The low price of oil will affect Middle East environmental efforts

Times of Oman, 7 March 2016:

There is a creeping, devastating problem that flows from the low price of oil and is potentially catastrophic for the Middle East: the effect on plans to mitigate climate change.

In 1989 a then young medical doctor, Dr Robin Russell-Jones, wrote an editorial for the Lancet entitled “Health in the Greenhouse” It concluded as follows :

“Any strategy to combat global warming must be conducted on a global scale and is bound to involve enormous investment in energy conservation, re-afforestation, renewable sources of energy and changing patterns of agriculture and transportation This approach will require a new agenda for world leaders, a new role for the United Nations Environmental Programme, and a new awareness of man’s fundamental reliance on the integrity of world ecosystems. The expense may be considerable, but the cost of doing nothing is incalculable.”

Twenty seven years later nothing much has changed except that annual emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, have risen by 60 per cent.

Then there is the effect of the falling oil price. Over the past 18 months, oil prices declined from over $100 a barrel to less than $35 a barrel, and are remaining relatively stagnant. There is speculation that the price of oil many go up again by late 2017 or 2018 to $55 a barrel but these are just guestimates. The continuing stagnation of oil prices is hurting all Middle East countries where state budgets are woefully short of necessary revenue leading to an economic imbalance.

Significantly, an immense amount of financial damage is the result, resulting in a regional economic flu that is spreading across all economic sectors affecting the ability for both governments and the private sector to develop coherent strategies for dealing with the causes or the effects of climate change.. The cascade effect doesn’t stop here. A key point is whether states will postpone or cancel clean energy options and fail to meet carbon reduction targets as regional economies begin to tank.

Perhaps not one policymaker or stakeholder understands the connection between the two trends. The low price of oil, with petroleum industry operating at full capacity, is affecting the state budgets of the GCC countries and therefore is influencing the ability of these countries to support climate change “industries” such as solar power, electric cars, energy storage, energy conservation, waste management and biogas to name just a few.

To be sure, low oil prices threaten the development of alternatives to fossil fuels and will have an immediate influence on the viability of strategies to mitigate climate change. However there is also a huge cost to not taking action: There is no country in the world that will be unaffected by global warming If climate change disrupts agriculture in one country, through droughts, extreme storms or flooding, then food prices will rise everywhere. The interconnections between continents and regions are growing due to globalisation. As climate change progresses, as it will in 2016 due to a strong El Nino effect, abnormal weather conditions will put pressure on supply chains , particularly in the Middle East where water resources are already critical. From a regional perspective, climate change poses a global threat, not only to commerce, but to traditional ways of life.

In many Middle Eastern countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, Governments have traditionally subsidised the price of petrol, which is sold at the pump below cost. However, the IMF have repeatedly emphasised, subsidising petrol prices inhibits the use of fuel-efficient cars, prevents the development of energy saving measures, and deters investment in renewables and other more sustainable sources of energy. In addition there is little incentive to develop technologies such as carbon capture and storage, since it is cheaper to go on burning fossil fuels. This will not change until a carbon tax is introduced that reflects the true cost to health and the environment of fossil fuel combustion. According to the IMF that cost exceeds $5 trillion annually. We release 32 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year (excluding releases from deforestation etc) which places a price of $166 per tonne of CO2, or approximately $600 per tonne of carbon. Currently the price of a tonne of carbon dioxide on the EU trading scheme is less than 10 dollars

Climate change is now a primary security issues for many countries including the United States. In 2015, America’s Department of Defense released a major report on climate change and the impact on global security. It will aggravate problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions that threaten stability in a number of countries. The situation will only become worse as food shortages, sea level rises and drought forces the displacement of hundreds of millions of migrants by 2050.

The Middle East and North Africa are particularly vulnerable as they contain 6 of the 9 countries in the world that are already most stressed from a water resource perspective. Indeed one of the driving forces behind the protests in Syria that inflammed the present conflict was rising food prices exacerbated by a period of relative drought. The low price of oil may affect the ability of States to deal adequately with climate change, but wars stop any such measures entirely.

Many major cities in the Middle East are coastal and therefore vulnerable to sea level rise. Muscat, Kuwait City, Doha, Abu Dhabi and Dubai have large areas of valuable property close to sea level including oil platforms, pipeline landings and desalination plants. All are the life-blood of these states and all are under threat.

Sea level rise is due partially to the thermal expansion of the oceans, but the expected rise from this process is relatively modest, less than one metre by 2100. By contrast the rises that results from melting of the polar ice caps, in other words land-based ice in Greenland and Antarctica, is potentially catastrophic. The Western Antarctic Ice-Sheet (WAIS) for example is sitting on rocks below sea level and there is already evidence that WAIS is disintegrating and that this may be irreversible If WAIS melted completely then sea levels would rise by 6 metres, and Greenland by another 7 metres. Thirteen metres is 43 feet, and Windsor is only 50 feet above the tideway.

Within the context of the Middle East, higher temperatures result in increased evaporation from the Gulf and therefore increased water salinity, which then leads to less efficient performance of desalination plants, since more energy will be required to produce the same amount of water. Meanwhile, less rain translates into the availability of less fresh water reserves in reservoirs ( and hence less groundwater recharge). So in terms of the overall water supply chain in the Arabian Gulf, all aspects will be impacted by climate change.

It is not surprising therefore that the GCC states, who are investing heavily in food security programmes abroad from East Africa, Russia, to South and Southeast Asia, are deeply concerned about the future of such programmes. The increase of flooding and salinity of farmland in low-lying, highly populated, politically fragile countries in neighbourhoods such as southern Iraq, Egypt’s Nile Delta, Sindh in Pakistan, and Bangladesh, are part of these new ecologically critical development areas.

There is no doubt that climate change is going to aggravate the potential for conflict . Waterways, such as the Nile or the Tigris and the Euphrates, where literally the lifeblood of many countries is found, are going to become flashpoints for regional conflict. We have seen water wars already—particularly in the Levant, but with a change in climate, the precious liquid is going to become invaluable to regional inhabitants. If a country upstream abstracts so much water that there is nothing to drink, let alone irrigate crops downstream, then the seeds of a regional conflict will rapidly germinate.

Overall, there is a clear and present danger that governments and stakeholders need to wake up to immediately: the most serious consequences of a low oil price is geopolitical. Low gas prices at the pump may please consumers in the short term; but the financial consequence is to delay and degrade the Middle East states from what is urgently needed: immediate, robust attention to climate change in order to enhance the safety and security of their countries.

As for Dr Russell-Jones he remains one of the UK’s leading champions on environmental issues and is still tirelessly campaigning on climate change, establishing an educational charity ‘Help Rescue the Planet’. He says:

“Paris set a new target for global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius. At present rates of consumption we will have burnt through our entire carbon budget by 2030, sooner if emissions continue to increase at 2-3 per cent per annum. The time has come for the fossil fuel industry to recognise that human civilisation as we have known it will cease to exist if we continue with business as usual. The oil, gas and coal industry needs to take a huge breath, abandon its reserves of fossil fuels that are in the ground, and redirect their considerable resources and ingenuity towards renewable sources of energy. If we fail then, future generations will never forgive us”.