familiar with the matter told Reuters on Thursday that the US plans to send the cargo to the United States aboard another vessel.
The Iranian-flagged ship, the Pegas, was among five vessels designated by Washington on Feb. 22 — two days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — for sanctions against Promsvyazbank, a bank viewed as critical to Russia’s defense sector.
IRNA reported on Wednesday that its foreign ministry summoned the charge d’affaires of Greece’s embassy in Tehran following the seizure of the cargo of a ship which was “under the banner of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Greek waters and he was informed of the strong objections” of Iran’s government.
IRNA quoted Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization as saying the tanker had sought refuge along the Greek coast after experiencing technical problems and poor weather, adding that the seizure of its cargo was “a clear example of piracy.” 


US seizes 600,000 barrels of smuggled Iranian crude oil

US seizes 600,000 barrels of smuggled Iranian crude oil
Updated 27 May 2022

US seizes 600,000 barrels of smuggled Iranian crude oil

US seizes 600,000 barrels of smuggled Iranian crude oil
  • Cargo confiscated off coast of Greece 
  • Sanctions enforced again as nuclear deal hopes fade

JEDDAH: The US has confiscated more than 600,000 barrels of smuggled Iranian crude oil from a tanker off the coast of Greece in a new wave of sanctions enforcement.
The cargo of oil was pumped off the tanker into another vessel on Thursday and is now being transferred to the US.
The oil tanker, the Pegas, was targeted under two sets of sanctions — against Russia because it is Russian owned, and against Iran because it was carrying Iranian oil.
The Pegas was one of five vessels named by Washington on Feb. 22, two days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in sanctions against Promsvyazbank, a bank viewed as critical to Russia’s defense sector. The tanker was renamed Lana on March 1 and has been flying the Iranian flag since May 1.
The vessel, with 19 Russian crew members on board, was initially impounded by Greek authorities last month off the coast of the southern Greek island of Evia.
Greece said the ship had been seized as part of EU sanctions on Russia for the invasion of Ukraine, but the vessel was later released.

FASTFACT

The oil tanker, the Pegas, was targeted under two sets of sanctions — against Russia because it is Russian owned, and against Iran because it was carrying Iranian oil.

However, the US imposed new sanctions this week on a Russian-backed oil smuggling and money laundering network for the Quds Force, the foreign operations unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. As a result, the oil tanker was seized again.
Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization said the tanker had sought refuge along Greece’s coast after experiencing technical problems and poor weather, and the seizure of its cargo was “a clear example of piracy.”
Iran’s Foreign Ministry summoned the charge d’affaires of Greece’s embassy in Tehran following the seizure of the cargo.
The ship was “under the banner of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Greek waters and he was informed of the strong objections” of Iran’s government, the ministry said.
In 2020, Washington confiscated four cargos of Iranian fuel aboard foreign ships that were bound for Venezuela and transferred them with the help of undisclosed foreign partners on to two other ships which then sailed to the US.
Operations against smuggled Iranian oil had tailed off recently amid hopes for a revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions, including those targeting oil exports.
However, talks on reviving the deal have stalled, and the new oil cargo seizure suggests that the US is again enforcing sanctions.
Washington’s Iran envoy said this week the chances of reviving the nuclear deal were now shaky at best, and the US was ready to tighten sanctions on Iran.


Talk of closing last Syrian aid lifeline ‘a moral abomination,’ UN commission says

Talk of closing last Syrian aid lifeline ‘a moral abomination,’ UN commission says
Updated 27 May 2022

Talk of closing last Syrian aid lifeline ‘a moral abomination,’ UN commission says

Talk of closing last Syrian aid lifeline ‘a moral abomination,’ UN commission says
  • Cross-border agreement set to expire on July 10, with Security Council members already sparring over whether it should be extended
  • Number of Syrians facing hunger has almost doubled since 2019, as Ukraine war pushes up prices, and hits wheat and fuel supplies

NEW YORK: With the current UN Security Council’s exceptional authorization for humanitarian aid delivery through the last remaining border crossing into northwest Syria set to expire on July 10, the UN Syria Commission of Inquiry warned that it would be a “failure of the highest order” if the council failed to extend the life-saving operation.

“As the country faces its worst economic and humanitarian crisis since the start of the conflict, the international community must safeguard existing, life-saving cross-border assistance and increase their funding pledges to support this aid,” said a commission statement, which also expressed alarm at what it called a “trajectory of consistent narrowing of the cross-border humanitarian aid delivery.”

When deliveries of international aid to Syria began in 2014, the Security Council approved four border crossings. In January 2020, permanent member Russia used its power of veto to force the closure of all but one, Bab-al-Hawa.

Moscow argues that international aid operations violate Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Security Council discussions about the issue often prove difficult, with Russia and China consistently insisting that all humanitarian aid deliveries require the consent of the Syrian authorities.

Opposing views among council members last week on the need to extend the cross-border mechanism have sparked concern among humanitarian agencies, as the crossing so far has guaranteed access to desperately needed aid for millions of Syrians since 2014.

“It is a moral abomination that a Security Council resolution was in itself deemed necessary to facilitate cross-border aid in the face of consistent violations — by the government of Syria and other parties — of their obligations under international law to allow and facilitate humanitarian relief for civilians in need,” Paulo Pinheiro, chair of the UN Syria Commission, said.

The July 10 renewal vote comes as humanitarian needs throughout Syria are at their highest since the start of the war 11 years ago.

The UN estimates that 14.6 million Syrians are now in need of aid. Across the war-ravaged country, 12 million people face acute food insecurity, a staggering 51 percent increase since 2019, amid a conflict in Ukraine that has sent food prices skyrocketing and threatened supplies of wheat and other commodities.
 
In opposition-held northwest Syria, conditions are deteriorating due to continuing hostilities and a deepening economic crisis. About 4.1 million people there, mostly women and children, depend on aid to meet their basic needs.

Cross-border operations authorized by the Security Council allow aid to reach around 2.4 million people every month.

The commission said in its latest report that this lifeline is vital to the population in northwest Syria, adding that while some aid is delivered cross-line from within Syria, these deliveries contain much smaller, insufficient quantities and are exposed to attacks along a dangerous delivery route that crosses active front lines.

During its 11 years of investigating the conflict, the commission has documented that both the government and armed groups have repeatedly used humanitarian aid as a political bargaining chip, often deliberately withholding it for specific populations, particularly those under siege.

The commission also maintains that across all territories of Syria, staff members of humanitarian organizations constantly run the risk of being harassed, arbitrarily arrested and detained.

Commissioner Hanny Megally said: “Parties to the conflict have consistently failed in their obligation to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need across Syria. It is unconscionable that the discussion seems to focus on whether to close the one remaining authorized border crossing for aid, rather than how to expand access to life-saving aid across the country and through every appropriate route.”

Earlier this month, humanitarian aid organizations sounded the alarm at an EU-hosted Brussels VI Conference on Syria.

“The funds for humanitarian assistance are simply not sufficient to address the needs and protect the Syrians right now,” Pinheiro said.

“The international community cannot now abandon the Syrian people. They have endured 11 years of devastating conflict that has inflicted unspeakable suffering. They have never been more impoverished and in need of our help.”


Doctors, hospitals in Lebanon go on strike

Doctors, hospitals in Lebanon go on strike
Updated 27 May 2022

Doctors, hospitals in Lebanon go on strike

Doctors, hospitals in Lebanon go on strike
  • The strike was declared by two medical professionals’ unions, which say they could no longer put up with Central Bank policies that have allowed banks to impose random capital controls

BEIRUT: Dozens of doctors, nurses and medical personnel rallied on Thursday outside the Central Bank in the Lebanese capital of Beirut after declaring a two-day general strike to protest rapidly deteriorating economic conditions.

The strike was declared by two medical professionals’ unions — The Syndicates of Doctors in Beirut and the North and the Syndicate of Private Hospital Owners — which say they could no longer put up with Central Bank policies that have allowed banks to impose random capital controls and other restrictions.

During the strike, which ends on Friday, only emergency cases and dialysis patients would be admitted to hospitals, the unions said.

Lebanon’s medical sector, which up until few years ago was among the best in the Middle East, is on the brink of collapse, barely surviving the country’s unprecedented economic and financial meltdown.

The crisis that started in October 2019 has seen the local currency lose more than 90 percent of its value to the dollar, wiping out salaries and savings.

The hardship has led to the emigration of thousands of doctors and nurses and the closure of a large number of pharmacies, as well as severe shortages in medicines and medical equipment.

A number of hospitals have been warning they will have to close because they can no longer pay for their expenses or pay their employees’ salaries.

“Hospitals will close because there is no way they can continue. We have to pay cash when we have no access to cash,” said Suleiman Haroun, head of the private hospitals’ union, who joined the protest in Beirut along with a few hundred other colleagues.

He blamed Central Bank policies for destroying the sector.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese pound continued to hit new lows against the dollar, which was selling at around 35,600 pounds on the black market Wednesday.

The Lebanese currency was pegged at 1,500 pounds to the dollar for 22 years until the crisis erupted in late 2019.