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The Middle East is warming faster than the rest of the world. Extreme heatwaves could make life impossible.
Source: Isabel Bolle (Trouw).
The 21st century will be unbearably hot for the Middle East, which is warming twice as fast as the global average. If the trend continues, the average temperature in some areas will increase by four degrees by 2050. The goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, as laid out in the Paris Agreement, already seems unachievable in the region.
According to research by the German Max Planck Institute of Chemistry in Mainz and the Cyprus Institute in Nicosia, the situation is critical. Based on a ‘business-as-usual pathway’, meaning no climate action is taken, the Middle East – including countries with large populations such as Egypt, Iran and Iraq – will face unprecedented heatwaves that will make life in some areas impossible. By the end of the century, the coolest summers will be as hot as the hottest summer peaks between 1981 and 2010.
Jos Lelieveld, director of the Atmospheric Chemistry Department at the Max Planck Institute and one of the authors of the research, lists the facts. “If we assume the business-as-usual scenario, we are going to face extreme heatwaves, the likes of which we haven’t seen before,” he says. “This scenario would be disastrous; some places can expect 60-degree temperatures from 2060, for several weeks at a time. If you have access to air conditioning, that might still be bearable, but if you don’t, you won’t survive the heat.”
On a side note: city dwellers can add a few more degrees to that number. Urban environments often retain more heat than rural ones. In addition, it will not only get hotter but also stay hotter for longer. Heatwaves will occur with more regularity, and may increase tenfold by the end of the century. They will also last longer: people in the Middle East can expect 200 days of exceptional heat per year.
Areas with high humidity – such as Gulf countries like the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait – are at particular risk. In these conditions, the human body struggles to regulate its own temperature and heat stress can occur more quickly, meaning that the body cannot cool itself fast enough. In acute cases, this can lead to serious medical complaints or even death.
Air conditioning will become a necessity, but not everyone can afford it. In Iraq, for example, where temperatures this summer reached 52 degrees, only wealthier residents have access to 24/7 cooling. The national power grid is unreliable, with some city neighbourhoods only getting a few hours of electricity a day in the summer. Those with the money for a private generator can keep their air conditioning units going during these power cuts, but poorer Iraqis do not have this luxury. Within a few decades, the heat for them could be fatal.
Green building in Iraq
It is a nightmare scenario that should set off alarm bells across the political spectrum. Instead, emissions keep increasing. “The Middle East is becoming a leader in global CO2 emissions. Combined, the 17 countries now have about the same emissions as the 27 countries in the EU,” says Lelieveld. “But while the EU’s emissions are starting to fall, the Middle East’s are rising sharply.”
The energy sector is responsible for the most emissions; the region is almost totally dependent on fossil fuels. As long as countries do not switch to more sustainable energy sources, emissions are expected to continue rising as it gets hotter, because more and more electricity will be needed to run air conditioners.
While political ambition remains limited, some citizens are taking matters into their own hands. In 2018, Basima Abdulrahman founded Kesk (‘green’ in Kurdish), the first company in Iraq to specialize in green and sustainable building. Her aim is to limit emissions by reducing energy demand, she explains on the phone.
“A green building uses about 50% less energy than a normal house, simply as a result of the way it is designed,” she says. “Globally, ‘conventional’ buildings account for about a third of the CO2 emissions. By opting for green houses, you can rapidly reduce those emissions.”
The company’s first green house can be found in Mosul. A community centre that was destroyed by the US bombings in 2017 has been transformed into an educational centre. “We left the holes in the ceiling, which are now solar tubes, allowing natural light from the sun to shine in.”
Iraq is at high risk but doing too little
The hot summers keep Abdulrahman awake too. Although air conditioners will soon be essential, they present a dilemma: they have a monopoly on the power grid. Currently, at least 60% of all household power consumption in Iraq is used to run air conditioners. That’s why Abdulrahman and her colleagues founded a new initiative – Kesk Solar – last year.
The company installs solar panels that are directly connected to a house’s air conditioner. The units relieve pressure on the electricity grid and make the polluting backup generators many Iraqis use obsolete – after all, the sun almost always shines in Iraq.
It is an innovative plan but one that is still in its infancy. Abdulrahman hopes to install thousands of these units in the next few years – a step in the right direction, but for now a drop in the ocean. The lack of urgency, of political awareness of the looming crisis is something she confronts daily. “According to the UN, Iraq is among the top five countries in the world most vulnerable to climate change, but the subject just isn’t high on the agenda here.”
She understands some of the reasons why. People have been through so much in recent decades, it is hardly surprising that daily life distracts both citizens and politicians from a disaster that is still largely in the future. “With the fight against IS, the economic crisis and the current security situation, people have other things on their mind at the moment.”
Whether that will be the case for much longer remains to be seen. Hotter summers are only the beginning. Rainfall is diminishing, which, together with the heat, is causing rivers and marshes in southern Iraq to dry up and contributing to the desertification of farmland. The consequences of this are grave: the Ministry of Agriculture announced in October that only half of the winter crops will be planted this year because there is not enough water for more. In addition, the drought this year has reduced the grain harvest in the north of the country by 70%, according to the UN. The barley crop has completely failed. Rising temperatures also mean rising hunger.
Action in Lebanon
Iraq is not the only country in the Middle East where daily life diverts attention from the climate crisis. Hussein Ghandour, a young climate activist from Lebanon, notes how little attention the subject receives in his country. “The majority of the population simply isn’t interested in it, which is partly due to a lack of awareness and education,” he says.
“We’re going through the darkest years in the country’s history, with a collapsed economy and terrible and insecure living conditions. Unfortunately, Lebanese are too angry and frustrated – and rightly so – at the moment to be receptive to a campaign about the climate crisis.”
In September, he attended a conference in Milan organized by Youth4Climate, an international association of young climate activists, as a Lebanese delegate. Despite the problems in his country, he wants to make Lebanese society more climate aware. “The climate crisis is closely related to our daily concerns. Take the electricity and fuel crisis in Lebanon,” he explains. “I’m currently brainstorming a local campaign to raise awareness about climate change and the ecological footprint.”
But before any major steps can be taken, the political system has to be tackled, in his view. “The consequences of global warming will be even more disastrous for Lebanon if we don’t do anything about the corruption in this country. The money from the international climate fund will then never end up where it belongs or be used for its intended purpose: protecting the most vulnerable in our society against the consequences of the climate crisis.”
Climate promises, but are they sincere?
Meanwhile, political acknowledgement in the region for the looming climate crisis is limited. Of the five countries in the world that have yet to ratify the Paris Agreement, four are in the Middle East: Iran, Libya, Yemen and Iraq. In the run-up to the climate summit in Glasgow, several countries made climate pledges: the United Arab Emirates set a target to reach net zero in 2050, and Bahrain and Saudi Arabia – one of the world’s biggest polluters – set the same goal for 2060. Last month, Saudi Arabia organized a special ‘Green Initiative’ where it announced its plans.
But the question remains how serious the countries really are. The day before Saudi Arabia announced its climate targets, the state oil company Aramco revealed that it wants to increase production from 12 million barrels to 13 million barrels of oil per day by 2027. At the same time, climate scientists believe that the Paris climate goals can be achieved the fastest by moving away from fossil fuels. It was also reported last week that Saudi Arabia, along with Japan and Australia, had lobbied the IPCC – the UN’s climate panel – to water down its recommendations in a forthcoming climate report.
Although fossil fuels are good earners now, the Gulf States would do well to move away from oil and gas in the near future. If they do not diversify their economies quickly – for example, by investing in green energy – they will be hit hard when the rest of the world switches to alternative energy sources.
Investing in a greener future could also reduce the chance of conflict. Because the climate crisis is leading to scarcity, it can create conditions that are highly flammable, warns Lelieveld. “It’s not the only factor, but it can influence areas that are already unstable. Around 600 to 700 million people currently live in the Middle East, a number that is expected to double by the end of the century. A lack of water and the rising heat can certainly increase the pressure.”
Up to our ears
In short, a scorching future seems unavoidable if warming is not limited quickly and drastically. The consequences of business as usual will be disastrous, concludes Lelieveld. “You really don’t have to be a prophet to predict that.” Ghandour, the young activist, who will experience this scenario himself, also expects difficult years ahead. “If we’re honest, we’re already up to our ears in the climate crisis and there’s no way round it anymore, in the sense that we can’t make it magically disappear,” he sighs.