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Climate Plans to the Beat of Disasters

Climate Plans to the Beat of Disasters

Sunday, 15 August, 2021 - 04:45
Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment & Development magazine

The new scientific evidence that catastrophic impacts of climate change are accelerating fast were not enough to garner general acceptance of the strong climate plan launched by the European Union last month. Those plans were followed by President Joe Biden’s announcement that the share of carbon-free cars, namely electric and hydrogen, will rise to half of all new cars in the United States by 2030. In some circles, these measures were considered to be extremist. The European plan specifically faced strong opposition from industries that rely heavily on coal, as well as from car manufacturers and airlines. They found the measures imposed significant and rapid restrictions, which may prevent a smooth transition.

However, the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report left no doubts, by confirming that the facts of climate change far exceeded previous projections. Noting that while it is still possible to limit the scale of deterioration, some of the effects cannot be reversed, which calls for accelerating adaptation measures. While previous IPCC reports indicated the possibility of seas rising by about half a meter by 2100, the current report projected this could reach up to two meters before the end of the century, and warned that the rise in temperature would exceed 1.5 degrees within ten years – and not decades as previously thought – if radical and fast action is not taken.

According to the report, it has become necessary to raise the level of the commitments of the Paris climate agreement by accelerating the reduction of carbon emissions, and stopping them completely, without exceptions, before 2050, which encompasses galvanizing knowledge sharing and program funding. These findings were considered shocking not because they provided entirely new results, but because of the traditionally conservative nature of IPCC reports, which need to be approved unanimously by all member countries. The release of the latest report represents the strongest governmental acceptance of mostly known scientific findings, making it difficult to disavow serious action by governments any longer.

Frans Timmermans – European Commission Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal – acknowledged the severity of the measures, saying this was the only way to have a “fighting chance” against the accelerating catastrophic effects of climate change. Even before the IPCC’s frank report, nature itself supported Timmermans. Two days after the plan was launched, an unprecedented wave of floods swept through some Western European countries, hitting Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, leaving hundreds dead and damages worth billions. Soon after, a wave of fires swept through Eastern Europe to Greece and Italy, destroying large forest areas, and leaving thousands homeless. While fires and floods cannot be considered rare natural events, scientists have found that this time, their frequency, scale and intensity were evidence that the effects of climate change are hitting the world faster and stronger than projected.

These major disasters, all taking place within the span of a month, contributed to expanding the circle of acceptance of the radical measures embodied in the European plan that aims, in its 12 provisions, to reduce carbon emissions by 55 percent before 2030 compared to what they were in 1990, leading up to zero emissions in 2050. Among the measures are the imposition of high fees on jet fuel – which calls for raising ticket prices to reduce air travel – and accelerating the transition to cleaner fuels such as hydrogen, in aviation as well as in shipping.

The measures also include placing severe restrictions on the maximum permitted carbon emissions from cars and other means of land transport, which actually leads to stopping the sale of gasoline and diesel cars in 2035. This means a complete shift to electric and fuel-cell engines (hydrogen), and coincides with exemptions from taxes and fees on low-carbon energy sources. Since the goal is to reduce carbon emissions and not to prevent the use of any specific type of fuel, the development of economic and practical carbon capture and storage technologies, including safe re-use and storage, remains a realistic option to extend the use of oil as an essential part of the energy mix.

In addition to transportation, the European plan focuses on reducing emissions from heating homes, which are still mainly dependent on gas. That is why the plan supports the shift to heating with heat pumps that operate on electricity generated from clean sources and tightening the requirements for thermal insulation in new buildings, in addition to the rehabilitation of old buildings for the purpose of making them more efficient. To achieve these goals, the plan called for large sums of money to be allocated to finance the rapid transition to renewable and clean energies, with 30 percent of the EU’s future budgets allocated to issues related to climate change.

Remarkably, the level of acceptance of these harsh measures was higher in countries that experienced the most damage and casualties from disasters, such as Germany and Belgium, after floods that swept away entire inhabited areas. In the Netherlands, the damages were less and there were no casualties due to the historical precautions against rising waters in the low-lying country. While this led some Dutch right-wing parties to object to the European plan, which they considered too costly and harmful to the economy, the appalling IPCC report prompted them to adopt a more moderate stance, supporting fast measures combining adaptation and mitigation.

In contrast with clear plans and serious political and popular debate in many parts of the world to tackle climate challenge, a resounding weakness is observed in most Arab countries. This even in the wake of several countries suffering massive forest fires recently, including Algeria, Syria and Lebanon. It is remarkable that Arab official responses to raging fires came from opposite ends. Some officials who are obsessed with conspiracy theories accused parties with criminal intent of initiating the fires, with certain politicians in Lebanon linking them to factions waging a sectarian war.

On the other hand, some Arab officials washed their hands of the disasters, considering them a result of climate change and accordingly declared that they had no to power to stop them. This is a blatant model of using climate change as an excuse to evade the responsibility to mitigate its potential impacts, including land-use regulation and integrated forest management, as well as having the appropriate infrastructure and mechanisms with trained and qualified manpower to fight fires and prevent their spread.

Confronting climate change happens on two parallel levels: addressing the causes by reducing carbon emissions, and preparing for the impacts that cannot be stopped completely. The Arab countries, most of which still fall short in both areas, can now build on the European plan to develop appropriate national and regional prevention and adaptation strategies, capable of protecting them from nature’s surprises and qualifying them to deal with a new era.

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