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2022: A Year of Environmental Hopes and Disappointments

2022: A Year of Environmental Hopes and Disappointments

Saturday, 31 December, 2022 - 06:30
Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment & Development magazine

Environmental action in 2022 culminated in an image of the self-congratulatory applause of heads of delegations and international organizations, on what they called a "historic deal", at the conclusion of the 15th meeting of the biodiversity convention (COP15) held in Montreal.

However, heads of state were absent from the conference this time, and the dispute over the distribution of burdens and financing remained as it had been when the Convention on Biological Diversity kicked off 30 years ago at the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) headquarters in Nairobi, and as was the case at the climate summit a few weeks ago.

The row over funding according to a clear implementation plan conceals a desire for postponement on the part of some countries, to ensure their continued control over natural resources in poor countries, whether for mining purposes or for food and medicine production. There are hundreds of thousands of patents and exclusive pacts that deny poor countries the use of their own natural resources and put them in the hands of large corporations and multinationals.

The decisions of the Montreal conference did not rise up to a serious response to scientists' warning that climate change cannot be addressed without protecting natural systems and repairing what has been destroyed.

After four years of preparation and two weeks of negotiation, they reached non-binding goals to protect 30 percent of natural habitats and rehabilitate 30 percent of destroyed natural systems on land and at sea, as well as "reconsider" standards for environmentally damaging subsidies and aid amounting to $500 billion annually. This result was closer to recommendations than decisions.

China, which chaired the conference, bypassed African countries' demands for a clear financing mechanism to implement the recommendations, in an explicit expression of the new role it aspires to play, as partner or heir to old colonialism.

Today, China is flooding developing countries with debt under the guise of development projects, following in the footsteps of the traditional colonialists. China is also undoubtedly keeping its eye on natural resources that it can share under any agreement on biological diversity.

But the year also ended with some promising signs.

Nuclear fusion experiments to generate clean and renewable energy reached a critical point, as scientists in the United States were able, for the first time, to produce net energy output using laser technology. Nuclear fusion research centers in other regions of the world - most notably within the framework of an international cooperation program in the south of France - will continue experiments to maximize production, simulating that of the sun.

Unlike nuclear fission reactors, fusion technology has no risks of leakage and radioactive waste. But it remains to be seen whether it will become viable commercially on a large scale well before 2050, to actually contribute to halt carbon emissions on time.

Also, before the end of the year, Airbus announced that it was in the final stages of developing a hydrogen fuel cell engine, intending to start field applications on its largest aircraft in 2026.

What is certain is that hydrogen cells will also power ships and transport trucks within years, and share the stage with electrical cars, with the possibility of completely replacing them at a later juncture. In addition to the long time it takes to charge electric cars, hydrogen can be filled quickly in stations similar to current gas stations. Arab countries have great potential to produce hydrogen of all kinds, for export as well as local use.

As for the production of electricity from renewable energy sources, it continued to achieve milestones in 2022, with higher efficiency and lower cost, a trend expected to continue in the coming year. This was accompanied by a significant increase in the development of technologies for carbon capture, reuse and safe storage, which will allow, when economically feasible applications are found, for continuing to use fossil fuels as a component of the energy mix for many years to come.

However, oil-producing countries must continue to actively pursue plans to diversify their economies, including diversification of energy sources, to avoid sudden setbacks if any of the energy transition programs encounters obstacles that impede the achievement of its goals according to the specified timetable. So, it is necessary to always have a "Plan B" ready, to avoid sudden disruption in energy markets, due to faster than expected technological breakthroughs.

While energy production has witnessed huge transformations towards sustainability, major breakthroughs have been rare in the fields of food and water, which are the two complementary pillars of energy for sustainability. Increasing the quantitative output of food production by any means is still the primary driver of the sector, with all the water it wastes, pesticides and fertilizers pollution, and damaging productive land, in addition to over-exploitation of the remaining fisheries.

Water management is almost limited to searching for new sources, which may not be sustainable, and depleting groundwater. Serious work to boost efficiency and end waste, in water as much as in food, is suspiciously lagging.

Technological discoveries are very important for protecting the environment and managing resources in a way that meets human needs and secures a balance between organisms and the natural environment. However, all of this will not help, unless there is a radical change in consumption patterns, because the world today consumes twice the ability of natural systems to regenerate, which means that today's generation is appropriating the sustenance of coming generations.

However, individual initiatives and voluntary campaigns to rationalize consumption are not enough, as what is required is strict laws that put an end to waste at all levels, whether in energy consumption, irrigation or food.

If we do not do this quickly, what we gain through technology will be lost in consumption patterns, with a world that will soon reach ten billion people. Let 2023 be the year of rational consumption to preserve this endangered planet.

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