When oil talks, the planet suffers

In a remote hilly village tucked away under the trees of the ancient Lebanese Chouf, IndyAct held a Climate Action Media Workshop Beirut ā€˜09 for two days on the 5th and 6th of August "to update and guide journalists from the Arab region on the current climate change negotiations process, which will end this year in Copenhagen with a new global climate change agreement."
Lebanon climate change action media workshop
on 1st of March 2009 more than 95 activists from the League of Independent activists, IndyACT, held a symbolic action on the snow of Faraya in order to highlight the fact that climate change can lead to the disappearance of snow in Lebanon. 350ppm (parts per million) is the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere that climate scientists say we need to reach in order to avoid catastrophic climate change impacts.

BEIRUT, Aug 11, 2009 (MENASSAT) −Environmental issues, climate change, international conventions, negotiations and international treaties were all on the agenda at the workshop, which organizers described as part of “the Global Campaign for Climate Action” (GCCA),  an international coalition of the main non-governmental organizations from around the world working on climate change policy. Around 40 journalists covering the Arab world attended the workshop, a mixture of activists, freelancers, bloggers and professional big media journalists. The issues discussed were loosely but effectively tied together by the IndyAct (the League of Independent Activists) researchers’ efforts to present a unified Arab position, as well as a contribution to international efforts to regulate carbon reduction through structures that are ––at the end of the day–– legally binding for governments to adopt and sign.

Day 1, for someone on the very banks of the environmental problems, brought few surprises—like learning that Arab officials go to international conventions unprepared and uninterested. And when they do attend in enough numbers and with sufficient resolve, such as in the case of Saudi Arabia, they put forward positions that align them with the wishes of what are called "Annex 1 countries" in environmentalist lingo  -- rich countries, to make a long story short.  These countries are historically responsible for the amount of carbon released through early industrialization and excess use of fossil fuels.

So why would Saudi Arabia advocate a position of “less restrictions on carbon emissions?”

They are worried that restrictions will reduce the demand for oil, and thus, their revenues. The price for this stance might very well be the extinction of the globe. But hey, who wants to say no to the Saudis?

The oil exporting countries are most effective when it comes to the negotiations process, but only to protect their interests as oil exporters per say. No actions that affect oil revenues regarding climate change are allowed or supported by these countries. The KSA and Kuwait are active in the Arab league and in OPEC regarding climate change.

All Arab countries are performing very poorly when it comes to responsibilities of the environment. Only Saudi Arabia and Egypt have an apparatus in place to follow up on treaties, but not without serious shortcomings-- an impeding lack of strategic national interest in the ecological sense.

The core purpose of international treaties is to protect national interests. Many times treaties abuse the rights of countries that do not protect its interests. So what do Arab delegates do in these conventions?

Engineer Naji Qudeih from Lebanon, formerly an expert negotiator for the Lebanese Ministry of Environment,  provided an answer only someone from the inside could  offer. He said when it came to environmental efforts he had to work on tasks alone,  even though they required entire teams. He also said that papers and initiatives presented internationally and adopted by Lebanese individuals  were usually not followed up.  Regarding official work being done in the Arab world, little effort is made to accumulate the knowledge gained and  it is not shared between officials working on environmental issues. “As an expert, I’m still unaware of the fate and results of projects I worked on,” Qudeih said. 

Qudeih conveyed the spirit, perhaps more accurately the lack there of, of Arab delegates at international conventions who are supposed to be there to discuss issues that reflect a national Arab interest, but instead take it as an opportunity for tourism and shopping.

“Most of the time on the last day of negotiations of treaties, the seats of Arab delegates would be empty. They would be shopping or touring, while asking me, or other experts to tell them what happens in emails so they can report to their superiors,” Qudeih said, disappointed.

So far his experience  has showed him that Arab countries, including Lebanon, join treaties without fully understanding their principles or how they protect their national interests (which they don’t most of the time). Qudeih added that some negotiations for conventions which Arab countries are a part of don’t protect their interests, although conventions, which are based on a consensus reached among a group of countries, usually reflect the interests and policies of those present and able to articulate their interests during the negotiations.

According to Wael Hmaidan, Executive Director of IndyAct and longtime environmental activist, gave a presentation explaining how Lebanon sends representatives to international treaties negotiations on climate change without understanding the gravity of what they are doing. Take for example the environment minister in Lebanon, who contradicts himself when he accepts nuclear non-proliferation, but at the same time says in a press conference that the “solution for climate change is nuclear power.”  

In another presentation, Bassam Quntar from Al-Akhbar newspaper said that finding an explanation for the environmental question is difficult, even for ministers. For example, the Lebanese environment minister, when stating his ministry’s achievements, failed to mention the “position letter” his ministry agreed to sign, which takes an official stance towards the country’s carbon reduction, even though it could in fact be considered an achievement to have officially committed the country to carbon reduction.

These are saddening examples of how indifferent we are towards the single most devastating challenge the entire globe faces. But, sadly, as well, how surprised can we be? The neglect that the ordinary Arab citizen is facing on most levels makes us indifferent to climate change. One is often reminded of how much Arabs suffer on a daily basis, before having to address global strategic challenges. The indifferent attitude by governments makes it harder and harder to form a contingent of aware and responsible citizens that can push for action  to prevent climate change on the political level.

Even so-called progressive political organizations will only pay lip service to the environmental question, a mere “end- close” on their agendas that never translates into action, at least when it comes to conventions, Lebanon and other Arab countries have joined and adopted some. But following up on implementing the recommendations is rare.  Most countries never intend to apply these conventions, or modify their legal frameworks in compliance with the newly signed treaties. And in cases where there are contradictions between international treaties or conventions, the practice is to apply the stricter among the two. 

Politics and environment -- social justice and climate change

This is how politics is affecting the discourse of climate change actions, both by governmental or civil society organizations tackling the monumental task. Efforts vary though.

The environmental challenge is global now and has become a main clause on the international agenda, while the Arab world is not void of  problems, from lack of water to desertification.

When oil exporting countries insist on a fossil fuel high carbon economy, they forget-- on purpose or out of  ignorance-- that when it comes to renewable energy 0.3% of the desert can produce enough electricity for the MENA and Europe regions. This means, with the knowledge that oil will eventually run out, countries like Saudi Arabia who wish to remain focal in the energy market, must invest innovatively in renewable energy. Solar power is something the entire Arab world can be involved in researching, experimenting and producing, at least, when German-lead European efforts are tiling solar panels in the Great North Africa desert, producing up to 15 percent of Europe’s energy needs in the first stage of the project alone.  

Developing countries demand insurance funds and technological transfer in order to tackle climate change. Some countries will be forced to relocate mass population in order to cope; these countries will need help.

Countries that produce, export and process oil should be compensated since their oil revenues will be affected. Or so they say. But in fact they do not really need financial support. What they want is to protect their interests regarding the upcoming “Copenhagen 15” convention. Kuwait, for example, said it will wait and see what other countries will offer them.

The KSA and Kuwait are the most efficient in coming forward with their own positions - but from the perspective of oil exporters - supporting new techniques such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).They have large delegations in the UNFCC (United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change) headed by the oil ministry, to a convention that’s supposed to discuss how to save the planet. One can only imagine what interests they will represent.

The KSA is against a binding global goal for carbon emission, while both Kuwait and the KSA have oil-driven delegates in the UNFCC.

While Qatar's position, a country home to one of the world’s largest natural gas reserves, is a bit different, and is similar to the UAE in regards to climate change and international action, but it is also driven by the petroleum sector,  despite interesting local initiatives. Other smaller countries like Oman have delegations and are opposed to CCS, while not being oil exporters at the same time.

Arab economies need to move from high-carbon to low-carbon economies in the mid-future and international development funding will also move in that direction soon, if it’s not already there.

And this is where the civil society is playing a role. But again, like almost all development work in the Arab world, it is based on funding from international organizations or foreign governments, that dictate the approaches to development, despite the urgency for Arab countries to put their own ideas forward, and even head efforts to reach better agreements.

Hmaidan explained that these days Sudan is head of the G77 group, and Algeria heads the African group in the UN, while the KSA is the most powerful country in OPEC and the Arab League.  In other words, it is an excellent opportunity for Arab states to lead the world on the environmental front.

But there is a need to disengage the oil industry from spear-heading the efforts  representing Arab interests in climate change on the international scene, since they do not reflect the interest of the majority of the peoples in the region, particularly those who will be most affected by the crisis resulting from climate change.

Environmental negotiations

But not everything rests on governments in this field. NGOs and companies are also weighing in strong. Not all companies are bad; not all NGOs are good. But what is sure is the growing importance of private sector initiatives and non-governmental organizations.

Quntar spoke on the second day of the workshop about corporate-financed scientific research reaching unprecedented levels of pressure on researchers, to the point where scientists are complaining about how to maintain integrity under these pressures, saying it is becoming extremely difficult to oppose companies’ interests.

Arab civil society organizations are on track and in parallel to foreign and international efforts on the environmental issues. But no alternative alliance exists yet to balance the influence of scientifically-backwards countries' positions on climate change. Scientific criticism of actions by Saudi Arabia on carbon emissions are attacked and discredited on a political and even sectarian basis.

Quntar stressed the urgent need to create a specialized influential group of exchange and research that can provide the proper scientific argument for public opinion. This is another thing to watch out for in corporate involvement in studies and policies in the region: Badilco in Bahrain sponsored a conference on environment, Aramco was present at another conference in Qatar.

Corporate companies have discovered the advantages of rebranding their identities as “green” or oil companies as investing in “renewable energies,” but most of these efforts remain a media stunt, a repackaging of identity and market names.

What NGOs should demand, is a free transfer of technology related to climate change, regardless of the funding. There are $200 million a year pledged for developing countries as annual aid for renewable energy. This can be useful for neutralizing the influence of oil exporting countries and how they enforce specific strategies and policies on poorer countries in the region.

At the upcoming negotiations in Copenhagen in December, we face a challenge to affect the discussions and contribute our own interests to this discourse. We have to work towards putting the issue on the agenda of governments, and be very serious about it.

Arab media can and should play a forward role in promoting a pro-globe policy in Copenhagen.  Although the Arabic language is neglected scientifically, as mentioned in the workshop, there is always a possibility for simple facts to be presented to readers and viewers that can have a significant impact on the discussion of climate change. The people must reclaim this issue from the oil ministries, and push for an approach that best serves the planet, and those who live on it.