COVID-19 Complicates Climate Change Campaigns in the Arab World

The devastation wrought by COVID-19 has become all too clear at this point. The pandemic had killed more than 4.6 million as of September 14. A number of these deaths have occurred in the Arab world. Egypt, the region’s most populous country, has lost more than 16,000 of its people to COVID-19, and outbreaks continue to ravage much of North Africa. Like the dire public health consequences of the pandemic, efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 have a range of underreported but seriously harmful side effects. These challenges include major obstacles in the fight against climate change.

At first glance, the relationship between COVID-19 and environmental degradation may seem far from obvious. In fact, the early days of the pandemic were good for the health of the natural environment. The slowdown in shipping and travel has resulted in reduced fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, improving air quality and decreasing pollution. A decline in tourism has also eased pressure on sensitive ecosystems near tourist destinations.

Some analysts have even speculated that COVID-19 could deal a fatal blow to the oil industry, a goal long sought by environmentalists. The scientific consensus holds that the world will have to move away from fossil fuels in the short term to secure the future of the natural environment and slow down climate change. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, better known as “OPEC”, estimated in March 2020 that COVID-19 had “turned the oil market upside down”. OPEC Secretary General Mohammad Sanusi Barkindo noted, “There is no doubt that over the past four weeks all indices have deteriorated.”

In the Arab world, government budgets behind environmentally friendly policies often depend on revenue from oil reserves.

While this development represented a theoretical victory for the environmental movement, it marked a setback for the Arab world, where government budgets behind environmentally friendly policies often depend on revenue from oil reserves. Indeed, the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, among the world’s leading exporters of fossil fuels, have used their wealth to fund some of the most ambitious climate change campaigns of the 21st century. But COVID-19 has put the finances of these initiatives at risk.

The projects of the energy superpowers of the Arab world are very varied. Saudi Arabia is building Neom, a city supposed to run on renewable energy alone, and the United Arab Emirates has spent decades pioneering cloud seeding, a sophisticated form of weather modification. Oman, perhaps the most independent of the Middle Eastern monarchies, has long distinguished itself as a champion of environmental protection by promoting nature conservation and sustainable tourism. Fossil fuels have funded these efforts and the research behind them.

While these investments in environmental protection seem likely to go forward regardless of the ultimate trajectory of the pandemic, COVID-19 has nonetheless complicated the financial picture. In 2019, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia were already running budget deficits; the COVID-19-induced drop in oil prices the following year did these countries a disservice. The recent spike in oil prices could mitigate some of this economic damage.

Qatar, Saudi Arabia and their neighbors have been criticized for accelerating climate change through their sale of fossil fuels, fueling accusations that Arab energy superpowers are engaging in hypocrisy by advocating for environmental protections . While legitimate, this argument misses an equally important point: few other states in the region can afford to spend colossal sums to fight climate change without foreign direct investment. Thus, the Arab countries that play the biggest role in global warming also have the most powerful weapons to fight it.

The pandemic is undermining the coffers of Arab countries that already had limited resources to devote to environmental protection.

Even as COVID-19 drains the financial firepower of energy-rich countries in the Middle East, the pandemic is also sapping the coffers and political capital of Arab countries that already had limited resources to devote to protecting the environment. environment. Solving environmental problems and switching to renewable energy requires large sums of money, and governments that go into debt because of an ongoing health crisis have little room for maneuver for a future ecological crisis.

A 2017 report by the Jordan Investment Commission determined that tourism, one of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic, accounted for 19.4% of Jordan’s gross domestic product. Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia also derived a significant share of their public budgets from this sector, which in turn funded the continued green development of these countries. Yet after a global recession and a year of travel bans, the prospects for initiatives such as the Action Plan and Lebanon’s National Biodiversity Strategy look less promising.

Volunteers use whatever they can find to try to put out forest fires in the Kabylia region, east of the capital Algiers, Algeria, August 10, 2021. (Reuters)

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Countries around the world must now debate how to balance public health with environmental protection, but the Arab world faces an acute threat. The region suffers from unique challenges exacerbated by climate change. The World Economic Forum concluded in 2019 that 13 of the 22 member states of the Arab League faced “serious water scarcity”. About 60% of Middle Easterners and North Africans lived in areas experiencing water stress in 2020.

COVID-19 therefore places Arab governments before an impossible choice. They can hardly overlook the horrors of the pandemic to spend more money on environmental protection and green development, and no reasonable understanding of climate change adaptation would require such a cynical approach.

Recent wildfires that have wreaked havoc across Algeria have shown how global warming is fueling humanitarian crises.

In contrast, the Arab world has little time to lose. The recent wildfires that have wreaked havoc in Algeria and its neighbors have shown how global warming is fueling humanitarian crises. Many more of these environmental disasters could loom in the region.

An effective strategy to rebuild regional capacity to adapt to climate change and protect the environment will probably have to involve the international community, which has so far neglected its responsibilities. In January, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned that member states were spending more resources on helping countries in the South recover from the effects of the pandemic than on preparing the region to deal with climate change.

On several occasions, and as recently as July, the UN has presented the fight against the pandemic as an opportunity to “recover better” and to “build back with green and inclusive plans”. Guterres himself said, “We need to turn the recovery into a real opportunity to get it right for the future.”

If the international community can put these words into action, the Arab world’s campaigns against COVID-19 and climate change could begin to complement each other, rather than one coming at the expense of the other. UN proposals to redevelop tourism to be more environmentally friendly in the wake of the pandemic are of particular importance to several Arab governments.

Whatever the international community decides to do, the urgency of environmental protection in the Arab world will only grow. The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly complicated matters, but this parallel dilemma demands resolution.

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