Gulf Countries: New Leadership for Climate Action?

Neeshad Shafi is a Doha-based +SocialGood Connector and environmentalist. Living in the Middle East, he has seen first-hand how climate change is impacting his community. In our SDGs on the Ground series, Neeshad discusses the climate challenges that the region faces, and how youth can have a leading role in addressing this crisis.

Photo by Asim Z Kodappana on Unsplash

Record-breaking temperatures in the Middle East are increasingly becoming the norm, and have surpassed 125 degrees Fahrenheit in some cases. Kuwait, for example, had the highest recorded temperature in the world this year, reaching 127.7 degrees Fahrenheit. Due to its location and desert climate, the region faces several vulnerabilities to climate change, including rising temperatures and water scarcity.

According to the World Resource Institute’s Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas, the region is the most water-stressed region on Earth, possessing only 1% of the world’s total renewable freshwater resources. Rising temperatures and extended periods of drought, combined with growing populations, and urbanization will further place pressure on scarce water resources, posing a grave threat to lives, livelihoods, biodiversity, economic stability, and human security. Importantly, given the region’s shared geography and natural resources, the impacts of climate change are likely to be felt across borders.

The good news is that governments across the Middle East are starting to be proactive about the climate risks their countries face. For example, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) recently announced the region’s first economy-wide, absolute emissions reduction target: 23.5 percent by 2030. In spring 2021, the country also hosted the Regional Dialogue for Climate Action, with leaders from 10 major Middle East and North Africa countries who vowed to accelerate progress on climate targets. The summit concluded with a commitment to reduce emissions by 2030, to work collectively to help the region adapt to the serious impacts of climate change, to collaborate on mobilizing investment and climate financing in a new energy economy. Currently, the UAE is working on a bid to host the next global climate summit, COP28.

The UAE’s larger neighbor, Saudi Arabia, is also taking steps on climate action. The country announced two ambitious climate initiatives: the Saudi Green and Middle East Green initiatives, which include promises to reduce emissions by the equivalent of four percent of the global total; increase the share of renewable energy in electricity generation from 0.3 percent to 50 per cent by 2030; plant ten billion trees over the coming decades, and implement ‘clean hydrocarbon’ projects. Saudi Aramco has also joined the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI) — a group of oil companies including Shell, BP, and ExxonMobil — and announced it would reduce its carbon intensity.

Meanwhile, Qatar’s Al Kharsaah solar power plant plans to launch operations this year., The state-owned oil and gas company, Qatar Petroleum, also recently released its new Sustainability Strategy report, which outlines targets to reach the Paris Agreement goals, including reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The report also claims to cut down the emissions intensity of the country’s LNG facilities by 25 percent and of its upstream facilities by at least 15 percent.

These regional gatherings and commitments provide countries in the Middle East with a platform to collaborate on responses to climate change, and enhance cooperation with the international community to transform climate challenges into opportunities. While they are a step forward in the right direction, more needs to be done to take concrete actions to a cleaner and more sustainable economy.

This is where youth can play a key role in holding governments to their commitments. At Arab Youth Climate Movement Qatar — an organization I co-founded to increase awareness about climate change issues in the Middle East — we advocate for our governments to honor their Paris Agreement commitments and enhance their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), as well as train youth to be the future climate leaders we need. One of our programs is the Environmental Ambassadors of Qatar, which prepares youth to advocate for the environment at a grassroots level and learn more about the unique challenges their communities face — last year, we had more than 300 applications! We cover topics including oceans, plastic pollution, renewable energy, and waste management. We’re currently talking to partners to work on organizing a similar ambassadors program for the wider Middle East.

What we’re trying to do is build environmental consciousness among young people so that they can lead on these issues in the future. Many of the youth in our region wish to pursue government jobs, so we want to make sure they’re equipped with the right knowledge and policy ideas to take a stand against climate change.

Bit by bit, we’re helping the narrative around climate change and youth leadership shift in Qatar and the region. The organization was invited to the Ministry of Environment’s NDC discussions to share input as youth stakeholders, and we were also chosen to represent Qatar at the UN Youth Climate Action Summit in 2019. These opportunities show us that our governments are increasingly seeing the value of incorporating youth voices in crucial discussions such as climate action. Governments should do their part to tackle climate change, but youth also have a responsibility and opportunity to hold their leaders accountable and prepare themselves to lead tomorrow.