The climate challenge in the south Mediterranean

Climate change is a long-term issue with low short-term risks for southern Mediterranean political systems. The fear of uncontrollable societal upheavals has pushed environmental matters to the bottom of the agenda.

Angelos Katsaris
16 January 2015
Blowout in the Libyan desert. Demotix/Toby Woodbridge. All rights reserved.

Blowout in the Libyan desert. Demotix/Toby Woodbridge. All rights reserved.On 2 November 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the full Synthesis Report on the Fifth IPCC Report on the state of climate change at the global scale. The report builds on the findings from the previous four assessment reports and updates current scientific knowledge and data with more detailed predictability over future phenomena. In relation to the Mediterranean, increasing droughts, extreme climate phenomena (heat spells and heat waves) and decreasing precipitation throughout the region (mainly the western Mediterranean, Southeast Europe and the Middle East) are key future characteristics that will subject the whole region to serious pressure over the following decades.

More specifically, the intensity and severity of droughts are likely to increase with rising temperatures, especially during summer months. Such phenomena are expected to increase soil degradation and desertification and intensify water shortages and water demand. Moreover, these climate issues will have direct effects in livestock and food production and in the broader agricultural sector. 

The bottom line

Water is the bottom line of the agricultural sector. Yet what could be the implications of limited water supplies? Droughts and desertification are expected to cause pressure on current water resources and affect local communities. Both Middle East and North African countries are amongst the scarcest regions in potable water in the world. Moreover, water reserves are situated in contested areas, such as on the Golan Heights between Israel, Syria and Jordan. Similar is the case with the Nile river, which runs through five countries, flowing from Lake Victoria in Kenya and Tanzania, crossing by Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda and Egypt, and finally pouring into the Mediterranean sea.

Scarce water resources can accelerate conflict or even stress socio-economic problems in the already densely populated urban centres. It is characteristic that almost 70 percent of the population in southern Mediterranean countries is situated in coastal urban centres without a diminishing rate. Algiers and Cairo are two typical examples of this.

Yet climate change is mainly a long-term issue with low short-term risks for the political systems in each southern Mediterranean country. Everyday pressing issues such as poverty, youth unemployment and stagnant economic activity are at the top of regional and national agendas. The outburst of the Arab Spring and the advent of the global economic crisis 'squeezed' to the bottom any climate change concerns in the political agendas of the semi-authoritarian regimes of the region. The fear of uncontrollable societal uprisings and the loss of state privileges, mainly from oil rents, have allowed environmental and climate change matters to trickle down to the bottom of political interest.

Moreover, climate change adaptation as an issue requires significant amounts of funding, which is currently missing from regional institutions. Even renewable energy projects, such as the DESERTEC project, triggered limited interest across the region despite robust commitments of €400 billion by 2040. How then, could Mediterranean policy-makers respond to this pressing reality? What could trigger change over stagnant regional climate cooperation?

Policy dilemmas

The geographical position of North African and Middle Eastern countries favours increased solar radiation and strong wind potential because of their proximity to the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea. Moreover, for southern Mediterranean countries, energy production based on sustainable sources of energy – instead of conventional and carbon-intensive energy resources – could reduce their increasing energy demand and diversify their domestic energy mix with the establishment of renewable energies markets and relevant technologies. Furthermore, collaboration with Europe could offer significant market access incentives through the exportation of green electricity in the European market.

However, southern Mediterranean countries mainly prioritise climate change adaptation. They contribute only marginally to global warming and are expected to be severely affected by the adverse effects of climate change. Moreover, climate change mitigation refers to a contradictory policy area. Several southern Mediterranean countries, such as Algeria, Libya and Egypt, with significant gas and oil reserves, have long-term close relations with the Persian Gulf countries. Shifting their focus from conventional energy resources to sustainable energy resources will have several consequences: state elites may lose not only financial privileges from oil and gas rents but also social peace, as increasing salaries offer much needed stability domestically.

To make things worse, adaptation to climate change requires significant amounts of funds, which are not currently available in the region. While market access incentives are already in place from the EU concerning climate change mitigation, similar market rules are lagging behind on climate change adaptation. Therefore, southern Mediterranean countries have to face several dilemmas. How can they reconcile the increasing need for energy independence, on the one hand, and scarce resources to respond to climate change adaptation on the other?

For policy-makers from southern Mediterranean countries, climate change should operate as a new opportunity, not as 'one more trouble' on the everyday political agenda. Opportunities are obviously more strongly related to the significant solar and wind potential of the region that needs to be explored in terms of investments. Institutional and regulatory capacity-building and capacity development should go hand in hand with climate change adaptation needs. However, responding to climate change does not merely mean more investments, more market creation, and more regulations. Climate change requires horizontal, all-encompassing responses, as the nature of the problem is purely holistic.

The core opportunity from climate change is for national bureaucracies and state apparatuses to avoid their current sector-centred world view and engage in an integrated management of this problem with the rest of the government, including civil society. Climate change is not any one sector's fault or responsibility to deal with. It requires a concerted, organised and cohesive response starting from enhanced institutional coordination at the state's level and reaching down to the regional, local and community level. Holistic responses should prevail over short-term and narrow-visioned reactions. 

Furthermore, regional institutions and international organisations should invest more in trust-building, rather than in complex initiatives that confuse regional coordination efforts and limit the chances for mutual understanding. Trust-building can be more easily achieved via technical projects engaged in climate change adaptation. Climate change adaptation is less politicized than renewable energies and conventional energy resources. Moreover, the core executive from authoritarian state elites will not fear the loss of privileges, as the implementation of adaptation related projects will offer capacity development, exchange of best practices and technical cooperation to the country’s specialists.

Collaboration in less confrontational climate policy areas can offer the chance for experts to build collaborative links. Such policy areas offer broader margins for flexible interaction, rather than constraining policy options. Coercion is also less apparent across such technical environments, as state requirements can more easily be accommodated.

In this regard, the role of regional institutions and international funding organisations is crucial for the viability of such projects. Building networks across the region is key for the effectiveness of future climate coordination. Yet it needs to be highlighted that international institutions need to support already operational systems with long expertise and broad legitimacy. Such is the case of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Mediterranean Action Plan.

The so-called Barcelona Convention system has over 40 years of continuous technical cooperation in the region and offers the correct setting for Mediterranean climate change collaboration in a low politics area. However, limited funding may reduce its potential to deliver hands-on results. Therefore, funding already operational institutions can offer added value in regional settings by building step-by-step technical trust and addressing regulatory requirements in the administrative setting of southern Mediterranean countries.

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