In a muddy wetland in Oman’s capital, environmental scientist Zakiya al-Afifi measures the bark of a mangrove tree, estimating its capacity to absorb the carbon dioxide that is slowly heating the planet.
Standing in the leafy reserve, shielded from the fierce sun, she says the Al-Qurm forest’s 80 protected hectares (197 acres) of mangroves could lock away thousands of tons of CO2.
“Mangroves are the richest carbon sink in the world,” says Afifi, wearing boots and a white lab coat as she leads a group of university students around the swamp.
If the shoreline trees and bushes have become part of efforts to cut atmospheric CO2, oil-producing Oman, on the Arabian peninsula’s southeast, has led the way in this hydrocarbon-rich region.
Inspired by the late ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said, a renowned conservationist who died in 2020, the country of 4.5 million people has become the Gulf’s center for mangrove restoration and preservation.
Mangrove habitats can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at a faster rate than forests and store it in their soil and sediment for longer periods.
“Mangroves are recognized as one of the nature-based solutions to fight climate change,” says Afifi, 41.
Up to 80 tons of CO2 per hectare could be stored in Al-Qurm’s above-ground biomass, and even more in the muddy sediments below, she adds.
‘Maybe we will lose them’
Oman, a minor oil producer compared with its neighbors the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, is moving quickly in its project to revive the forests that once covered the country, but died out thousands of years ago because of climatic changes.
The reason for its haste is modern, man-made climate change—much of it from burning fossil fuels—which risks destroying the mangroves with higher temperatures, floods and cyclones.
“If we are not going to restore more forests, it means maybe one day we will lose them” due to climate change, Afifi says.
Trudging through a murky creek north of Muscat, Badr bin Saif Al Busaidi of Oman’s environmental authority points to a dense thicket of mangrove trees.
“There was not a single tree here” two decades ago, the 40-year-old tells AFP from the Al-Sawadi creek, his boots ankle-deep in water.
“Now, it is a forest that stretches more than four kilometers (2.5 miles)” with 88 hectares of mangrove cover, says Busaidi.
Since 2001, a restoration project has revived these biodiversity hotspots that now cover around 1,000 hectares across the country’s coast.
Over the past two years, Oman has planted more than 3.5 million seeds directly in targeted areas, including a record two million this year.
“Next year the numbers will be even higher,” Busaidi says, adding: “We are living what we can call a war with nature because of climate change.
“If we don’t take action, we will lose these natural resources.”
Sowing the seeds
Oman’s restoration project has evolved slowly. At first it relied on mangrove nurseries, two of which are in Al-Qurm, growing 850,000 seedlings for transfer to coastal areas.
In 2021, the conservationists tried using drones to disperse seeds, but after disappointing results they focused on the current approach of direct, targeted planting.
Oman is also helping fulfill carbon credit schemes which have become popular tools for companies seeking to offset their carbon emissions.
A single credit represents one metric ton of carbon dioxide removed or reduced from the atmosphere. Credits are generated through activities such as planting mangroves or rehabilitating forests.
This month, the environment authority signed a contract with Oman’s MSA Green Projects Company to plant 100 million trees over four years.
As part of the initiative, 20,000 hectares of land in Al Wusta governorate will be transformed into mangrove habitats, partly using artificial lakes.
Once completed, the project is predicted to eliminate 14 million metric tons of CO2 and generate $150 million through carbon credit certificates, the environmental authority said.
Carbon credits’ legitimacy has come under scrutiny as the trees must grow to maturity and never burn down if they are to permanently store CO2. Monitoring and certification standards can be slack, reports have found.
Oman’s carbon offsets could also be measured against its emissions, which amounted to 71 million tons of CO2 in 2021 according to the Global Carbon Project.
“Past generations didn’t think much about the environment because the impact of climate change” was not as apparent then, student Israa al-Maskari says at a mangrove nursery in Al-Qurm.
“What they did, we now face so we have to save our environment for us and future generations.”
Swift action to improve capital access and reduced financing costs are crucial to boosting clean energy spending in Africa, a report has found.
Energy investment in the continent needs to more than double by 2030 to meet African development ambitions and climate goals, with nearly two thirds going to clean energy, the International Energy Agency and the African Development Bank Group said in a report on Wednesday.
“The African continent has huge clean energy potential, including a massive amount of high-quality renewable resources. But the difficult backdrop for financing means many transformative projects can’t get off the ground,” said Fatih Birol, the agency’s executive director.
A range of “real and perceived” risks are affecting energy projects in Africa as well as higher borrowing costs following the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, the report found.
The cost of capital for utility-scale clean energy projects in the region is at least “two to three times higher” than in advanced economies, preventing developers from pursuing commercially viable projects, it said.
“The current shortfall in clean energy investment in Africa puts at risk the achievement of a host of sustainable development goals and could open new dividing lines in energy and climate as clean energy transitions gather speed in advanced economies,” said AfDB president Akinwumi Adesina.
The agency and the AfDB said lowering capital costs and supporting investment-worthy projects would require scaling up several instruments, including early stage financing and the use of tools that can reduce perceived investment risks.
Delivering modern energy, which includes fossil fuels and renewable energy, to all Africans will require nearly $25 billion in spending per year until 2030, according to the agency.
“This is a small amount in the context of global energy spending – equivalent to the investment needed to build one new LNG [liquefied natural gas] terminal a year,” the report said.
“But it requires a very different type of finance, given the need for small-scale projects, often in rural areas and for consumers with limited ability to pay.”
Concessional finance – funding from development finance institutions and donors – of about $28 billion per year is required to mobilise $90 billion of private sector investment by the end of this decade, the report said.
To meet energy and climate goals, funding sourced from or distributed through local channels must nearly triple by 2030, it added.
“Urgent action is needed to dramatically increase clean energy investment in Africa, which has fallen short despite the immense opportunities,” Kenyan President William Ruto said in the report.
Africa’s installed renewable energy capacity is set to grow to more than 530 gigawatts by 2040, from about 54 gigawatts in 2020, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.
Developing countries require an investment of about $1.7 trillion per year in the clean energy sector but only managed to attract foreign direct investment worth $544 billion in 2022, Unctad, the UN intergovernmental organisation that promotes the interests of developing countries in world trade, said in its World Investment Report in July.
If we have not been warned of the dangers of climate change this summer, we never will be. Extreme heat, forest fires and floods have been all over news reports. Yet the oil and gas industry remains largely in denial.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) says steep cuts in oil and gas production are necessary to reach the Paris (COP 21) goal of keeping global warming at 1.5℃. However, only a tiny fraction of the industry, accounting for less than 5% of oil and gas output, has targets aligned with the IEA’s “net zero” requirements.
The current secretary general of production cartel Opec, Haitham al-Ghais, expects global oil demand to rise by about 10% to 110 million barrels a day by 2045, a volume incompatible with the Paris goals. The UK government has just offered a helping hand, granting around 100 new North Sea licences. What are we to make of this mismatch?
The new denialism
Typical of the new breed of climate denialism is a recent report by the Energy Policy Research Foundation (ERPF), a body funded by the US government and various undisclosed corporate interests and foundations. It sees the IEA’s requirements as a “seal of approval … to block investment in oil and gas production by western companies”. The report views meeting the targets as too costly, too harsh on poor countries and too bad for the energy security of the west.
In fact, it is wrong on each account. Many eminent economists and scientists use the concept of the social cost of carbon (SCC), which is defined as the cost to society of releasing an additional tonne of CO₂. Expert estimates from 2019 put this at between US$171 and US$310 (£133 to £241). If we go with, say, US$240 per tonne, the social cost of continued carbon equivalent emissions comes out at almost US$8.5 trillion every year.
A recent study has factored into the calculation climate feedback loops. This is where one problem caused by global warming leads to others, such as melting permafrost unleashing stores of methane.
When the study estimated the economic damage that this could cause, it produced an SCC in excess of US$5,000. That implies annual costs of more like US$170 trillion a year, which makes the US$4 trillion investment into clean energy that the IEA thinks necessary to meet the Paris climate goals look like a drop in the ocean.
It may help to break this down to one barrel of oil. A special IEA report for COP28 estimates that on average, each barrel of oil emits 0.53 tonnes of CO₂ equivalent in greenhouse gas across its life cycle, 20% of which comes from production.
Going back to our average SSC per tonne of US$240, that points to a social cost of US$126 per barrel. With oil currently at US$85 per barrel, the societal damage from producing, transporting, refining and consuming it is far greater – and that’s before including climate feedbacks.
Meanwhile, the arguments by the EPRF and like-minded supporters about energy security are laughable. The history of the oil and gas industry is a history of wars and geopolitical tensions. Transitioning to cleaner fuels can only increase our energy security and reduce the need to police remote autocracies.
The argument that poor countries need to continue burning carbon for development reasons is no better. In its latest report from 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said climate change would probably see an increase in “losses and damages, strongly concentrated among the poorest vulnerable populations”.
Equally, the World Health Organization estimates that: “Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.”
How to respond
The denialists offer no alternatives to cutting carbon emissions, and often simply ignore climate change altogether. The recent ERPF report mentions climate change only four times. It is as if heatwaves, forest fires, flooding, rising sea levels and the demise of natural habitat caused by climate inaction were happening on another planet.
We still have time to limit global warming below 1.5℃. It is true that we will need oil and gas for many years, and that there are currently no alternatives for certain sectors such as air travel, shipping and some industries. Nonetheless, there is still much that can be done now to make a substantial difference.
To incentivise the transition to cleaner energy, governments need to end fossil fuel subsidies, which the IMF estimates amounted to US$5.9 trillion in 2020 alone. We also need to put a proper price on carbon – only 40 countries have attempted this so far, and none has it anywhere near the estimated social cost of emitting carbon.
Countries that resist charging their own polluters should face a carbon border adjustment mechanism, which is a tariff that effectively puts the polluter on the same footing as local players. If all the actors in the fossil fuel supply chain had to face the cost of the damage they cause, the need to phase out long-term investments in fossil fuels would become more obvious.
The IEA requirements for “net zero” are just one of the pathways towards meeting the Paris goal of 1.5℃ warming. Others are explored by some of the more credible actors in the petroleum industry, such as Shell, BP and Norway’s Equinor, but all require a substantial decline in oil demand and production by 2050.
Required production cuts
The sooner the industry starts facing up to the realities of climate change, the more chance it has to survive. The companies and even countries that produce fossil fuels will have to face and pay the cost for the damage they cause. Those costs are already massive and will grow. Those that survive will do so only as a provider of clean and sustainable energy.
Doha, Qatar: Innovative research and implementation are vital to Qatar and the region in light of climate change and environmental issues, Professor Mohammad Irshidat, the Director of the Center for Advanced Materials (CAM) at Qatar University, has disclosed.
In an interview with The Peninsula, Prof Irshidat said the region faces unique environmental challenges, such as extreme heat, humidity and water scarcity. These challenges have made it imperative to prioritise scientific research and take proactive measures to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is among the most vulnerable to physical climate change impacts, putting human activities and natural systems at high risk.
“Research plays a crucial role in understanding the specific challenges faced by Qatar and the region, as well as identifying effective solutions,” Prof Irshidat told The Peninsula.
“It helps generate valuable data, conduct climate modelling, and assess the vulnerability and risks associated with climate change. This knowledge is essential for making informed decisions and formulating evidence-based policies and strategies,” he added.
The water-stressed MENA already battles with instability in several countries which has damaging environmental consequences leading to severe humanitarian crises. Besides, the impact of oil and gas exploration and the resulting GHG emissions and the lack of arable lands also affect food security, increasing internal hunger displacement among poorer nations in the region. At the same time, the more affluent countries rely more on importation.
However, many modern techniques through research have been funded by Qatar and other countries, especially in the region, to mitigate the impacts of climate change and turn the tide by creating a green and sustainable future.
In 2021, Qatar launched the Qatar National Environment and Climate Change Strategy to protect and enhance the country’s environment, safeguard its population’s well-being and ensure the economy’s long-term resilience.
The strategy also saw Qatar commit to reducing greenhouse (GHG) emissions by 25 percent by 2030, enhancing ambient air quality standards and updating limit values by 2024, among other environmental-friendly policies.
Several countries in the region have also launched sustainability strategies. Despite this, several still find it hard to implement their policies.
Prof Irshidat stressed that implementing research projects is equally essential to addressing sustainability, environmental awareness and climate change.
“Implementation is important, as it involves translating research findings into practical actions. Qatar and the region can benefit significantly from implementing sustainable practices, renewable energy projects, efficient water management systems, and innovative technologies. These initiatives can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, conserve natural resources, protect biodiversity, and build climate resilience,” Prof Irshidat said.
He added that research and implementation contribute to economic diversification and sustainable development. According to him, by investing in clean energy technologies, sustainable agriculture, and green industries, Qatar and the region can create new job opportunities, foster innovation, attract investments, and enhance competitiveness in a rapidly evolving global landscape.
“Research and implementation are paramount to Qatar and the region’s response to climate change and environmental challenges. They provide the knowledge, tools, and actions necessary to build a sustainable and resilient future, ensuring the well-being of current and future generations.”
Energy-hungry data centres already match the aviation industry in terms of their contribution to global warming. Could they be adapted to heat other buildings as standard, wonders Kunle Barker
An article in the Economist last year entitled, ‘Say goodbye to 1.5°C’ made for depressing reading. It claimed we had already lost one of the critical battles in the climate war. The article suggested that we stood little chance of restricting the world’s post-industrial temperature rise to 1.5°C. The only way I could process this news was to ignore it. I convinced myself we were still on target and that the messaging was helpful as it would chivvy us all into focusing on hitting the 1.5°C target.
Sadly, the UN Climate Report released in March confirmed the Economist s conclusion. And this week, scientists have said the 1.5°C threshold is likely to be broken over the next few years.
Even for an eternal optimist like myself, this is worrying and disappointing. After COP26, as I drove back to London in my EV, I felt hopeful and sure that the world would do what was needed to save the planet. Little did I know, as I triumphantly plugged my EV into a supercharger at Rugby services, it was already too late to save the 1.5-degree target.
I’ve written many columns about the critical role the built environment sector could play in averting a climate disaster. To a large extent, as an industry, our intent is clear: we question, campaign, and push each other to do better. However, something sinister may lurk underneath the surface of our hubris.
A recent BBC story about a swimming pool in Exeter that used a data centre as its heat source grabbed my attention. The story reminded me of a train journey I shared with fellow Manser Medal judge, Joe Jack Williams, in which he described using data centres as heat sources in heritage assets. The use of waste heat fascinated me, but the wider application struck me only while reading this BBC article. Could data centres be used as heat sources for homes, schools even entire developments?
Using excess heat is by no means a new idea. The Churchill Gardens estate, which started construction in 1946, used excess heat from Battersea Power Station. However, my research into the topic revealed a surprising fact about the impact on our environment of data centres: They are ‘sleeping giants’ when it comes to CO2 emissions.
Today, data centres account for 2 per cent of the world’s carbon footprint, similar to the aeronautical industry and only 1.6% less than the petrochemical industry. This is worrying enough, but there are predictions that by 2030 data centres will be responsible for more carbon emissions than both those industries combined.
When this sleeping giant awakens, our industry will shoulder the blame because we will have designed and built the structures these carbon goliaths inhabit.
An obvious solution would be to argue for restricting the growth of the data centre industry, but I believe it’s too late for this. In many ways, it has already happened. Our reliance on online payments, AI, cloud storage and so on is already integrated into our society’s fabric, and it is too late to go back.
But there could be a solution. Around 70 per cent of data centres’ energy is used for cooling, and this is set to climb to 80 per cent as machines used for AI and Blockchain operate more efficiently at lower temperatures. Data centres are usually designed on a large scale but perhaps they could be used to heat individual buildings if they were made smaller and supply and demand of this heat were efficiently balanced.
Designing smaller data centres would allow their integration into large-scale developments. Imagine a mini data centre located in each plot of a development, using the excess energy to heat space and water. This would represent a significant carbon saving for all involved.
This concept is not without its challenges. Although data centres produce heat constantly, it’s not very high quality, and even with the best form of heat exchange, you will struggle to get 30 degrees out of the system. But we as an industry must try, must ask ‘what if?’ and must push for rapid innovation. Unlike the adage, ‘the diet begins tomorrow’, it seems we may have already run out of tomorrows.
Kunle Barker is a property expert, journalist and broadcaster
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Earth has been used as a building material for at least the last 12,000 years. Ethnographic research into earth being used as an element of Aboriginal architecture in Australia suggests its use probably goes back much further.
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