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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

World must end oil addiction or face ruin, economist tells Abu Dhabi

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, a senior UN adviser, urges Middle East nations to 'get the empires out' to solve problems

Prof Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Centre for Sustainable Development at Columbia University in New York and a senior United Nations adviser, says governments of the region must focus on winning a war of survival against environmental devastation. Leslie Pableo for The National
Prof Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Centre for Sustainable Development at Columbia University in New York and a senior United Nations adviser, says governments of the region must focus on winning a war of survival against environmental devastation. Leslie Pableo for The National

Exploiting fossil fuels at current rates will cause a global environmental catastrophe within two to three decades, a world-leading economist has warned leaders.

Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Centre for Sustainable Development at Columbia University in New York and a senior United Nations adviser, urged the Middle East to put a century of conflict behind it and instead co-operate to realise its potential as a “powerhouse of solar energy for the whole world”.

In a keynote address, made at the launch of a new regional Centre for Excellence for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals that will be based at Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Diplomatic Academy, Prof Sachs set out a stark vision of the consequences if serious action is not taken to combat climate change. He said humanity is “wrecking the Earth” and is rapidly reaching a point where damage will prove irreversible.

Rather than focusing on fighting each other, he said, all governments must focus on winning a “war of survival” against environmental devastation. If they do not, natural disasters such as the devastating fires seen in California will continue to become more common. Meanwhile, large parts of the world, including Bangladesh, will become uninhabitable, causing mass migrations and humanitarian disaster on an unprecedented scale.

“It is hard. This is a region based on oil and gas,” Prof Sachs told an audience of politicians, dignitaries and diplomats in Abu Dhabi. “The whole economy is based on oil and gas. And yet within the next 30 years we have to move away from oil and gas.

“If we continue this way, I’m telling you, it will be not just Puerto Rico [hurricanes] and California forest fires, we will wake up at some point in 10 or 20 years and understand the calamity is here. Unless you’re prepared and making the transition, it’s going to be even more calamitous.”

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He praised the UAE for its moves to develop solutions, by hosting the new centre, only the fourth in the world, as well bodies such as the International Renewable Energy Agency. However, he criticised a series of right-wing world leaders, including US President Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, recently elected Brazil’s president, for their attitudes to the environment.

Liberal figureheads including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada also came under fire from Prof Sachs for publicly accepting the dangers of climate change but pursuing policies that would contribute to it.

“Nobody who has fossil fuel takes it seriously,” he said. “Everybody wants just a little bit more. I was in Australia two weeks ago [and they say] ‘sure, climate change is real, it is killing the Great Barrier Reef, it’s causing disasters. But we still want to export coal.' So that’s our problem – nobody wants to take it seriously until we have wrecked the planet.”

The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, agreed in 2015, also cover areas such as education, poverty and peace. Prof Sachs urged Middle East nations to reject western interference in their affairs, saying that coming together to end conflict would deliver a lucrative “peace dividend” and allow the building of regional infrastructure to export solar energy.

He said the $100 billion worth of American weapons recently ordered by Saudi Arabia were the “last thing” either the country or the region needed and that western policies in the Middle East are inspired by “self-interest, not your interest. So you have to solve the problems internally.

“The last war you ever have here will be what those [weapons] will be for because there won’t be anything left,” he said. “This has been the non-stop region of war due to the imperialism of Britain, France the US. A lot of mischief because they wanted a lot of oil. Now, we need to move on to something else, because if we continue this way, we’re going to lose everything.

“Their whole strategy is divide and conquer, rather than allowing regional co-operation. Right now, everyone says ‘we’ve got our big friend outside, so we don’t need to co-operate next door’. That is a trick of the outside powers, that’s not a solution for the countries in this region,” Prof Sachs said.

“The main lesson of economics is neighbours should co-operate, because flood plains, transmission lines, water, rivers, bio-diversity, trade, transport, is between neighbours. Get the empires out and you’ll be able to co-operate properly.”

The new Centre of Excellence for the Arab region, announced on Sunday, will produce research and suggest possible solution to meet the UN goals.

Nawal Al Hosany, the UAE’s permanent representative to the International Renewable Energy Agency, said at the launch that she was “optimistic” that challenges such as climate change could be overcome.

“We are united in understanding the challenge,” she said. “A couple of years ago I started a meeting of all the GCC ministers of oil and energy, and the conversation was not about oil, it was about renewable energy. We understand it is not something we need to ignore and I don’t think we are ignoring it.”