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These Nations Might Have the Most to Lose With a Global Climate Deal

While nations like the US might see only minor economic impacts from transitioning to clean energy, OPEC nations face serious challenges with lower fossil fuel consumption.

by Matt Smith
Oct 22 2015, 6:30pm

Imagen por Herbert Pfarrhofer/EPA

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Like a party guest who's late with their RSVP, the nations at the heart of the world's oil patch are slow to provide their carbon-reducing pledges for the upcoming global climate summit.

So far, more than 120 countries have made detailed pledges for reducing emissions to the United Nations before the Paris conference in early December. Those countries represent about 85 percent of the world's carbon emissions — but the biggest chunk of holdouts are from the Middle East, where the major oil producers have yet to tell the hosts what they'll be bringing to the party.

Among the 12 members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, only Ecuador and Algeria have turned in their Paris pledges, known as an Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. Among the oil-rich Persian Gulf states, only non-OPEC member Oman has filed its paperwork, and it promised only to reduce the growth of its carbon emissions by 2 percent before 2030.

Saudi Arabia, the world's second-largest producer and the dominant player in OPEC, has yet to ante up. Neither have other cartel heavyweights like Iran, Nigeria, or Venezuela.

Observers at the preliminary climate meetings in Bonn, Germany, this week say they expect many of those countries to file their Paris paperwork soon. But they're certainly taking their sweet time.

"I hope that their INDCs are worth being late," said Safa' al Jayoussi, head of the climate and energy campaign at the Middle Eastern environmental group IndyACT. "I wish they put it as a priority, because Arab countries are the most vulnerable countries."

'You're essentially saying you'll send them back to the economic state they were in before the discovery of oil and gas.'

The already largely arid region is projected to face severe water shortages and had a deadly heat wave this summer, Jayoussi said. It's facing higher energy needs for cooling, while sea level rise threatens rich agricultural areas like Egypt's Nile Delta, she said.

Four of the top five oil-producing countries — Russia, China, Canada, and the United States — have submitted INDCs. The United States has pledged to cut emissions by up to 28 percent over 2005 levels by 2025. Other major non-OPEC producers like Brazil, Mexico, and Norway have turned in their pledges as well.

But those are larger countries with more diversified economies. In countries like the United States or China, cutting emissions means reducing expected economic growth by a small percentage, said Robert Stavins, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program. But for the Persian Gulf oil states, "You're talking about essentially eliminating their economies," Stavins said.

"It's not a matter of cutting their growth rate by 1 percent, which is the approximate number for the United States for its climate policies, or even 5 percent or 10 percent," Stavins said. "You're essentially saying you'll send them back to the economic state they were in before the discovery of oil and gas."

Han Chen, an international climate advocate at the US-based Natural Resources Defense Council, said several more OPEC countries are expected to submit their pledges in the coming weeks.

"We understand that it can be a difficult conversation to have about the economic transition," Chen said. But she said OPEC countries are "definitely engaged" in climate negotiations.

The Middle East as a region contributes less than 7 percent of the world's carbon emissions, according to US government estimates. Their expected contributions are most likely to be from reducing emissions from pumping and refining crude, Stavins said.

Algeria has set its goal at reducing overall emissions somewhere between 7 and 22 percent by 2030. Ecuador, on the Pacific coast of South America, has pledged to cut its emissions from energy use by up to 25 percent below current projections by 2025, largely by building new hydroelectric plants.

Other countries in the Middle East and North Africa that don't have big oil deposits, like Jordan, Morocco, and Lebanon, have filed their pledges. Morocco, which is hosting the 2016 climate conference, is shooting for a 32 percent reduction in emissions by 2030.

Related: Saudi Arabia Says It's Ditching Fossil Fuels — Kinda

Since most of the oil produced in the Middle East is burned elsewhere, it's largely up to other countries to reduce their use of those fossil fuels to reduce their emissions. That transition is also a threat to exporters' profits, but Jayoussi said the region has a great opportunity to get ahead of that transition.

"We have a huge capacity for renewable energy, particularly solar. We are talking about 350 days of sun per year," Al Jayoussi said. "It's happening by default, and the technology is going to be cheaper and cheaper."

Neither OPEC nor the Saudi Embassy in Washington responded to requests for comment from VICE News. But Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi told a business conference in May that his country hoped to phase out its own consumption of fossil fuels by mid-century and could become a major producer of wind and solar power.

In previous climate conferences, the oil producers "have been very aggressive," Stavins said.

"From the point of view of climate change activists, they have certainly not been cooperative," he said. "Sometimes they've even been what you could call disruptive, because they've been opposed to the direction the climate negotiations are going. But I really think it's important to keep in mind what a real threat this is to their way of life."

But Chen said OPEC has been playing "a constructive role" in the lead-up to Paris.

"They've submitted comments about understanding that it's time to diversify their economies," she said. "They have to build climate resilience. They have to work on increasing investments in low-carbon technologies. They've actually been in these conversations." 

Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl

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