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Persian Gulf Nations Might Be Screwed No Matter What the World Does About Climate Change

Their economies depend upon oil and gas exports and rising temperatures threaten to cut into economic productivity — but with year-round sun, they could become big renewable producers.

by Matt Smith
Nov 5 2015, 5:30pm

Photo by Mohammed Salem/Reuters

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Unless the world does something about climate change, much of the Middle East is screwed.

In a region where summer temperatures already top 40 degrees Celsius — into triple digits on the Fahrenheit scale — recent research suggests an ever-warmer future will pose new hazards to human health and could cripple economic productivity in a region that aspires to be a global financial power.

But if the world actually does something about climate change, the Middle East may be screwed, too. 

The region's economy leans heavily on exporting oil and natural gas, fossil fuels that much of the world says it wants to phase out this century.

In other words: The big economies of Middle East seem damned if we don't rid our economies from fossil fuels, and damned if we do transition to green energy production

"This is a microcosm for global society," said Elfatih Eltahir, a professor of science and environmental engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Yeah, there is maybe a price for the mitigation of climate change, but there are a lot of benefits for the global environment."

It's a dilemma that the strife-torn region doesn't seem ready to address just yet, but it's one that geography may force it to deal with in the coming decades.

In the desert nations around the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, the blazing sun beating down on the relatively shallow waters produces not only sky-high temperatures, but muggy air as well. At a certain point, which varies by heat and humidity, it becomes impossible for sweat to evaporate and cool down a human body.

That point can be hit with as little as 40 percent humidity in temperatures of 50 C (122 F), a mark some Middle Eastern cities recorded during a heat wave this summer. In television weather forecasters' terms, that's a heat index of nearly 170. And a recent study led by Eltahir found that without sharp reductions in global carbon emissions, parts of the Middle East are likely to bump up against that threshold several times in the coming decades.

Related: In Photos: Deadly Heat Waves Scorch Europe, the Middle East, and Asia

Under the "business-as-usual" emissions projections from the United Nations, cities like Qatar's capital Doha, the commercial centers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Saudi Arabian oil hub of Dhahran, and the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas are likely to bump up against that threshold several times by the end of the century, Eltahir and co-author Jeremy Pal concluded.

That doesn't necessarily mean the gleaming cities that have been built along the Persian Gulf will become uninhabitable. But it means being outdoors when one of these heat waves strikes will make things like working on a construction site or an oil rig nearly impossible, Eltahir said.

And it will complicate one of the pillars of Islam — the Hajj, which brings an estimated 2 million pilgrims flocking to the Saudi desert city of Mecca every year. That pilgrimage involves praying outdoors from dusk to dawn, and it often falls in the peak of summer.

"This necessary outdoor Muslim ritual is likely to become hazardous to human health, especially for the many elderly pilgrims, when the Hajj occurs during the boreal summer," Eltahir and Pal wrote.

Their findings, published in October in the scientific journal Nature, also found that today's hottest summer days are likely to be the norm by 2100. But when the projections include even moderate emissions cuts in the computer model, "We don't see those extremely severe heat waves," Eltahir said.

That's all the more reason the Middle East needs to move beyond its current oil-based economy and start working on new ways to power their cities and make money, observers in the region say.

"This study only confirms what we've been talking about in past years — that we need to act now," said Safa' Al Jayoussi, who leads the climate campaign at the Middle Eastern environmental group IndyACT. "The time is running out. It's not only about the economy itself, it's also about the people who are living in the Gulf countries."

Al Jayoussi lives in Jordan's capital Amman, where temperatures climbed past the 40-degree mark several times this summer. And at the Dead Sea, where Jordanians typically go to beat the heat, the mercury climbed into the 50s — well over 120 F.

"The government announced we should not go there," she said. "People didn't die in Jordan, but it happened in Egypt and Iraq, unfortunately."

Air conditioning can soften the impact of hot weather — but it isn't cheap.

Of course, like other wealthy countries, much of the Middle East has air conditioning. Dubai even features an indoor ski resort. But all that air conditioning presents an added cost of doing business, said Marshall Burke, an agricultural economist at Stanford University who has studied the effects of temperature on productivity.

In general, Burke's most recent research — also published in Nature — found that people are less productive in hotter weather. Without any changes in projected emissions, warmer temperatures could cut average global incomes by up to 23 percent at the end of the century. Climate change could be an economic plus for high-latitude countries like Canada or Russia, but an economic disaster for the tropics, particularly sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.

However, Burke said his study didn't factor in the use of air conditioning, which can soften the impact of hot weather — but it isn't cheap. In prosperous Singapore, just above the equator, air conditioning makes up 30 to 40 percent of some building expenses, he said.

"It's true that might shield you from some of the temperature effects, but it has a huge cost," he said. "That's money that could be spent on something else."

While the Middle East sells much of the oil and gas that other countries burn, it produces less than 8 percent of the world's emissions itself. That leaves the region's leaders in "a unique position," said Robin Mills, an energy analyst at the Brookings Institution's Doha branch: They're trying to limit the effects of other countries' emissions on their own nations, while looking to find another way to make money when the world is trying to stop burning hydrocarbons.

"I think that's what they're all struggling with," Mills said.

The UAE is the most forward-leaning country in the region, Mills said. In its pledge for reducing emissions ahead of December's Paris climate summit, the Emirates say they'll produce 24 percent of their own energy from renewables or nuclear power by 2021. The UAE has slashed energy subsidies, pledged to reduce emissions from its oil industry, sequester carbon dioxide with a commercial-scale carbon capture and storage system, and expand mass transit.

"Every other country in the region has a renewable energy target. Some of those are ambitious, some of them are not," Mills said. "But none have really made much progress toward them."

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

Of the rest of the Gulf states, only Oman has filed its Paris paperwork, promising to trim future emissions by 2 percent. Saudi officials have said the kingdom hopes to become a major producer of wind and solar power, but Mills said it's not clear who's in charge of that effort or what resources it's committed. The Saudis are touting their carbon capture research ahead of the Paris talks.

In the short- and medium-term, they can focus on cleaner-burning natural gas and sectors like transportation and aviation that are still likely to need oil-based fuels for some time, Mills said.

"That carries them through for a few decades, but at some point the carbon cuts get so deep that you start seeing a major impact on oil and gas consumption," he said. "That might come sooner than we expect, if there's a breakthrough in electric cars or battery technology." But after that, they need to be trying to develop "high-tech, high-quality" jobs like advanced manufacturing or aerospace.

And with 350 days of sunshine a year, Al Jayoussi said, there's no reason Arab countries shouldn't be diving into solar power.

"This has to end either now or later. But the decision is now," she said. "The world is moving toward renewable energy by default. They need alternatives, and they need to adapt their economy to that."  

Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl

Watch On the Line with Robert S. Eshelman: