by Ciara Fitzroy and Vishwesh Sundar
As we await the outcomes of the 24th annual Conference of Parties meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24), the urgency of this matter is becoming ever more apparent. The meeting in Katowice, Poland, began on at the start of the month and runs until 14 December, during which time member states will assess global progress in dealing with climate change. While there is a general consensus among member states that climate change is a global existential threat – as evidenced by the recent IPCC report that estimated we have 12 years left to limit its effects – the rhetoric is often not followed with serious action. The biggest emitters of CO2 are China, the US, the EU and India, which should come as no surprise. But if we look at per capita emissions, we see a different story: of the top ten culprits, four are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia). While these countries have other crucial structural problems to address – security issues, food and water scarcity, the question of how to move away from oil dependence – they cannot continue to ignore the challenges posed by climate change. Indeed, they need to recognise that without a reduction in carbon emissions, their other problems will only get worse.
Climate change is a problem quite unlike anything we have had to deal with before. It is urgent enough that it must be faced immediately, yet somehow distant (or abstract) enough that it is often deprioritised. The scientific evidence is clear that we cannot put the issue on the back burner any longer – climate change is everyone’s problem. It is not acceptable for some countries to merely shift responsibility to others on the grounds that they are larger or more developed. Expecting some states to make sacrifices, while others continue outdated or wasteful practices, is avoiding the fact that this is the first truly global issue we have faced, and all should be expected to pull their weight.
Since most of the GCC countries are ‘rentier states’ – that is to say, they derive the majority, or a substantial part, of their revenue from the sale of natural resources – they would not otherwise be able to fund developmental projects through taxation of citizens (as is the case in non-rentier economies). Hence, there is a lack of commitment to cut down on carbon emissions. During the Paris Summit in 2015, the GCC countries made their very modest pledges of cutting down carbon emissions conditional upon receiving international support. Countries such as Qatar did not even specify a reduction target, which is worrisome. Several academics have pointed out the ramifications of this complacency, as well as some potential pathways to mitigation and economic diversification.
The GCC might claim that these accusations of complacency are unfair. Their harsh climate, after all, requires intensive resource use to render the environment habitable; their situation cannot be compared to those of other states. This argument sidesteps the troubling fact that an excessive carbon footprint will worsen their situation in the long term. The GCC countries will be greatly affected if they do not comply with targets limiting warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius (compared to preindustrial levels). Some studies even indicate that any further rise in temperatures and humidity could make the region uninhabitable. This would, in turn, increase food and water scarcity and could even provoke social conflict (as it did in Syria in the runup to the civil war). Furthermore, this form of unsustainable development is harmful not only for the climate, but for the GCC’s domestic economies. One must remember that one of the major causes of the civil strife in Venezuela relates to its excessive dependence on oil revenues. While the oil and natural gas sectors remain lucrative in this region, efforts must be taken to lessen GCC economies’ reliance on these natural resources.
The GCC and other OECD countries have also proposed an alternative way to measure the per capita emissions of a country, as they feel that the current method of measuring carbon emissions inflates their national emission levels. In the current system, even if oil produced in these countries is used elsewhere, emissions that result from the production process are counted as part of the GCC countries’ total emissions. In addition, almost half of the population of the GCC countries are expatriates. Therefore, while the emissions related to their production and consumption are added to the national emissions, the money generated as a result is accrued to the home countries and not their resident country. For these reasons, the GCC and OECD countries have insisted on devising a demand-based calculation for carbon emissions – in other words, a system which attributes emissions to the countries consuming the final product, instead of the countries that produced it.
However, notwithstanding the above factors, the GCC countries still have very high per capita emissions, and cannot use these arguments as a veil to hide from their responsibility to address this. The GCC is clearly aware that its reliance on oil cannot last forever – hence the announcements of various modernisation initiatives such as Saudi Vision 2030. However, thus far there has been a failure to recognise the environmental element of this problem. The Gulf’s high carbon emissions need to be addressed immediately. The GCC countries have to update their goals in accordance with the latest findings on climate change, and pledge more ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions to reduce national emissions. A proactive approach to diversifying the Gulf economies is necessary to boost their long-term economic prospects and save their environment.
Ciara Fitzroy is an MSc student of international relations and diplomacy at Leiden University. She is currently a researcher for the European Student Think Tank working on youth employment and mental health.
Vishwesh Sundar is an MSc student of international relations and diplomacy at Leiden University. He is currently a research assistant at LIAS working on South Asia to West Asia migration governance.