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Should the environment be high on the region's list of concerns?

Published online 28 December 2015

The Arab world is plagued by worrying environmental issues, but research could be its saving grace.

Pakinam Amer

Persistent dust storms over the southern Arabian peninsula. 
Persistent dust storms over the southern Arabian peninsula. 
There are Arab environmental experts who would claim that, despite its present and forecast impact, climate change is not an “Arab problem”, because the region’s carbon footprint is comparably lower than major world players like the US, China or India. 

This December, however, many Arab nations joined the rest of the world in pledging to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, despite reservations over the daunting challenges that the region’s developing countries may face as a result of putting the brakes on emissions. 

Already, richer Arab countries are putting themselves on the road to modifying energy systems that are currently highly reliant on fossil fuels and serve industrial sectors, which are the among the hardest to be “decarbonized.” According to Steve Griffiths, VP for research at the UAE-based Masdar Institute, “all [Gulf] countries now have efforts toward decarbonization, and this includes renewable energy and efficiency measures. Additionally, subsidy reform is now taking hold.”

The UAE has already lifted subsidies on transport fuels, he says, and the country has increased prices of electricity and water in all the emirates. “Saudi and other [Gulf] countries are deeply considering the same. Energy efficiency measures are certainly gaining traction, particularly in the UAE and renewables ambitions are increasing.”

The desire is certainly there, but the road is long and rough.

In the more economically deprived parts of the Middle East, it’s a different story; a dramatic cut in emissions could threaten food security, the director of the Arab League Environment, Housing and Sustainable Development Department, Jamal Jaballah, told Nature Middle East on the sidelines of COP21. He said, “Industrialized countries, which have the historical responsibility of CO2 emissions, have had 200 years to change their model of economic development.” 

Most of the Arab world “needs much more time” to adapt, he added. 

But it is time that no one can afford to spare in the face of climate change — especially with the region starting to get a handle on how intense the ecological and environmental situation could become.   

As recently as October, an alarming study predicted that the Gulf countries would be swept by heat waves that may be deadly, rendering some major cities, like Dubai and Doha, uninhabitable. 

In the absence of efforts to negate the harmful effects of climate change, the study published in Nature Climate Change said that the scenario is inescapable, with severe conditions expected to hit much sooner than was previously thought. 

The study described an extreme weather condition, “a critical threshold … that could exceed what the human body will be able to tolerate,” as per Elfatih A.B. Eltahir, a professor of environmental engineering at MIT and the paper’s co-author.

The heat wave expected to last between 2071 and 2100 would bring temperatures well over 75°C in the standard heat index. In some areas, even this threshold will be breached, leading to deaths and the displacement of entire populations. 

"The body of knowledge we have here is severely lacking."

But it’s not just climate change effects that should cause grave concern; air pollution is a looming threat as well. A study led by Jos Lelieveld at the King Saud University, published in September revealed that Egypt has the region’s highest number of air-pollution-related deaths with 35,322 deaths per year. The second highest number is in Sudan with 24,255 deaths. Iraq and Saudi Arabia lose 20,335 and 14,600 people respectively as a result of air pollutants. 

The primary pollutant in Middle Eastern countries is natural particles such as dust from desert storms. In Egypt, 98% of mortality linked to air pollution is a result of dust.

But despite the destructive effects of some pollutants, environmental science as a discipline  remains understudied in the Arab world. Lelieveld says that not only is research lacking in some areas, but access to information is difficult too. “There aren't enough measurement stations,” he says, speaking of the challenges facing him during climate information aggregation for his study, “but even in a country like Saudi Arabia with a measurement station, data is not being given upon request.” 

Perhaps the only bright spot for the region in terms of its climate this year are changes as a result of plummeting levels of the pollutant nitrogen dioxide. 

Sadly, this is only a side-effect of widespread armed conflict across the region. War is slowing or stopping industry activity in some areas and causing displacement in others, resulting in less pollution in many areas. 

There are some good practices, mainly confined to Gulf countries. But conflict, including the activities of the insurgent group Islamic State (IS), is the primary reason for the changes in the Middle East’s environmental trends, the scientists declared. 

The study also revealed that the Middle East lacks air-quality networks on the ground, and in some areas, the simplest environmental control measures, except for a few countries in the Gulf. 

Wadid Erian, an Egyptian environmental expert, had earlier in the year told Nature Middle East, that despite the fact that some global factors are the main cause behind some intense climate changes on this side of the world, the region still needs “local efforts and local knowledge” to fight them off. 

Such effort and knowledge are scant. “The research is not enough; the body of knowledge we have here is severely lacking. For instance, we don’t know much about the environmental impacts of dust storms,” something that research has earmarked as the main pollutant in the region, with lethal effects. “We don’t even have enough knowledge to enable us to quantify how big of a problem we have. We’re in the dark.” 

In short, not only are environmental changes here worrying, but they are largely overlooked by both policymakers and local scientists, except for some scattered yet appreciated efforts at universities such as the King Saud University, where Lelieveld conducted his study; UAE's Masdar Institute, where alternative energy is thoroughly explored, and KAUST, where scientists are studying the effect of stressors and climate change on marine life, for instance. 

Resolutions on adaptation, mitigation, better technologies (diagnostic and otherwise), as well as studying the acute effects of how the changing climate is compromising quality of life are all essential to making progress in combatting climate and atmospheric changes. These changes also require concerted research and heavy investment. 

And looking at how the region is faring, perhaps it’s about time that we should lose sleep over our environment too.  

Nature Middle East writer Louise Sarant contributed to this report from COP21.