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French Version

The sun as savior Stopping climate change in the Middle East:ways out of an unfolding catastrophe

Editor's note: The following formed the basis of a speech delivered at the "Green Wars?" conference in Beirut over the weekend by Fouad Hamdan:

The way the energy-dependent global economy is ticking today is anything but sustainable because it is based on massively burning fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal. The result is a dramatic increase of climate damaging carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions. The consequences of climate change will have a dramatic impact on the Middle East and the Mediterranean region. Most Arab leaders ignore the issue of climate change despite the fact that denial will lead to their societies paying a high price in the future. And this price will be paid with lots of money and many human lives.

The social ramifications of climate change are very likely to politically destabilize the region, by causing waves of environmental refugees from countries including Egypt, as happened in the tragic case of Darfur, Sudan. The expected economic impact base and to the residential areas of millions of people in the Middle East could lead to dramatic political implications. Climate change is therefore a peace and security issue, too.

Very few Arab leaders have accepted that the scientific case on climate change has been made. In 2006, Abu Dhabi embraced renewable and sustainable energy technologies. As the first major oil-producing nation to take such a step, it launched "Masdar," a strategic initiative with the key objective to position the emirate as a world-class research and development hub for renewable energy technologies. By 2009, the first stage of Masdar City, the world's first zero-carbon and zero-waste urban development, is to be finished. In Egypt, the government has tackled a politically sensitive issue by introducing a new pricing policy to phase out gas and electricity subsidies for energy-intensive because cutting energy subsidies is a prerequisite for energy saving.

Real change is already happening in Cyprus and Israel. In August 2007, the Greek Orthodox Church in Cyprus announced plans to invest $234 million in a factory that would make photovoltaic panels. A common sight in Cyprus and Israel - but not in the Arab world - is the use of solar heaters. They are very simple devices that collect solar energy, transform it into heat and provide it to the water. Over 90 percent of homes in Cyprus and Israel have solar water heaters. They are required to do so by law.

In California in 1990, an Israeli company built the world's largest concentrated solar thermal power plant (CSP) in the world. Meanwhile, Israel is poised to build a larger CSP in the Negev Desert. Initially it will supply 100 megawatts of power and grow to 500 MW, about 5 percent of the country's current generating capacity. Twenty such plants would make Israel independent from importing fossil fuels for electricity production. Solar energy plants in the Negev could theoretically produce all of Israel's power on 225 square kilometers of suitable land.

Arab leaders should be aware of the fact that some governments and corporations in developing nations have been promoting outdated, dangerous or highly controversial technologies as a solution to climate change. These are nuclear energy and "clean coal," or carbon capture and storage (CCS).

The history of the nuclear age is a history of tragic accidents. Even during normal operation, radioactivity is discharged into the air and water. The so-called new generation of nuclear power is also anything but safe. A solution for the long-term storage and treatment of radioactive waste has yet to be found. Unfortunately, several Arab governments have been voicing their interest in going along the nuclear path - such as Egypt, Algeria and Morocco - although investing in nuclear is a huge waste of money. Plans to build a CSP in Egypt are estimated at $140 million for 140 MW, or about $1 million per MW. In comparison, the cost to build a nuclear power plant is estimated to be at least at $1.5 billion for 1,000 MW - about $1.5 million per MW. The nuclear option is not only dangerous but economically insane because it is at least one and a half times the costs of CSPs.

The carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is still a dream and, if ever realized, would mean pumping CO2 under the seas or underground - and hoping it would not hurt and never leak out. In any case, underground CO2 storage technology reminds me very much of the problems we currently face with nuclear waste in many countries. No one knows where to store it safely for thousands of years. And if you do manage to hide it underground in an allegedly safe mine, then there is no guarantee that it would not leak at some point. Actually, underground CO2 and nuclear waste storage means dumping huge problems on future generations.

The Arab world has only a few decades before oil reserves run out. Investing today solely in oil and gas exploration would lead to Arab societies hitting thick, oily walls at some point. What is needed is a shift toward massive investments in energy efficiency methods and environmentally friendly technologies. The bottom line is: Arabs need to diversify their economies because living in denial will lead to economic and social mayhem. I believe the economic future of the Arab world is definitely solar. It is therefore mainly a question of Arab political will to convert sunlight into heat and electricity as efficiently, sustainably and cost-effectively as possible.

Let us also imagine, all over the Arab world, millions of square kilometers of solar panels producing electricity directly via photovoltaic panels or CSP plants or hydrogen. Producing hydrogen in a sustainable way would create a clean economy in which energy is stored and transported by pipelines or tankers. When burning hydrogen in heating systems, energy plants, vehicles or aircraft only water is released into the atmosphere.

The vision of turning Arab states into exporters of clean electricity and hydrogen can only occur if governments and the private sector carry out massive investments in this technology and in a new global infrastructure over a period of several decades. Under this strategy, oil countries would slowly reduce their oil output while increasing their export of clean electricity and hydrogen. Oil reserves would last for centuries, and future Arab generations could still profit from them. Producing hydrogen on an industrial scale in the Arab world is not a dream, because the technology is there. From Morocco to Iraq and from Syria to Yemen large unpopulated and desert areas could be used to produce electricity and hydrogen from solar energy. This would save our climate and secure the economic survival of the Arab world in the post-oil era.

Greenpeace has produced a report highlighting the benefits of a sustainable energy path for the Middle East. To meet the region's needs, economic development based on "business as usual" would lead to an enormous increase in climate-damaging and polluting energy production and consumption. "It is the road to environmental and economic ruin and threatens global and regional security," the report said.

The key finding in the Greenpeace scenario: "Satisfying energy demand through the application of renewable technologies, energy efficiency programs and decentralized power systems can be achieved while maintaining economic growth. It does not mean a regression to a pre-industrialized economic model. It means that developing countries, such as those in the Middle East, can attain the same high standard and quality of life as that enjoyed by so-called 'developed' countries without destroying the environment. This is achieved by de-coupling economic growth from energy consumption. Using new renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency and conservation programs, economic growth can continue without a massive increase in energy use and therefore pollution."

No one is saying that oil and gas should be left untouched underground. But to help avert climate change, a global cut of greenhouse gas emissions should go hand in hand with much less oil, gas and coal being burned. This must not mean an economic disaster for Arab oil-producing countries. On the contrary: It can be a historic chance, and this chance is solar power.

"The oil age will end long before the world runs out of oil," former Saudi Oil Minister Sheikh Zaki Yamani has said. The question now is whether Arab leaders are up to the challenge of developing economies that rely much less on oil and therefore diversify in a sustainable way. Time is running out.

Fouad Hamdan is the founder of Greenpeace Lebanon and a former director of Friends of the Earth Europe.

Beirut 05-11-2007
The Daily Star

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