Monday, December 21, 2009

Copenhagen: Where is the Arab World heading?

(This was intended as an op-ed piece for a Cairo-based newspaper. We couldn't get it published in a timely manner, so it ended up here...)

So much momentum was built for this year’s UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen (COP15) – and so much is at stake – and by the Summit’s end so little was offered. The agreed upon ‘Copenhagen Accord’ has been a resounding failure, with no legally binding commitments to carbon emissions reductions and insufficient funding for developing nations to cut their rates of emissions.

The scientific and civil society communities are largely behind the target of restoring carbon dioxide levels in the earth’s atmosphere to 350 parts per million (ppm), in order to save life from the worst of climate change effects. This means keeping climate change to 1.5˚ Celsius above pre-industrial levels. And this roughly translates into 30% reductions in carbon emissions from 1990 levels by 2020 and 80% by 2050.

According to the Guardian, the Copenhagen Accord drops these targets – 1.5˚C increase and 80% reductions by 2050 – and instead vaguely promises reductions to a temperature increase of 2˚ Celsius, but with no clear measures of how we would reach that goal.

The Group of 77, the largest representative of countries present at the Summit, representing more than 134 nations or roughly 80% of humanity, was loud in its opposition to a 2˚C increase agreement. G77’s Chief Negotiator, Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, called this a “suicide pact” for the G77. According to a leaked document from the UN’s own Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCC) Secretariat, during the last week of the Summit, what was on the table at Copenhagen would lead to at least a 2˚C increase, which amounts to at least a 3.5˚C increase for all regions of the African continent. And such a huge temperature increase will mean almost certain devastation for the continent.

And of course it is not just the African continent that will face certain devastation. Add the many small island nations in the mix, plus the many low-lying nations and cities throughout the world. But really, we are just talking about the more immediate catastrophe brought by climate change. If we go beyond the next two or three decades, the truly global devastation of global warming becomes much more apparent. This is why civil society groups have been present throughout COP15 from in and outside the UN Summit, calling for a “real deal” – 350 ppm, 1.5˚ Celsius.

And this is precisely why they were wire-tapped, arrested, stripped of their UN Summit badges. Groups from Greenpeace to Friends of the Earth were refused entry into the Summit during the last days, as the global elite and their sham of a deal was being hashed out.

US President Obama came to the Summit briefly to try to fool the world that the US has come to be a leader and is ready to tackle climate change. With a play on words (17% reduction in emissions by 2020) one may think that with Obama on the throne the US is quite serious, but those targets are from 2005 levels and come out to actually a mere 4% from 1990 levels. Further, the US has pledged to support a $100bn global fund to help developing nations adapt to climate change, but made no specific commitments to meet its climate debt. In fact, US political leaders refuse to acknowledge that industrialized countries, particularly the US, owe a debt to the rest of the non-industrialized world for historically contributing most to this climate disaster, while developing countries must face it.

The United States was indeed leading the way at the Summit – to utterly preposterous targets that will lead millions and millions displaced, hungry, dead. This is not exactly surprising. In fact, it is quite utterly expected. But what is noteworthy at least from here, in Cairo, is the Arab World’s seeming agreement with such untenable leadership.

Where in fact have countries of the Arab Union “been” in all of this? According to one of the main civil society groups on climate action,, more than half of the world’s countries support the 350 ppm target. And of those majority countries only two Arab Union countries are among them – Yemen and Sudan. All other North Africa and Middle East countries officially support weaker climate change policies.

Even more, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project 2008, of the Pew Research Center based in Washington, D.C., a survey of climate change concerns in 24 countries ranked the three Arab countries included in the survey – Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt – 18th, 20th and 21st, respectively. This survey was conducted in select countries in all five continents and reflects relatively little concern about climate change among people of the Arab region.

This is startling considering what is known about inevitable climate change impacts in the region. The 2009 Report of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) warns that global warming will have drastic impacts on a number of Arab countries.

According to Denmark’s lead climate change negotiator, Niels Pultz, studies on the sea level rise have shown that the Middle East and Africa are the most likely to be affected, second only to small island states in oceans.

The 2009 AFED forecasts that the sea level rise will mostly threaten Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Tunisia, devastating "one to three percent of land in these countries." In Egypt, more than 12 percent of the country's best agricultural land in the Nile Delta is at risk from the sea level rise.

Even Egypt’s own Agricultural Research Center recently issued an official report forecasting major losses in agriculture and rural life in the Delta region due to climate change, with millions of people being displaced in the coming decades.

Also, with global warming encroaching fresh water supplies in the region will continue to be under severe limitations. "Environmental deterioration forms serious threats to peace in our Arab region and the world as a result of the increase in the conflict around water resource," Lebanon's Environment Minister Mohammed Rahhal has cautioned.

The message: It is alarming that people of the Arab World are not taking climate change seriously enough. Listen and follow the lead of the G77 – the voice and reason of the vulnerable, developing nations – and demand climate justice. There is still much negotiating to do in the years to come and the G77 coalition will be much strengthened by a strong commitment from Arab countries.

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