x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Gulf has clear stake in climate change effort

"There is no relationship whatsoever between human activities and climate change," says Mohammad al Sabban, the lead climate negotiator for Saudi Arabia.

"There is no relationship whatsoever between human activities and climate change," says Mohammad al Sabban, the lead climate negotiator for Saudi Arabia. Yet as recently as April, the GCC reaffirmed its commitment to reaching an ambitious agreement at the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen, which starts today.

How serious should the GCC countries be about supporting a new climate treaty? To answer that, we have to assess whether the Gulf will suffer seriously from climate change. And secondly, how heavily the GCC economy would be affected by caps on carbon dioxide emissions. We might think climate change will hardly damage the wealthy GCC states. The weather in the region is already hot and dry, so will 2°C to 3°C of warming really change things? In fact, though, the Gulf is starkly vulnerable to the direct and indirect impacts of a changing climate.

Last week, I visited Mohammed, a farmer near Jibreen, south of the Oman Mountains. He used to grow dates, cereals, fruit and a variety of herbs. He told me his wells were running dry, the rains had failed for three years and the ingenious falaj system, used for at least 3,000 years to carry water from the nearby mountains, could no longer supply him. The unsown field in front of his house is now a patch of dust, criss-crossed by empty irrigation pipes.

Fresh water, always the Gulf's Achilles heel, is particularly at risk. With rising sea levels, salt water increasingly encroaches on limited groundwater supplies, while, as Mohammed's story shows, rainfall-fed agriculture in mountainous areas ceases to be viable. Desalination plants may have to be re-sited, at great expense. GCC population and industry is concentrated in the low-lying coastal zones. Advancing seas threaten homes, businesses and roads, as well as the ambitious land reclamation schemes and artificial islands of recent years. Bahrain, for example, could lose 15km of coastline.

Wealthy Gulf states might be able to ride out these changes. More threatening are the changes in the region. The World Economic Forum assessed the GCC as having "high" vulnerability to climate change. Nearby are four large, populous nations with exposure rated as "extreme": Egypt, Yemen, Iraq and Pakistan, the last three already struggling with well documented instability. The fighting on the Saudi-Yemeni border might be only a mild foretaste of that unleashed by drought and state failure somewhere in the wider Middle East.

The small, wealthy Gulf countries would be in the front line, with limited capacity to escape damage. Imagine "climate refugees" encamped at the fortified gates of the GCC; piracy by desperate people, as seen already in Somalia; wars and insurgencies that scare off investment and perhaps spill over borders; famines that lead hungry countries to reserve food for their own people. Last year's bans on foodstuffs by some countries, such as India's halt on rice sales, are just a warning to Gulf residents, who are almost entirely dependent on food imports.

So the Gulf should have every interest in tackling climate change, probably more than European countries that have so far taken the lead. Will this action be costly? Saudi Arabia certainly thinks so. The kingdom has proposed that oil exporters should be compensated for a loss of their market as limits on carbon-based energy kick in. This, rather than real scientific doubts about climate change, is the motive for Mr al Sabban's comments. Recent leaks from the UK's Climatic Research Unit are embarrassing, but as Ed Miliband, the UK energy and climate change minister, observed: "One string of e-mails does not undermine the global science on climate change."

As major oil and gas producers, all six GCC states do, of course, stand to lose from a shift to low-carbon energy. Yet the impact may not be as great as sometimes feared. Carbon caps will bite first on coal, so this will open up markets for cleaner-burning natural gas, a boon for Qatar in particular. And emissions limits spell bad news for high-carbon competitors to Gulf oil, such as Canada's famous oil sands.

Reshaping the global energy system will take many decades, giving ample time for the Gulf to build an economy beyond petroleum. This should be happening anyway, regardless of climate change. Energy importers, weary of high prices and fearful for their energy security, are putting increasing stress on efficiency and electric vehicles. Oil demand from developed countries may already be in a slow but permanent decline.

The Gulf needs a Plan B in case of a decisive shift away from hydrocarbons. Abu Dhabi has invested abundant amounts of money and reputation in such a plan, with Masdar, and environmental issues have risen on the Gulf agenda in the past two years. The Gulf states have large carbon footprints. This is partly defensible: the combined result of the climate, of fast-growing and wealthy populations and of the region's role in supplying energy-intensive goods to the rest of the world.

But high greenhouse gas emissions are also the result of inefficient and wasteful energy use. This offers room for large, low-cost cuts. The Gulf countries can use water more sparingly, save on air conditioning and lighting through better building design, and encourage public transport and more efficient vehicles. Later, initiatives in solar and nuclear power as well as carbon capture and storage are promising. To deliver these results, local energy prices have to rise to world market parity.

The GCC's position at Copenhagen therefore has to be an intelligent combination of the principled and the pragmatic. India and China have committed themsleves to reduce emissions growth, so that among the developing countries, Gulf nations are in an anomalous position. With Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait among the wealthiest nations in the world, it is hard to argue that they should not face some kind of carbon limits. For those neighbours at the forefront of climate change, the GCC can also commit to helping adaptation and in building state institutions and civil society.

By choosing a constructive stand with other developing countries, the GCC will give itself the best chance of achieving a deal that recognises its unique status as the world's energy provider. That is more likely to bear fruit than asking for compensation or denying the science of climate change. Without such agreement at Copenhagen, Mohammed's will not be the last farm in the GCC that turns to dust.

Robin Mills is an energy economist based in Dubai and the author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis.