Authors Olivia Macharis is a researcher at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut and Nadim Farajalla is Program Director of the Climate Change and Environment Program at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. They came up with this realistic picture of the Middle East’s Threat Multiplier. It is published on Project Syndicate of 12 June 2020.
The picture above is that of An Egyptian boy holding bread and flashing the victory sign shouts slogans at Cairo’s Tahrir Square on April 1, 2011 as he joins tens of thousands of Egyptians who gathered, issuing calls to “save the revolution” that ousted president Hosni Mubarak and to rid of the country of the old regime. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/GettyImages)
Although many factors contributed to the mass protest movements in Iraq in recent years, and in Egypt a decade ago, climate change was the common denominator. By exacerbating endemic problems such as water scarcity and food insecurity, global warming threatens to plunge an already unstable region into the abyss.n Egyptian boy holding bread and flashing the victory sign shouts slogans at Cairo’s Tahrir Square on April 1, 2011 as he joins tens of thousands of Egyptians who gathered, issuing calls to “save the revolution” that ousted president Hosni Mubarak and to rid of the country of the old regime. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/GettyImages) Survey the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and you will find no shortage of crises, from escalating tensions between the United States and Iran to the cycles of violence in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. Countless young people across the region feel a sense of despair as they confront the daily realities of poor governance, economic immobility, and sectarian violence. Now, the COVID-19 crisis is putting increasing and unprecedented pressure on the global economy, state institutions, and livelihoods. It has also highlighted the dire consequences of health, social, and economic inequality. And as bad as these problems are on their own, all will be exacerbated and magnified by an even larger crisis: the devastating impacts of climate change. With its largely arid conditions, the MENA region is particularly vulnerable to the physical impacts of climate change. It is one of the world’s most water-scarce regions, with a high dependency on climate-sensitive agriculture. Along with rising temperatures, the region is already experiencing a wide range of deteriorating environmental conditions, including decreased rainfall in Iraq, longer droughts in Syria, more severe flash flooding in Jordan and Lebanon, increasingly intense cyclones in Yemen and Oman, and rising sea levels. There is also evidence of rapid desertification regionwide, as well as unprecedented heat waves and increasingly frequent and intense dust storms. Looking ahead, researchers warn that summer temperatures in the region will increase twice as fast as average global temperatures. This will lead to increased evaporation rates and accelerated loss of surface water, which will reduce the productive capacity of soils and agricultural output. Projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also warn of rising sea levels and an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. In large parts of the region, the combination of worsening heat waves and increasing air pollution owing to sand and dust storms will likely compromise human habitability and force people to migrate. Climate change not only has serious implications for the environment and public health, but also for economic growth, livelihoods, and peace. Climate-induced impacts have the potential to reinforce factors that lead to or exacerbate conflict and instability. For one, resource scarcity may undermine the livelihoods of vulnerable households and communities, potentially leading to increasing competition, which may turn violent in the absence of conflict resolution institutions. Most vulnerable are fragile states and communities with a history of violence. In Iraq and Syria, the occurrence of devastating droughts between 2007 and 2012, combined with governments’ inability to provide relief to vulnerable populations, favored radicalization and recruitment efforts by jihadist militias, including the Islamic State. Other risks of conflict arise when growing resource scarcity is met with inadequate government action, which may cause grievances among the population and increase tensions along ethnic, sectarian, political, and socioeconomic lines. Water scarcity and contamination have already triggered recurrent protests in Iraq, and rising food prices have fueled protest movements in Egypt and other countries. The region desperately needs to start developing and implementing more robust adaptation strategies before it is too late. UNPREPARED FOR THE WORST Most countries in the region are woefully behind when it comes to preparing for the physical effects of climate change on the environment and for the socioeconomic effects on much of the population. Many governments are unable or unwilling to tackle issues related to poverty, slow and unequal economic growth, high unemployment, lack of basic services, and widespread corruption. Instead, the region’s governments have long relied on what political scientists call the “authoritarian bargain,” an implicit contract in which the state provides jobs, security, and services in exchange for political loyalty (or at least obeisance). This contract assumes that the population will remain politically inactive. But protest movements over the last decade, from the Arab Spring to more recent demonstrations in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and other countries, have shown that people across the region want to renegotiate. In many countries, the protests are the result of worsening economic and political conditions, many of which stem from strained government resources that have led to a decline in the provision of public services. With climate change projected to put additional pressure on water and food security, livelihoods, health, and overall living standards, public discontent is likely to keep growing in the coming years, resulting in a heightened risk of political instability and conflict. The linkages between climate change, resource scarcity, and social unrest are of course complex. Examining two cases – one dealing with water scarcity and contamination, the other with rising food prices – can help shed urgently needed light on these dangerous dynamics. WATER POLITICS IN IRAQ A good place to start is by considering Iraq’s water resources, which have been under increasing stress for more than three decades. As a result of both natural and anthropogenic causes, water quantities have decreased and water quality has deteriorated. The natural phenomena include increasing climate variability and lower annual precipitation, resulting in a lack of snowfall in the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates. The anthropogenic causes center around increasing water demand, inadequate government policies, and dam-building by upstream neighbors Syria, Turkey, and Iran. The Tigris and Euphrates are Iraq’s most important sources of freshwater. These twin rivers converge in al-Qurna, in the southern Basra governorate, to form the Shatt al-Arab River and drain toward the Gulf (see map). Both rivers originate in Turkey, with the Euphrates cutting through Syria before reaching Iraq. Several of the rivers’ tributaries originate in Iran, with the Greater Zab, the Lesser Zab, and the Diyala flowing into the Tigris. In total, more than 50% of the country’s renewable water resources originate outside of its borders.
Of particular concern to Iraq is Turkey’s controversial Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), which is located at the Euphrates-Tigris Basin in the upper-Mesopotamian plains. At an estimated cost of $32 billion, the GAP is one of the world’s largest river-basin development projects. Other serious concerns include Iranian dam-building activity and an expected increase in Syrian water usage. Regional cooperation to improve water management is limited, and political negotiations have so far fallen short of concluding a legally binding, comprehensive, and long-term agreement. On the domestic front, while rapid population growth, urbanization, and increasing industrial production have driven up water demand, decades of conflict and sanctions, along with inadequate government policies and the lack of a regulatory framework for sustainable water management, have undermined investment in supply. The main challenges include chronic deterioration of infrastructure, inefficient irrigation and drainage, lack of water treatment facilities, and weak regulation of agricultural runoff and discharges of sewage, industrial waste, and oil byproducts. In addition, the continuous decline in the water levels of the Shatt al-Arab has led to severe saltwater encroachment from the Gulf into the river. DISASTER AREA Basra, a port city with direct access to the Persian Gulf, was once glorified as the “Venice of the East” for its myriad of freshwater canals lined with palm trees. The surrounding governorate accounts for most of Iraq’s oil production, with nearby West Qurna considered to be one of the world’s most lucrative oilfields. But these strategic assets have not benefited the public, because government mismanagement and negligence have turned Basra into a decrepit and dysfunctional city, plagued by strained utilities and broken infrastructure. Its waterways have become open sewers that are poisoning the population. In the summer of 2018, Basra became the epicenter of an environmental and socioeconomic disaster that threatened the stability of the entire region. In July, Iraqis took to the streets to demand basic services such as clean drinking water, electricity, jobs, and an end to pervasive corruption. Then, in August, an outbreak of gastrointestinal illnesses, most likely caused by water contamination, sent tens of thousands of people seeking medical assistance in increasingly overwhelmed hospitals. Later that month, the UN-affiliated Independent High Commission for Human Rights called on the Iraqi government to declare Basra a “disaster area.” The water supply problems fueled further public outrage. Street protests resumed and gradually intensified. By September 2018, the protests had turned violent, with deadly clashes between protesters and security forces. Demonstrators burned government and political party offices and attacked the headquarters of the popular mobilization forces and the Iranian consulate, voicing anger over the growing influence of Iran-backed militias in the city. By early October, 18 civilians had been killed, and another 155 had been injured. While a wide range of long-neglected issues fueled the protests, water scarcity was cited as the most immediate cause or trigger. According to one civil servant quoted in The Independent, “The water shortages have made all the other problems gather and explode. It’s so extreme because it’s water, it’s essential for life.” Concerns remained that the health of the Iraqi people would continue to be affected unless the water situation improved drastically and quickly. Despite efforts to contain the outbreak of waterborne diseases and despite promises by the government to improve water infrastructure, it did not. In October 2019, the unrest spread to Baghdad, where protesters demanded economic reform, an end to corruption, and the provision of basic services, including clean water and electricity. A brutal crackdown by security forces resulted in more than 100 deaths in the first five days. Still, the demonstrations gained momentum, with protesters going so far as to call for an overhaul of the entire sectarian political system. According to the UN’s special envoy to Iraq, more than 400 people were killed, and another 19,000 were injured, just between October 1 and December 3 last year. EGYPT’S TROUBLED WATERS Likewise, climate change and politics have become inextricably intertwined in Egypt, where agricultural production and food security are threatened by acute water scarcity and other climate-related challenges. Egypt is also heavily reliant on food imports, which makes it all the more vulnerable to the impact of adverse weather events on global output and prices. Similar to the situation in Iraq, increasing water stress in Egypt reflects not only climate change, but also rapid population growth and resource mismanagement. The government bears a significant part of the responsibility, as a lack of treatment facilities, poor infrastructure maintenance, and weak regulations against dumping domestic, agricultural, and industrial effluent have all created water scarcities. Egypt’s water dependency ratio is one of the world’s highest, with the Nile River providing more than 95% of its total supply. Approximately 86% of the Nile’s total volume comes from the Ethiopian Highlands, flowing through Sudan before reaching Egypt (see map). As a result, water allocation has long been a source of political tension among Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan. The biggest challenge to Egypt’s water supply currently comes from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project. At an estimated cost of $4.8 billion, the dam’s construction is a crucial step toward energy security for Ethiopia. For Egypt, however, the project poses a significant threat to its water supply, especially with Ethiopia becoming the dominant power in the Nile River Basin.
Egypt’s economy is highly dependent on agriculture, which itself is almost entirely dependent on irrigation, accounting for over 85% of the country’s total water usage. Egypt’s food production is thus severely restricted by rising temperatures and more frequent droughts, which translate into higher water demand and lower agricultural yields. Worse, climate models show that Egypt’s national food production could decline by anywhere from 11% to 50% by 2050, depending on the level of warming. Moreover, the Nile Delta, Egypt’s breadbasket, is subsiding and extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise. Higher sea levels are expected to affect around 30% of fertile land in the Nile Delta within this century. With tightening resource constraints and a growing population, Egypt’s dependence on imported food is growing, as is its vulnerability to supply and price risks on the global market. The Egyptian population was hit particularly hard by the global food crisis of 2006-08, which came at a time when the country’s domestic production was weakened by severe water scarcity and debilitating agricultural reforms. BREAD, FREEDOM, AND SOCIAL JUSTICE As world commodity prices rose in 2007, Egypt’s government was unable to contain domestic food price inflation, owing to increasing resource scarcity, a corrupt and unsustainable food-subsidy system, and other structural problems. The annual rate of growth in food prices soared from 6.9% in December 2007 to a peak of 31% in August 2008, compared to an average of only 4% in the early 2000s. Rising food prices eroded the purchasing power of the population, causing poverty and food insecurity to rise. Between 2005 and 2008, the incidence of extreme poverty – defined as the inability to meet basic food needs – increased by about 20%, and a growing share of the population became dependent on government-subsidized bread. When the government struggled to meet demand, bread shortages became the focus of a wave of anger at perceived official incompetence, indifference, and corruption. On April 6, 2008, in response to low wages and rising food prices, Egyptian textile workers in the northern town of Mahalla al-Kubra organized a strike. Residents took to the streets, participating in the biggest demonstration that Egypt had seen in years. Police responded with live ammunition to disperse the crowds and arrested more than 300 people. The strike spread to other cities, including Cairo, albeit not with the same intensity. According to news reports, the demonstrators’ complaints were mainly economic: higher food prices, stagnant wages, and “unprecedented” inequality. Many view the Mahalla protests as a precursor to the Arab Spring less than three years later. Then, in 2010, fires in Russia and floods in Pakistan disrupted global wheat and rice markets, and the prices of basic foods in Egypt rose again (see graph). By the end of the year, Egyptians had been pushed to the brink by the sharp increases in food prices, escalating unemployment, chronic government corruption, rigged parliamentary elections, lack of political freedoms, growing concern about police brutality, and crackdowns on the media and universities. Resentment toward Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-old regime was growing. Social media had raised awareness of state repression and the fall of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, 2011, gave Egyptians hope that political change was possible.
Two weeks later, thousands of protesters poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square, demanding dignity, democracy, and better livelihoods for all. One of the popular chants called for “bread, freedom, and social justice” (“aīsh, huriyya, adala igtima‘iyya”). As the call for “aīsh” indicates, the accessibility and affordability of food was part of the population’s key grievances against the government. And although rising food prices were not the main factor behind the uprising, they likely played an important role in the sequence of events that led to nation-wide demonstrations and deadly unrest. Protest movements were met with extreme police violence and the excessive use of force by the military. Reported deaths in January and February amounted to 846 persons, in addition to mass arbitrary arrests and many cases of abuse and torture. THREATS, MULTIPLIED Resource scarcity and the lack of basic services are feeding public frustration, social unrest, and broader instability throughout the MENA region. In Iraq, water scarcity and contamination have given rise to recurrent demonstrations in Basra, and also contributed to the protest movement that started in Baghdad in October 2019. In Egypt, steep increases in domestic food prices led to riots and sporadic protests in 2008 and contributed to the uprising in 2011. Basic services such as running water, sanitation, stormwater drainage, solid-waste management, electricity, and access to staple foods, but also – as highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic – basic health care, social protection, and emergency response mechanisms, are the pillars on which governments build relationships with their citizens. The collapse of one or more severely erodes public trust and can lead to social upheavals, as demonstrated again by the recent uprisings in Lebanon, Jordan, Sudan, and other countries. At the heart of the water and food scarcities in Egypt, Iraq, and other countries lie poor governance, weak regulation, and a lack of cross-border cooperation. But looming large in the background is a changing climate, which has exacerbated these problems. As the ultimate threat multiplier in a region that is extremely vulnerable to its effects, it must not be overlooked. Given the risks, it is crucial that governments in the MENA region make adaptation efforts a top priority. If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored this need. Countries with preset plans have contained the spread of the coronavirus and managed its consequences much better than those with no plans. Likewise, confronting climate change requires developing comprehensive national and regional strategies that take into account the projected effects on water resources, agriculture, and human health. It is up to MENA governments to start building more resilience. The climate will not wait for them.
Space cooling and heating is a common need in most inhabited areas. In Europe, the energy consumed for air conditioning is rising, and the situation could get worse in the near future due to the temperature increase in different regions worldwide. The increasing cooling need in buildings especially during the summer season is satisfied by the popular air conditioners, which often make use of refrigerants with high environmental impact and also lead to high electricity consumption. So, how can we reduce the energy demand for building cooling?
A new study comes from a research group based at the Politecnico di Torino (SMaLL) and the National Institute of Metrological Research (INRiM), who has proposed a device capable of generating a cooling load without the use of electricity: the research has been published in Science Advances*. Like more traditional cooling devices, this new technology also exploits the evaporation of a liquid. However, the key idea proposed by the Turin researchers is to use simple water and common salt instead of chemicals that are potentially harmful for the environment. The environmental impact of the new device is also reduced because it is based on passive phenomena, i.e. spontaneous processes such as capillarity or evaporation, instead of on pumps and compressors that require energy and maintenance.
“Cooling by water evaporation has always been known. As an example, Nature makes use of sweat evaporation from the skin to cool down our body. However, this strategy is effective as long as air is not saturated with water vapour. Our idea was to come up with a low-cost technology capable to maximize the cooling effect regardless of the external water vapour conditions. Instead of being exposed to air, pure water is in contact with an impermeable membrane that keeps separated from a highly concentrated salty solution. The membrane can be imagined as a porous sieve with pore size in the order of one millionth of a meter. Owing to its water-repellent properties, our membrane liquid water does not pass through the membrane, whereas its vapour does. In this way, the fresh and salt water do not mix, while a constant water vapour flux occurs from one end of the membrane to the other. As a result, pure water gets cooled, with this effect being further amplified thanks to the presence of different evaporation stages. Clearly, the salty water concentration will constantly decrease and the cooling effect will diminish over time; however, the difference in salinity between the two solutions can be continuously – and sustainably – restored using solar energy, as also demonstrated in another recent study from our group**”, explains Matteo Alberghini, PhD student of the Energy Department of the Politecnico di Torino and first author of the research.
The interesting feature of the suggested device consists in its modular design made of cooling units, a few centimetres thick each, that can be stacked in series to increase the cooling effect in series, as happens with common batteries. In this way it is possible to finely tune the cooling power according to individual needs, possibly reaching cooling capacity comparable to those typically necessary for domestic use. Furthermore, water and salt do not need pumps or other auxiliaries to be transported within the device. On the contrary, it “moves” spontaneously thanks to capillary effects of some components which, like in kitchen paper, are capable of absorbing and transporting water also against gravity.
“Other technologies for passive cooling are also being tested in various labs and research centres worldwide, such as those based on infrared heat dissipation into the outer space – also known as radiative passive cooling. Those approaches, although promising and suitable for some applications, also present major limitations: the principle on which they are based may be ineffective in tropical climates and in general on very humid days, when, however, the need for conditioning would still be high; moreover, there is a theoretical limit for the maximum cooling power. Our passive prototype, based instead on evaporative cooling between two aqueous solutions with different salinities, could overcome this limit, creating a useful effect independent of external humidity. Moreover, we could obtain an even higher cooling capacity in the future by increasing the concentration of the saline solution or by resorting to a more sophisticated modular design of the device” commented the researchers.
Also due to the simplicity of the device assembly and the required materials, a rather low production cost can be envisioned, in the order of a few euros for each cooling stage. As such, the device could be ideal for installations in rural areas, where the possible lack of well-trained technicians can make operation and maintenance of traditional cooling systems difficult. Interesting applications can also be envisioned in regions with large availability in water with high saline concentration, such as coastal regions in the vicinity of large desalination plants or nearby salt marshes and salt mines.
As of now, the technology is not yet ready for an immediate commercial exploitation, and further developments (also subject to future funding or industrial partnerships) are necessary. In perspective, this technology could be used in combination with existing and more traditional cooling systems for effectively implementing energy saving strategies.
[*] Matteo Alberghini, Matteo Morciano, Matteo Fasano, Fabio Bertiglia, Vito Fernicola, Pietro Asinari, Eliodoro Chiavazzo. Multistage and passive cooling process driven by salinity difference, SCIENCE ADVANCES (2020), URL: https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/11/eaax5015
[**] Eliodoro Chiavazzo, Matteo Morciano, Francesca Viglino, Matteo Fasano, Pietro Asinari, Passive solar high-yield seawater desalination by modular and low-cost distillation, NATURE SUSTAINABILITY (2018), URL: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-018-0186-x
Here is a snapshot of life as it happens in every corner of the MENA region’s countries. This particular one is about Kuwait’s that are going through the traumatic phase of government change. And if that is enough, Kuwait got year of rain in one night, as well as some snow, as shown below. Anyway, Muna Al-Fuzai elaborated this story that could easily have happened anywhere between the Atlantic and the Gulf.
This week, Kuwait was occupied with the new government formation and rain that caused the closure of some roads and flooded streets and houses, which angered the people. It was truly a week of anger, as rumors and bad news abounded. We are on the threshold of a new week and the rain has ended, but the repercussions of the new government formation and the peopleصs reactions are indicators that must be taken into consideration.
Well, a government has gone and has been replaced by a new government with some new and controversial names, while others have been given more powers, But I believe that the general public wants to see a change in approach and not only faces.
I think many governments are failing to win the peopleصs approval because they believe that they are more understanding of peopleصs needs than the people themselves, and this is the biggest mistake many governments make worldwide these days. Changing the governmental approach in dealing with the needs of citizens and expats is the solution. Words and good wishes should turn into practical implementation of applicable work plans in a fair manner for everyone. Promises, unfortunately, are no longer sufficient to address the Kuwaiti situation now.
What do people want? I believe a person in Kuwait wants to live comfortably, whether citizen or expat, and I do not mean financially only, but morally and humanely. We also have to be aware that there is an oppressed segment, which is the category of retirees and expats who have not received their salaries for months. Then there are those who receive زfictionalس salaries, and “bedoons” who are suffering a lot in silence. So there are mistakes and imbalances that need immediate treatment.
That is why governments do not usually succeed in facing public anger because people do not know what is going on behind closed doors, but they see a reflection of what is happening on the ground. So, dissatisfaction with the new government formation is not surprising but expected. After the new ministers took the oath of office, the level of popular approval was very low, and this can be measured from discussions, tweets and statements by various people and their attitudes. Some parliamentary statements were even objectionable.ت
I guess the challenge soon will be between the new government and the Kuwaiti street, simply becauseتthe governmentصs performance will be under the microscope 24/7, and people will use social media platforms to express their dissatisfaction with any bad performance or statement or even a tweet by a minister.
I do not want to be drowned early in pessimism, but the indicators are difficult. The government wants to succeed, but it does not have many options or a guarantee of success. Therefore, the government must prepare to act immediately to correct the mistakes of the past and explicitly fight corruption.
The central problem which the world faces in its attempts to avoid catastrophic climate change is a contrast of time scales. In order to save human civilization and the biosphere from the most catastrophic effects of climate change we need to act immediately. Fossil fuels must be left in the ground. Forests must be saved from destruction by beef or palm oil production.
These vitally necessary actions are opposed by powerful economic interests, by powerful fossil fuel corporations desperate to monetize their underground “assets”, and by corrupt politicians receiving money from the beef or palm oil industries.
However, although some disastrous effects of climate change are already visible, the worst of these calamities lie in the distant future. Therefore it is difficult to mobilize the political will for quick action. We need to act immediately, because of the danger of passing tipping points beyond which climate change will become irreversible despite human efforts to control it.
Tipping points are associated with feedback loops, such as the albedo effect and the methane hydrate feedback loop. The albedo effect is important in connection with whether the sunlight falling on polar seas is reflected or absorbed. While ice remains, most of the sunlight is reflected, but as areas of sea surface become ice-free, more sunlight is absorbed, leading to rising temperatures and further melting of sea ice, and so on, in a loop.
The methane hydrate feedback loop involves vast quantities of the powerful greenhouse gas methane, frozen in a crystalline form surrounded by water molecules. 10,000 gigatons of methane hydrates are at present locked in Arctic tundra or the continental shelves of the world’s oceans. Although oceans warm very slowly because of thermal inertia, the long-term dangers from the initiation of a methane-hydrate feedback loop are very great. There is a danger that a very large-scale anthropogenic extinction event could be initiated unless immediate steps are taken to drastically reduce the release of greenhouse cases.
The World Is on Fire!
“The world is on fire!” says Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. She is right. California is burning. The Amazon is burning. Indonesia is burning. Alaska is burning. Siberia is burning. These fires have been produced partly by the degree of climate warming that has already occurred, and partly by human greed for profits, for example from beef production or palm oil.
Speaking at the opening ceremony of the UN climate conference COP24, the universally loved and respected naturalist, Sir David Attenborough, said:
“If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world are on the horizon.”
Sir David’s two-part program, “Climate Change: The Facts” is currently being broadcast by BBC Earth. Hopefully, this important documentary film, like Leonardo DiCaprio’s excellent film “Before the Flood”, can do much to mobilize public opinion behind the immediate action that is needed to save the long-term future of human civilization and the biosphere.
Recently more than 7 million young people in 150 countries took part in strikes aimed at focusing public opinion on the need for rapid climate action. The Extinction Rebellion movement, which started in the UK, has now spread to many countries, and is also doing important work. In the United States, popular political figures such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are doing much to mobilize public opinion behind the Green New Deal and much to counteract Donald Trump’s climate change denial.
The Remarkable Properties of Exponential Growth
Positive feedback loops occur when the presence of something leads to the generation of more of the same thing. For example in the presence of an unlimited food supply, the growth of a population will lead to more individuals reaching reproductive age, and hence an accelerated growth of the population. This type of relationship leads to the mathematical relationship known as exponential growth.
Exponential growth of any quantity with time has some remarkable characteristics, which we ought to try to understand better, since this understanding will help us to predict the future. The knowledge will also show us the tasks which history has given to our generation. We must perform these tasks with urgency in order to create a future in which our descendants will be able to survive.
If any quantity, for example population, industrial production or indebtedness, is growing at the rate of 3% per year, it will double in 23.1 years; if it is growing at the rate of 4$\%$ per year, the doubling time is 17.3 years. For a 5% growth rate, the doubling time is 13.9 years, if the growth rate is 7% (the rate of economic growth that China’s leaders hope to maintain), the doubling time is only 9.9 years. If you want to find out the doubling time for any exponentially growing quantity, just divide 69.3 years by the growth rate in percent.
Looking at the long-term future, we can calculate that any quantity increasing at the modest rate of 3% per year will grow by a factor of 20.1 in a century. This implies that in four centuries, whatever is growing at 3% will have increased by a factor of 163,000. These facts make it completely clear that long-continued economic growth on a finite planet is a logical absurdity. Yet economists and governments have an almost religious belief in perpetual economic growth. They can only maintain this belief by refusing to look more than a short distance into the future.
Exponential decay of any quantity follows similar but inverse rules. For example, if the chance of a thermonuclear war will be initiated by accident or miscalculation or malice is 3% in any given year, the chance that the human race will survive for more than four centuries under these conditions is only1 in 163,000, i.e. 0.000625 percent. Clearly, in the long run, if we do not completely rid ourselves of nuclear weapons, our species will have no hope of survival.
Besides nuclear war, the other great threat to the survival of the human species and the biosphere is catastrophic climate change. The transition to 100% renewable energy must take place within about a century because fossil fuels will become too rare and expensive to burn. But scientists warn that if the transition does not happen much faster than that, there is a danger that we may reach a tipping point beyond which feedback loops, such as the albedo effect and the methane hydrate feedback loop, could take over and produce an out-of-control and fatal increase in global temperature.
In 2012, the World Bank issued a report warning that without quick action to curb CO2 emissions, global warming is likely to reach 4 degrees C during the 21st century. This is dangerously close to the temperature which initiated the Permian-Triassic extinction event: 6 degrees C above normal. During the Permian-Triassic extinction event, this occurred 252 million years ago. In this event, 96 percent of all marine species were wiped out, as well as 70 percent of all terrestrial vertebrates.
Is a quick transition to 100% renewable energy technically possible? The technology is available, remarkable characteristics of exponential growth can give us hope that it can indeed be done, provided that we make the necessary effort. Governments currently give enormous subsidies to fossil fuel industries. These must be stopped, or better yet, shifted to subsidize renewable energy. If this is done, economic forces alone will drive the shift to renewable energy. The remarkable properties of exponential growth can give us hope that the transition will take place rapidly enough to save the future of our planet from the worst effects of climate change.
Feedback Loops and Ethics
All of the major religions of the world contain some version of the Golden Rule,
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
In Christianity, there is a striking passage from the Sermon on the Mount:
“Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”
This seemingly impractical advice, that we should love our enemies and do good to them, is in fact extremely practical. It prevents the feedback loops of revenge and counter-revenge that we see so often in today’s conflicts. In fact, if nations that claim to be Christian really followed this commandment, their participation in war would be impossible. Conflicts can be prevented by unilateral acts of kindness.
Feedback Loops and the Information Explosion
In 1965, the computer scientist Gordon E. Moore predicted that the number of components per integrated circuit would increase exponentially for the next ten years. In 1975, he revised his growth rate to correspond to a doubling time of every two years. Astonishingly, Moore’s Law, as this relationship has come to be called, has proved to be valid for much longer than he or anyone else believed would be possible.
Moore’s Law is an example of the fact that the growth of knowledge feeds on itself. The number of scientific papers published each year is also increasing exponentially. This would be all to the good, if our social and political institutions matched our technology, but because of institutional and cultural inertia, the exponentially accelerating rate of technical innovation is threatening to shake human society to pieces. We need new global institutions of governance and new global ethics to match our new technology.
John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy andreceived his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent books are Information Theory and Evolution and Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century (pdf).
More than 40 years after the International Energy Agency (IEA) published the first edition of the World Energy Outlook (WEO), the report’s overarching aim remains the same – to deepen our understanding of the future of energy. It does so by examining the opportunities and risks that lie ahead, and the consequences of different courses of action or inaction. The WEO analyses the choices that will shape our energy use, our environment and our wellbeing. It is not, and has never been, a forecast of where the energy world will end up.
This year brings many changes. I would like to highlight two in particular. First, we have renamed the ‘new policies scenario’ as the ‘stated policies scenario’, making more explicit our intention to hold up a mirror to the plans and ambitions announced by policy-makers without trying to anticipate how those plans might change in future.
Second, the sustainable development scenario – which provides a strategic pathway to meet global climate, air quality and energy access goals in full – has been extended to 2050 and set out in greater detail. This delivers sharper insights into what is required for the world to move in this direction.
What comes through with crystal clarity in this year’s Outlook is that there are no simple solutions to transform the world of energy. Multiple technologies and fuels have a part to play across all sectors of the economy. For this to happen, we need strong leadership from policy-makers, as governments hold the clearest responsibility to act and have the greatest scope to shape the future.
It is also clear to me that the world urgently needs to put a laser-like focus on bringing down global emissions. This calls for a grand coalition encompassing governments, investors, companies and everyone else who is committed to tackling climate change. The sustainable development scenario is tailor-made to help guide the members of such a coalition in their efforts to address the massive climate challenge that faces us all.
The IEA is already acting on the insights contained in the Outlook. For instance, our analysis shows that the pace of energy-efficiency improvements is slowing, but the potential for efficiency improvements to help the world meet its sustainable energy goals is massive. This has led us to set up a high-level Global Commission for Urgent Action on Energy Efficiency to recommend how progress can be rapidly accelerated through new and stronger policy action. (We are seeking your input on this subject in our online survey.)
We are also acutely aware that while the ongoing transformation of the electricity sector is full of promise, it also has implications for the stability and reliability of power grids around the world. In response, we have introduced new initiatives, including co-organising with the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy the first Global Ministerial Conference on System Integration of Renewables in Berlin in October 2019 and undertaking a major new report on electricity security.
Another important issue is that global emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, are rising alongside CO2. This is why we recently launched a new online methane tracker to monitor the problem and identify ways to tackle it.
These are just four examples of how the World Energy Outlook provides strategic guidance to the energy community and results in real-world initiatives and solutions. The goal of this year’s Outlook, once again, is to provide energy decision-makers with the data and objective analysis that they need to pursue a more secure and sustainable future.
LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) – Climate change is an urgent concern for heads of state gathering at the General Assembly of the United Nations this week. As young climate activists such as Greta Thunberg have made clear, this challenge will outlast the political lives of everyone gathered in New York. It is easy to become gloomy, but economists can bring some comfort. Three positive trends can help the world tackle man-made warming.16-year-old Swedish Climate activist Greta Thunberg departs after speaking at the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit at U.N. headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S., September 23, 2019.
The first is rising prosperity. In many dimensions, the overall global economic situation is better than it has ever been. Take life expectancy. This is a basic index of prosperity because longer lives are a sign of the availability of many of modern life’s essential goods and services.
The news is good. Globally, infants born in 2015 can on average expect to live for 71.7 years. That’s 6.6 years longer than those born two decades earlier, according to Our World in Data, which aggregates the latest available numbers. The gains have been largest in poorer countries. Life expectancy has risen by 8.3 years in India and 15.7 years in Ethiopia, compared with four years in Japan and a 2.8-year gain in the United States.
The spread of more comfortable lifestyles in the poorer parts of the world not only leads to longer lives. It also typically adds to the climate challenge, since increased prosperity tends to require the emission of more climate-warming greenhouse gases.
However, more educated, healthier and richer people living in societies with more economic resources are also much better equipped to cope with the difficulties caused by warming. The average number of annual deaths worldwide caused by natural disasters has been lower this decade than in the 1970s, according to Our World in Data, even though the global population is almost twice the size.
The resilience matters, because the world has not yet found any technically and politically plausible way to do much more than gradually slow the rate of warming. The wait for breakthroughs will be a lot less painful if people have the resources needed to change agricultural practices or move to more suitable places.
The second comforting economic trend is technological. The world has not lost its inventive momentum, despite dire predictions from economists such as Robert Gordon of Northwestern University. The most recent successes involve telecommunications. Our World in Data reports that since 2000, the number of internet users in the world has risen from 413 million to 3.4 billion. Penetration of mobile phones has increased from 12% of the world’s population to 104% over those years.
These revolutions required developments in the relatively new field of electronic engineering. The challenges of climate change require a revision of older technologies, particularly energy production and storage. The scientists, industrialists and planners seem to be coming up with the goods. Solar and wind power are becoming viable economic alternatives for coal-fired and gas-fired plants, while batteries are becoming efficient enough for electric-powered cars to become a big business.
Even with these breakthroughs, the global use of greenhouse-gas emitting hydrocarbons is very unlikely to decline quickly, because the world still relies so much on these energy sources. They accounted for 93% of energy production in 2016, and their use had increased a 1.4% annual rate in the preceding decade, according to Our World in Data.
Engineers, industrialists and governments can work together to reverse this trend. They can also explore carbon capture and other more exotic ways to manipulate the atmosphere. Despite the pervasive pessimism, the historical record suggests that the chances of success are high.
The third economic support is that the population boom is coming to an end. The number of people in the world is 4.7 times higher than in 1900, but women now have an average of 2.5 children. That is not far above the 2.1 at which the population would eventually stabilise.
Actual stability requires the high birth rates which are still prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa to follow the global pattern of falling as prosperity rises. Ethiopia is a good example of how fast things can change. The average woman there had seven children 20 years ago. Now she can expect 4.3.
The downward demographic shift raises various problems, such as funding retirements. For climate change, however, it is an unmitigated positive. Slower population growth leads to fewer energy users and less energy-intensive expenditure on new housing and its related infrastructure.
These economic trends will help the fight against climate change. Unfortunately, there is one necessary and powerful economic force which is not pointing clearly in the right direction.
Governments have to play the central role in organising the response to climate change. Only the political authorities have the scale and clout needed to mobilise existing economic resources and create new ones around the world.
The clout is there, but the will often seems to be weak. The contrast between the earnest and ambitious enthusiasm of the young climate action protesters and the cynical platitudes of many of the political leaders gathered in New York is striking. Economists can line up with the new generation.
We’re constantly encouraged to think of the next big climate summit, conference or protest as the most important one, the one that is about to make the all-important breakthrough. The UN’s Climate Action Summit on September 23 in New York is no different. The UN’s Secretary General António Guterres is calling on world leaders to come with concrete and realistic plans to bring their national net carbon emissions down to zero by 2050.
But amid the hype, it’s worth putting this UN summit in context against the history of 30 years of such international meetings. Is it a vain hope for 197 countries to agree on any meaningful climate action at all, especially when it involves so much money and power?
On the 1988 American presidential campaign trail, George Bush Senior promised to convene a global conference on the environment at the White House to “talk about global warming”. But when it finally happened it wasn’t truly global.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was born the same year, endorsed by the UN general assembly, and produced its first report in 1990. By then, there had been fine declarations of motherhood-and-apple-pie in various European cities, such as the Hague and Bergen. However, negotiations towards an international treaty to do something about climate change itself did not begin until February 1991. The world’s media largely ignored them, as the 1991 Gulf War was underway.
UNFCCC birth pangs
Very little progress was made – a sign of things to come – and with a hard deadline of May 1992 approaching, a month before the world’s nations were to gather in Rio de Janeiro for an “Earth Summit”, powerful countries were at loggerheads.
The birth pangs of this search for an international UN treaty on climate change still shape what is and isn’t possible today.
The sticking point was – and still is – what the US government, and the business lobbies behind it, would find acceptable. The French government was keen that any treaty include actual commitments to reduce CO2 emissions, with targets and timetables for the rich nations. The Bush government warned that if these were included in the text they would not attend the Rio summit, leaving any treaty languishing. The French blinked, the UK acted as a middleman, and a deal was done.
The French, and others, had hoped that once the UNFCCC was signed and ratified, they could quickly address the question of rich country commitments to reduce CO2 emissions. But this didn’t happen.
When the Kyoto Protocol, which extended the UNFCCC, was agreed in 1997, despite the fact that carbon trading and other economic instruments within it were designed to keep the Americans happy, no serious commitment to reductions was made. The Americans then pulled out of the implementation process of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, when George W Bush became president.
The process staggered on and there was another helping of motherhood-and-apple-pie at Copenhagen in 2009. Finally, in 2015 a non-binding Paris Agreement was cobbled together, based on a previously discarded “pledge and review” mechanism, which has created an endless round of promises that haven’t been met.
The scientist who had warned that climate change was upon us in 1988 – James Hansen – called the Paris Agreement a fraud, and since 2015, many nations are failing to meet their Paris commitments. Even if they did, global average temperature rise this century would be far in excess of the two degrees above pre-industrial levels that the deal is supposed to ensure.
Some would argue that trying to get 197 countries to agree on anything is a fool’s errand. For 20 years, critics such as the international relations expert David Victor have questioned whether the UN is the appropriate venue for climate negotiations. Victor argues that such a forum is inevitably going to lead to gridlock. He’s not alone in this – as early as 1983 some policy analysts in the US were saying that such a global problem could not be solved because of the complexity of its politics.
The counter argument is that if a deal is agreed outside of the UN process, between the world’s major emitters – the EU, US and China – then it will be perceived as illegitimate, and will likely involve an even greater reliance on speculative technologies than the current Paris Agreement.
Ultimately, it becomes a matter of trust: do those already suffering the impacts of climate change trust those who have caused it to sort it out.
In my experience of talking to people who work in and around the UNFCCC’s bodies, many speak knowledgeably without hesitation, deviation or repetition about the alphabet soup of climate change acronyms, but are completely oblivious of much of this awkward history. Yet what happened – straightforward veto power by the US of anything that would look like real action – remains with us today, and it doesn’t help to pretend otherwise.
Whether the world can a transition to sustainability – the stated aims of both the UNFCCC and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – remains to be seen. But the stakes could not be higher. If political, economic, technological and cultural solutions aren’t now found, the outlook for humanity – and the other species we share this planet with – is exceptionally bleak.
This article is part of The Covering Climate Now series This is a concerted effort among news organisations to put the climate crisis at the forefront of our coverage. This article is published under a Creative Commons license and can be reproduced for free – just hit the “Republish this article” button on the page to copy the full HTML coding. The Conversation also runs Imagine, a newsletter in which academics explore how the world can rise to the challenge of climate change. Sign up here.
Today is World Car Free Day, which is celebrated on September 22, encourages motorists to give up their cars for a day. Organized events are held in some cities and countries. The events, which vary by location, give motorists and commuters an idea of their locality with fewer cars. Wikipedia. But why such initiative if there were not some tacit agreement by the world communities that the Life-threatening impact of Climate Change was mainly due and/or consequent to the following as elaborated in this United Nations post.
Global emissions are reaching record levels and show no sign of peaking. The last four years were the four hottest on record, and winter temperatures in the Arctic have risen by 3°C since 1990. Sea levels are rising, coral reefs are dying, and we are starting to see the life-threatening impact of climate change on health, through air pollution, heatwaves and risks to food security.
The impacts of climate change are being felt everywhere and are having very real consequences on people’s lives. Climate change is disrupting national economies, costing us dearly today and even more tomorrow. But there is a growing recognition that affordable, scalable solutions are available now that will enable us all to leapfrog to cleaner, more resilient economies.
The latest analysis shows that if we act now, we can reduce carbon emissions within 12 years and hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C and even, as asked by the latest science, to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
Thankfully, we have the Paris Agreement – a visionary, viable, forward-looking policy framework that sets out exactly what needs to be done to stop climate disruption and reverse its impact. But the agreement itself is meaningless without ambitious action.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres is calling on all leaders to come to New York on 23 September with concrete, realistic plans to enhance their nationally determined contributions by 2020, in line with reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent over the next decade, and to net zero emissions by 2050.
I want to hear about how we are going to stop the increase in emissions by 2020, and dramatically reduce emissions to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century
To be effective and credible, these plans cannot address mitigation alone: they must show the way toward a full transformation of economies in line with sustainable development goals. They should not create winners and losers or add to economic inequality; they must be fair and create new opportunities and protections for those negatively impacted, in the context of a just transition. And they should also include women as key decision-makers: only gender-diverse decision-making has the capacity to tackle the different needs that will emerge in this coming period of critical transformation.
The Summit will bring together governments, the private sector, civil society, local authorities and other international organizations to develop ambitious solutions in six areas: a global transition to renewable energy; sustainable and resilient infrastructures and cities; sustainable agriculture and management of forests and oceans; resilience and adaptation to climate impacts; and alignment of public and private finance with a net-zero economy.
Business is on our side. Accelerated climate solutions can strengthen our economies and create jobs, while bringing cleaner air, preserving natural habitats and biodiversity, and protecting our environment.
New technologies and engineering solutions are already delivering energy at a lower cost than the fossil-fuel driven economy. Solar and onshore wind are now the cheapest sources of new bulk power in virtually all major economies. But we must set radical change in motion.
This means ending subsidies for fossil fuels and high-emitting agriculture and shifting towards renewable energy, electric vehicles and climate-smart practices. It means carbon pricing that reflects the true cost of emissions, from climate risk to the health hazards of air pollution. And it means accelerating the closure of coal plants and halting the construction of new ones and replacing jobs with healthier alternatives so that the transformation is just, inclusive and profitable.
In order to ensure that the transformative actions in the real economy are as impactful as possible, the Secretary-General has prioritized the following action portfolios, which are recognized as having high potential to curb greenhouse gas emissions and increased global action on adaptation and resilience.
Finance: mobilizing public and private sources of finance to drive decarbonization of all priority sectors and advance resilience;
Energy Transition: accelerating the shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy, as well as making significant gains in energy efficiency;
Industry Transition: transforming industries such as Oil and Gas, Steel, Cement, Chemicals and Information Technology;
Nature-Based Solutions: Reducing emissions, increasing sink capacity and enhancing resilience within and across forestry, agriculture, oceans and food systems, including through biodiversity conservation, leveraging supply chains and technology;
Cities and Local Action: Advancing mitigation and resilience at urban and local levels, with a focus on new commitments on low-emission buildings, mass transport and urban infrastructure; and resilience for the urban poor;
Resilience and Adaptation: advancing global efforts to address and manage the impacts and risks of climate change, particularly in those communities and nations most vulnerable.
In addition, there are three additional key areas:
Mitigation Strategy: to generate momentum for ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and long-term strategies to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Youth Engagement and Public Mobilization: To mobilize people worldwide to take action on climate change and ensure that young people are integrated and represented across all aspects of the Summit, including the six transformational areas.
Social and Political Drivers: to advance commitments in areas that affect people’s well-being, such as reducing air pollution, generating decent jobs, and strengthening climate adaptation strategies and protect workers and vulnerable groups.
Global warming or climate change is threatening the fate of oases in the Sahara Desert as affected by the noticeable advancing sands along the edges of all habitable spaces in the MENA region. With almost 90 per cent of its lands being arid and/or semi-arid, the region’s countries must be following the 14th edition of the COP on the fight against desertification. This being held in New Delhi, India, from 2 September through to 13 September, the UN urges soil organic carbon conservation to fight desertification whereby UNCCD’s member countries must proactively prevent land degradation reports Ranjit Devraj in this article below.
According to the UNCCD, 70 per cent of the world’s forests are now threatened by conversion to cropland and urbanisation — processes that greatly deplete SOC, a measurable component of soil organic matter and key to soil productivity. Particularly at risk are tropical forests, which declined at the rate of 5.5 million hectares annually between 2010 and 2015.
“This report will help member countries of the Convention identify sustainable land management technologies that are context-specific and also help estimate and monitor SOC for achieving land degradation neutrality and other sustainable development goals (SDGs),” Barron Joseph Orr, lead scientist for the UNCCD, tells SciDev.Net.
“The UNCCD report on SOC is especially important for South Asia because [of] its many and varied agro-climatic zones, each requiring specific interventions to prevent loss of SOC and retain moisture in the soil to nourish vegetation roots”
Himanshu Thakkar, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People
“Because of its multifunctional roles and its sensitivity to land management, SOC is one of the three main global indicators of land degradation neutrality, the other two being land cover and land productivity,” says Ermias Aynekulu, an author of the report. “SOC, made up largely of decomposing animal and plant matter, is key to drought resistance, soil stability and organic crop production.”
The report proposes to encourage parties to the UNCCD to employ sustainable land management technologies to maintain or increase SOC, align SOC monitoring with national land degradation neutrality monitoring and share the guidance offered with farmers and other land managers.
According to the report, the management of SOC to support land degradation neutrality achievement will be most effective if it promotes the following: gender equality and inclusive development, empowerment of women to invest in natural resources, and capacity building of local institutions.
Emphasis is laid on an accurate assessment of SOC since national capacities to measure and monitor are highly variable. It proposes that efforts be made to enhance the capacity of countries for spatio-temporal measurement and modelling of SOC to address data gaps and limitations in tools and models currently being used.
A spatio-temporal study carried out by EnvirometriX Ltd, Wageningen, the Netherlands, indicates that the greatest loss of SOC over the 2000–2015 period took place in the northern hemisphere followed by Brazil, Central Africa and Indonesia, where large swathes of natural forests have been converted to croplands.
A science policy brief accompanying the report offers ‘decision trees’ to guide efforts to predict change in SOC under different land management practices. It also seeks to support decision-makers to pursue the right interventions in the “right locations at the right time and at the right scale” with the overall goal of land degradation neutrality achievement.
According to Marioldy Sanchez Santivañez, an observer to the UNCCD science-policy interface and forest evaluator for AIDER, a Peruvian NGO, developing and reinforcing capacities for soil sampling and implementing measurement and monitoring, as outlined in the report, “has the potential to contribute greatly to restoring soil carbon in many of the world’s land-degraded areas”.
Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, a Delhi-based NGO, says that retaining SOC is vital for South Asia, a peninsula which is estimated to lose 80 per cent of the rainfall it receives to the sea, leaching away valuable organic carbon and contributing greatly to desertification. “This is an area that [needs] urgent attention since more than 30 per cent of the landmass is now degraded.”
The Indian sub-continent is particularly vulnerable. A study published in May by Science Direct said at least a third of the area around 18 river basins of the Indian sub-continent have become vulnerable to ‘vegetation droughts’, indicating drastic loss of soil moisture.
“The UNCCD report on SOC is especially important for South Asia because [of] its many and varied agro-climatic zones, each requiring specific interventions to prevent loss of SOC and retain moisture in the soil to nourish vegetation roots,” Thakkar tells SciDev.Net. “All that remains is for the governments to pick up the detailed guidelines and decision trees in the report and follow them.”
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.
In its new special report on climate change and land, the IPCC calls for more effective and sustainable land management, and more sustainable food consumption. But who is the onus on to go vegetarian, or look after land better? You, me, the “global elite”? The world’s poorest people, or perhaps the many millions of newly-wealthy Chinese or Indians? Or maybe our governments?
The answer depends on how you interpret the report, which can be read in two ways. On one hand, it is a moral call for individual consumers and food suppliers to become more sustainable. On the other, it is a call for governments to promote sustainable food consumption and production choices.
This is not an either/or situation – the report should be read in both ways but with recommendations for different population groups. To wit, whether someone is individually responsible for taking on board the IPCC’s recommendations depends on the extent to which they are subject to one or more of three forms of inequality.
1. Not everyone can afford to eat veggie or local
First and foremost, massive global wealth inequality affects the extent to which individuals and communities are able (or, rather, should be expected) to implement the recommendations of the IPCC report. It’s a lot easier to go vegetarian when you have the money to eat what you like. In the Global South, many have not benefited from industrialisation, while remaining in even more need of implementing measures to counter climate risks. Even in the more affluent countries of the Global North, many people live in abject poverty and have to make tough choices as how to spend their limited resources.
This highlights the need to make sustainable food accessible and not just available. The authors of the IPCC report acknowledge as much, emphasising how rising costs may lead to undernourishment as people turn to cheaper replacements, such as fast food. This is why sustainable food must be promoted alongside poverty alleviation. In the Global South, green growth must be priority as long as it includes local stakeholders, who are often experts on sustainable land management.
2. Some people emit more than others
Carbon footprint is highly correlated with inequality. As a 2015-report by Oxfam showed, the top 10% of income-earners, mainly living in affluent countries, are responsible for almost half of global greenhouse gas emissions, while the bottom half are only responsible for 10%. Even within affluent countries, there is a big divide between rich and poor. In other words global warming is not driven equally by everyone, but rather is highly correlated with income.
Of course, this does not mean that we should encourage unsustainable living in less developed countries. Rather, we should recognise that the consumption and production patterns of the world’s worst-off are not necessarily unsustainable. Although the world’s high and upper-middle income countries are home to about half the population, they are responsible for 86% of emissions. In comparison, Africa is home to 16% of the world’s population, yet only emits 4% of the global total. Meanwhile the very poorest countries – 9% of the global population, or 700 million people – emit just 0.5%. (Tellingly, the average per capita emissions of North Americans is more than 17 times that of the average African.)
Consequently, it would be possible to add several billion people in low-income countries, where population growth is already the highest, without massively changing global emissions, while adding just one billion individuals in high-income countries would increase global emissions by one-third. As the income of less-affluent populations grows, however, it does become necessary to encourage more sustainable practices.
3. People are not equally vulnerable
But less-affluent people in the Global North aren’t entirely off the hook. While inequality of income and carbon footprint does mean they are absolved of some responsibility to act more sustainably, this group still benefits from better infrastructure and more equitable institutions which should shelter them from the worst impacts of climate change. Conversely, inhabitants of low and middle-income countries, especially those in fragile environments like rainforests, mountains or coastal regions, are particularly vulnerable.
So while taking action to mitigate climate change is necessary, we cannot lose sight of the fact that many communities require financial and institutional support to adapt to existing changes to their local environment as well as to build resilience to near-certain climate risks in the future. While most people in the Western world are still only beginning to see and feel the effects of climate change, they must continue to commit resources to those most vulnerable and worse-off communities, who are often invisible to them.
In sum, whether someone can be held individually responsible for taking on board the IPCC’s recommendations crucially depends on whether they are able to do so without risking their life, livelihood, or well-being. Because inequalities in income, emissions, and vulnerability to climate change are still widespread, the report must first and foremost be read as a call for governments to make sustainable consumption and production options accessible. Addressing climate change and food security must go hand in hand with addressing global and local socioeconomic inequalities.
The word “climate” makes most of us look up to the sky – however, the IPCC’s new special report on climate change and land should make us all look under our feet. This is how Anna Krzywoszynska, Research Fellow and Associate Director of the Institute for Sustainable Food, University of Sheffield introduced her article published on The Conversation of last week before adding that ‘Land, the report shows, is intimately linked to the climate. Changes in land use result in changes to the climate and vice versa. In other words, what we do to our soils, we do to our climate – and ourselves.’ So, keeping Global Warming to well below 2°C is the hurdle that all humans need to get over in order to achieve the Paris Agreement requirements.
Land is already under growing human pressure and climate change is adding to these pressures. At the same time, keeping global warming to well below 2C can be achieved only by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors including land and food, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said in its latest report.
“Governments challenged the IPCC to take the first ever comprehensive look at the whole land-climate system. We did this through many contributions from experts and governments worldwide. This is the first time in IPCC report history that a majority of authors – 53 per cent – are from developing countries,” said Hoesung Lee, chair of the IPCC.
This report shows that better land management can contribute to tackling climate change, but is not the only solution. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors is essential if global warming is to be kept to well below 2C, if not 1.5C.
In 2015, governments backed the Paris Agreement goal of strengthening the global response to climate change by holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5C.
Land must remain productive to maintain food security as the population increases and the negative impacts of climate change on vegetation increase. This means there are limits to the contribution of land to addressing climate change, for instance through the cultivation of energy crops and afforestation. It also takes time for trees and soils to store carbon effectively.
Bioenergy needs to be carefully managed to avoid risks to food security, biodiversity and land degradation. Desirable outcomes will depend on locally appropriate policies and governance systems.
Climate Change and Land finds that the world is best placed to tackle climate change when there is an overall focus on sustainability. “Land plays an important role in the climate system,” said Jim Skea, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III.
“Agriculture, forestry and other types of land use account for 23 per cent of human greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time natural land processes absorb carbon dioxide equivalent to almost a third of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry,” he said.
The report shows how managing land resources sustainably can help address climate change, said Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair of IPCC Working Group II.
“Land already in use could feed the world in a changing climate and provide biomass for renewable energy, but early, far-reaching action across several areas is required. Also for the conservation and restoration of ecosystems and biodiversity,” he added.
Desertification and land degradation
When land is degraded, it becomes less productive, restricting what can be grown and reducing the soil’s ability to absorb carbon. This exacerbates climate change, while climate change, in turn, exacerbates land degradation in many different ways.
“The choices we make about sustainable land management can help reduce and in some cases reverse these adverse impacts,” said Kiyoto Tanabe, co-chair of the Task Force on National Greenhouse Gas Inventories.
“In a future with more intensive rainfall the risk of soil erosion on croplands increases, and sustainable land management is a way to protect communities from the detrimental impacts of this soil erosion and landslides. However there are limits to what can be done, so in other cases degradation might be irreversible,” he said.
Roughly 500 million people live in areas that experience desertification. Drylands and areas that experience desertification are also more vulnerable to climate change and extreme events including drought, heatwaves, and dust storms, with an increasing global population providing further pressure.
The report sets out options to tackle land degradation and prevent or adapt to further climate change. It also examines potential impacts from different levels of global warming. “New knowledge shows an increase in risks from dryland water scarcity, fire damage, permafrost degradation and food system instability, even for global warming of around 1.5C,” said Valérie Masson-Delmotte, co-chair of IPCC Working Group I.
“Very high risks related to permafrost degradation and food system instability are identified at 2°C of global warming,” she said.
The Rockfeller Foundation supported Cities‘ Ruth Michaelson wrote from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Tue 6 Aug 2019 the following article that elaborates on water increasing scarcity in Saudi Arabia and how despite that, life carries on somehow unaffected.
As Riyadh continues to build skyscrapers at a dizzying rate, an invisible emergency threatens the desert kingdom’s existence
Bottles of water twirl on the conveyor belts of the Berain water factory in Riyadh, as a puddle of water collects on the concrete floor. In a second warehouse, tanks emit a low hum as water brought in from precious underground aquifers passes through a six-stage purification process before bottling.
“In Saudi Arabia, there are only two sources of water: the sea and deep wells,” says Ahmed Safar Al Asmari, who manages one of Berain’s two factories in Riyadh. “We’re in the central region, so there are only deep wells here.”
Most water withdrawn comes from fossil deep aquifers and predictions suggest these may not last more than 25 years: UN
Perhaps not surprising for someone who makes a living selling water, Asmari professes to be untroubled about the future of Saudi Arabia’s water supply. “Studies show water in some reserves can stand consumption for another 150 years,” he says. “In Saudi Arabia, we have many reserves – we have no problems in this area.”
His confident predictions are out of sync with the facts. One Saudi groundwater expert at King Faisal University predicted in 2016 that the kingdom only had another 13 years’ worth of groundwater reserves left.
“Groundwater resources of Saudi Arabia are being depleted at a very fast rate,” declared the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation as far back as 2008. “Most water withdrawn comes from fossil deep aquifers, and some predictions suggest that these resources may not last more than about 25 years.”
In a country that rarely sees rain, the habit of draining groundwater, like the Berain factory does, could prove perilous: groundwater makes up an estimated 98% of naturally occurring fresh water in Saudi Arabia.
Indeed, oil may have built the modern Saudi state, but a lack of water could destroy it if drastic solutions aren’t found soon.
The emergency seems invisible in Riyadh, which is undergoing a construction boom as more buildings creep upwards to join a collection of towering skyscrapers.
It’s the desert. Obviously, water is a natural constraint by Dr Rebecca Keller
Although everyone knows this city in the desert owes its existence to the discovery of oil in 1938, fewer realise water was just as important. Decades of efforts to make the desert bloom to feed the city’s population have resulted in agricultural projects to grow water-intensive crops such as wheat, on farmland meted out to figures favoured by the royal family.
While many questions the accuracy of the kingdom’s optimistic estimates of its own oil reserves, the looming threat of a lack of water could prove to be an even bigger problem. Saudi Arabia consumes double the world average of water per person, 263 litres per capita each day and rising, amid a changing climate that will strain water reserves.
In March, the Kingdom launched the Qatrah programme to demand citizens drastically cut their water use. Its aim is to ration water to 200 litres per person per day by 2020 and 150 litres by 2030.
It has also tried to reform the water-hungry agriculture industry, reducing government incentives for cereal production. The overall amount of irrigated farmland still hasn’t declined, though, as producers switch to more profitable crops that still require large amounts of water. Almarai, a major food producer, has begun buying up deserted land in the US, on plots near Los Angeles and in Arizona, and in Argentina, in order to grow water-rich alfalfa to feed its dairy cows.
The Saudi Arabian National Transformation Plan, also known as Vision 2020 – a subset of the Vision 2030 initiative intended to diversify the Kingdom’s economy away from oil – aims to reduce the amount of water pulled from underground aquifers for use in agriculture. It seeks to employ 191% of these water resources for farming, down from the current estimates of 416% of water available.
“This means that Saudi Arabia is using more than four times the water that renews on average – and that’s in Vision 2020,” says Dr Rebecca Keller from Stratfor – a private intelligence and geopolitical analysis firm – who says she was shocked after learning about the country’s water use. “Technically they’re using fossil water, which renews at a really, really slow rate. The sheer volume of overuse stood out to me.”
Desalinating sea water has long been seen as a silver bullet against the growing threat of water shortages across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia leads the world in the volume of desalinated water it produces and now operates 31 desalination plants. Desalinated water, as distinct from naturally occurring fresh water, makes up 50% of water consumed in Saudi Arabia. The remaining 50% is pulled from groundwater.
It comes as at a high-energy cost, however. According to the International Energy Agency, in 2016 desalination accounted for 3% of the Middle East’s water supply but 5% of its overall energy cost. Researchers at King Abdelaziz University in Jeddah estimate that the demand for desalinated water increases by roughly 14% each year, but add that “desalination is a very costly process and is not sustainable”. Desalination plants also harm the surrounding environment, pumping pollutants into the air and endangering marine ecosystems with their run-off.
A recent push towards using solar power rather than fossil fuels to desalinate means that the first commercial plant is expected to be up and running at 2021 at the earliest, although it reportedly remains behind schedule.
Keller says Saudi Arabia’s evolving use of desalination technology could also alter their relationship with other countries in the region, in particular, Israel. “They’re producing the most cutting-edge technology for desalination, especially at scale,” she said. “As we see [both countries] having more geopolitical things in common in terms of their attitude to Iran, there’s more room for this relationship to grow, and the Saudi water sector is something that could benefit from this cooperation.”
The toughest challenge of all remains switching consumption habits to avoid an impending water emergency. The kingdom is pressing ahead with its Red Sea Project, a tourism haven the size of Belgium that aims to attract a million visitors annually to its unspoiled beaches and 50 new hotels. Such mammoth construction means growing water use, with current estimates that the string of resorts will use 56,000 cubic metres of water per day.
“It’s the desert,” said Keller. “Obviously water is a natural constraint.”
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