We need to raise the bar to close the gap

Sami Dimassi

As the world gets closer to celebrating the fourth anniversary of the landmark Paris Agreement, the optimism and enthusiasm surrounding this historic achievement is muted. Countries around the world have collectively failed to curb the rise of greenhouse gas emissions, which have risen 1.5 percent per year in the last decade and hit a new high of 55.3 gigatons of CO2 equivalent in 2018. In the absence of drastic change, scientists now expect to see a 3.2oC rise in temperature by the end of this century.

Today, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) released the tenth edition of its Emissions Gap Report, which makes for some stark reading. As it does every year, the report looks at the projected volume of greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 and the progress countries are making in reducing them.

The report found that countries’ collective ambition must increase more than fivefold over current levels to deliver necessary emissions cuts to keep temperature rise to below 1.5oC. Countries that signed up to the Paris Agreement have set this target as their ambition, with each country setting Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – their commitment to achieving it. Yet even if these NDCs are fully implemented in their current form, the world’s emissions budget, allowable under this target, will be exhausted by as early as 2030.

The report also found that economy-wide climate action remains extremely limited in certain areas, including a complete phase-out of fossil-fuel subsidies, comprehensive and ambitious carbon pricing, and making all finance flows consistent with the Paris Agreement. Despite the urgency of the matter, countries that have traditionally led the way in economic development have not done their fair share of the heavy lifting. Carbon footprints need to fall, lifestyles need to become more sustainable, and much more needs to happen in a shorter period of time. So, how do we stay within the 1.5oC limit? And how do the challenges and opportunities affect the still-developing region of West Asia, which has been mostly reliant on fossil fuels for its economic development?

West Asian nations must, like all other nations, revise their NDCs by 2020 to close the emissions gap by 2030. This scaling up of climate ambition is not only necessary, but can also bring massive benefits to the region. This year’s Emissions Gap Report also looks at the energy transition and the potential of efficiency in the use of materials, which can play a big role in closing the emissions gap and holds special relevance for the West Asian region.

The region’s countries are blessed with abundant natural resources other than oil; the potential for solar power to provide energy is obvious. Renewables are now the cheapest source of new power generation and a worldwide transition to renewable energy could reduce emissions of CO2 from the power sector by 78 percent in 2050, and West Asia countries are already making headway. It is estimated that in the GCC alone, investment in renewables totaled almost $10 billion between 2006 and 2018, with more than half of this amount coming in the last two years. Plans to integrate the solar power supply chain within the region are also an encouraging sign that renewables are now seen in a broader economic light.

Finance is another area with potential for action. With the transition to renewables and better energy efficiency alone requiring supply-side investments of $1.6-3.8 trillion per year from 2020-2050, the opportunities for finance abound. The region is already home to several financial hubs, and opportunities for growth in these fields will only increase as the world moves to achieve the commitments under the Paris Agreement. Recent examples of financial initiatives in the region include the $26 billion Dubai Green Fund, which demonstrates the attractiveness of this approach.

Young people constitute nearly half of the population in the Arab region. Arab youth have demonstrated time and again their determination and innovation. We have witnessed their drive to support their countries in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and realizing the objectives and milestones set out in the visions of their nations. We are also witnessing their passion and enthusiasm in environmental activism. Governments of the region can harness youth innovation and equip the inheritors of our planet with the awareness and tools which they need to promote sustainable solutions to address the global challenge.

The effects of climate change are already with us, while others are yet to be felt. Flash floods seen in Yemen, heat spikes in Kuwait, and rising sea levels that could see 11 percent or more of Bahrain under water in a few decades time, are just examples. It is clear that things need to change and that ambitions must be scaled up. Humanity’s future lies in the transition to a low-carbon future. And while the task to make this transition happen is enormous, so too is the responsibility of all countries. West Asian countries can truly make their mark, and with the right incentives, policies, and support, can lead the way in fighting for a better future for generations to come.

— Sami Dimassi is Director and Regional Representative of the UN Environment Program’s Regional Office for West Asia

By Sami Dimassi