On the 19th of March, along with many countries across the world, Lebanon celebrated ‘earth hour’ an event which encourages individuals, households and organizations to turn off all non-essential lights for one hour - to save energy and raise awareness of the effects of global warming. A local TV station covered the ‘turning off the lights’ ceremony in one of the city’s major malls. The atmosphere was very festive.
Although this initiative by local activists was commendable, the celebration, which could have been meaningful elsewhere, loses much of its significance, when one considers the bigger picture in Lebanon. Most notably, the ongoing deficiency in the country’s energy sector - most of our electricity doesn’t even come from the national grid - and recent developments in the environmental sector, which have done nothing to combat climate change.
A few days before the ceremony, on the 10th of March, the Lebanese government announced its plan to finally end the eight month garbage crisis in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, Lebanon’s two most crowded areas. This plan consisted of creating two big landfills in locations near the sea, to the north and to the south of Beirut. Very few new facilities for sorting, composting and recycling waste will be built into the framework for this highly controversial four-year plan. In the absence of a comprehensive system for waste management, these landfill sites are likely to become a major source of methane emissions in the future - one of the most harmful greenhouse gases.
At the same time, Lebanon’s ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contribution’ (INDC), presented to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in October 2015, included a goal of a 15% decrease in GHG emissions by 2030. Furthermore, if significant aid is made available, Lebanon will commit to a more ambitious 30% decrease in emissions. It is therefore a sad irony that this INDC was presented in October 2015 - in the midst of the garbage crisis, the ‘solution’ to which will lead to an inevitable increase in GHG emissions due to the methane emitted by piled garbage, rather than their promised diminution.
Amidst such contradictions between the announcements made and the reality on the ground, how have the NGOs charged with raising awareness of climate change and strengthening the country’s relevant policies responded ? A quick look leads to the unavoidable conclusion that few NGOs are tackling this complex issue in any comprehensive way, and fewer still in a way that will make a difference.
There are plenty of reasons why this is so, the challenge of engaging people who are so tired from so many other problems, and rarely interested in an issue that seems so far away from their immediate needs, being not least among these. (A possible exception was the 2013-2014 drought, when the effects of climate change took on a tangible reality). There also exists in Lebanon a belief that, as they are only a ‘small polluter’ on the international scale, they should not be expected to do very much towards ‘saving the planet’. The response that the same measures needed to combat climate change can also be beneficial for lowering levels of pollution nationally, is rarely put forward.
Along with the scientific and political complexity of the issue, this lack of awareness and motivation, has been identified by NGOs as a key factor hindering the response to climate change from Lebanese civil society. However, this has not prevented some action taking place in the country.
Raising awareness and momentum
During the recent annual Conferences of Parties (COPS) organized each year by the UNFCCC, IndyAct and Greenpeace have emerged among the leading NGOs in the field, active in Lebanon and the Arab world.
According to Julien Jreissati, campaigner for Greenpeace in the Arab world, the organization is planning to start a range of new activities focusing on renewable energy in the region in the next few months. Meanwhile, for IndyAct, work has never stopped. From Jordan, her home country, Safa’ al-Jayoussi, head of climate and energy campaigns at IndyAct, says that the organization, ‘held a series of actions in order to raise momentum and awareness in Lebanon before Cop21’. IndyAct has conducted many activities over the years, and these became more intensive in the months leading up to the Paris summit.
As Safa explains:
We started with involving the youth and other NGOs in building a coalition, high level advocacy and media campaigning. We also organized a people’s climate march that gathered together the Lebanese community in order to call on the stakeholders to take a stand during Cop21. In the summit, we encouraged Lebanese activists who were part of the IndyAct delegation to raise the media profile and to advocate (for a strong deal on climate change).
The work did not come to an end after the adoption of the deal in Paris. Safa describes how, ‘IndyAct is currently hosting Climate Action Network Arab World. We are now in the run toward Cop22 in Morocco, training civil society and building partnerships in order to mobilize the public, because we don’t want to lose the momentum after Paris.’
Lobbying for policy change
Safa, al-Jayoussi suggests that Lebanon did relatively well in the negotiations on climate change, despite the many difficulties it has experienced lately, ‘In the middle of a political and environmental crisis, Lebanon submitted its INDC’. She claims that, ‘This can be considered a success by itself. However, it is now time for the Lebanese government to look at their energy strategy, renewable energy targets, and see how they can take advantage of the INDCs review in 2018.’
According to other activists, Lebanese civil society’s approach should be radically modified in order to achieve more significant results. Habib Maalouf, head of the Lebanese Committee for the Environment and Development, also an experienced environmental journalist, who has attended nearly all of the climate summits since they started in 1994, pleads for a holistic understanding of the problem. He argues that, ‘following worldwide trends is not enough, the real change will come with more efficient lobbying concerning policy change in Lebanon’. He is in favor of long term action, the main objective of which would be to trigger policy changes in all the major fields generating green house gases: transport, energy, and infrastructure and waste management (the latter constitutes 9% of GHG emissions in Lebanon according to figures published by the Ministry of Environment). He explains that:
With the support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, we have conducted a dialogue between relevant authorities and civil society in order to improve the Lebanese position in the frame of international climate negotiations. This has been extremely useful, although Lebanon is still part of the developing countries group, a group which does not consider itself responsible historically for the actions that have led to climate change, this country has been promoting positions of principle which are not limited to asking for help and financial assistance. It has been asking for a broader action in combating climate change, for everybody’s benefit.
Sadly, this collaboration ended at this point: there should be more support and more funding for deeper and more lasting engagement, aiming at changing policies within the country. No awareness campaign will be useful, I believe, if policies are not straightened up at the governmental level.
Safa’el Jayoussi agrees that there needs to be a broader and deeper approach to combating climate change. She insists that:
The solution to climate change is not only about planting trees, civil society is trying to make people aware that the solution is also economic. Through renewable energy and energy efficiency, we could be creating many sustainable jobs. Such an economic transition helps to increase the level of investment and raise the GDP of the countries involved in such activities.
In March 2016, in light of the Cop 21 agreement, Samir Skaff, founder and president of the Green Globe Association, co-organized a workshop on water and waste management, with Lebanese and French partners. He explains that:
Green Globe is involved in actions related to climate change, we have introduced the idea of a ‘bikeathon’ in Zahleh then Beirut, which was later adopted by others. We work at promoting renewable energy and alternative transport, through workshops or other activities. We have established, for this purpose, a partnership with Notre-Dame University in Lebanon. However, we are continuously confronted with the same problem: programs related to raising awareness on climate change rarely catch the attention of donors, and universities as well.
He also points out that governmental policies do not take into consideration the fight against climate change, or even the anticipated impact of global warming on Lebanon, despite many warnings by NGOs:
To mention only one example, the governmental electricity plan, adopted in 2010, is simply catastrophic’, he says. ‘Renewable energy is only included in this text in vague expressions such as ‘we should be studying the feasibility of such projects!’ Nothing concrete is said about it, and there is no room for civil participation. A few private companies have tried to suggest projects for producing electricity from renewable sources such as solar systems or wind energy. They have all been turned down.
Samir believes that introducing laws to facilitate ‘two way’ or ‘net metering’ (for example the ability to sell excess electricity generated by solar installations) would be extremely useful. He believes that, ‘civil society in Lebanon has the possibility to tackle such issues, but it needs funds and support’.
A climate change observatory
Samir recounts that, ‘Green Globe has suggested that a climate change observatory be created in one of the universities, in order to compile, store and analyze all the data concerning climate change in Lebanon.’ However, as he goes on to explain, ‘we are convinced that this would be a fundamental institution, but no one has taken this suggestion seriously yet.’
Safa’ el-Jayoussi also considers a lack of funding and support as a major obstacle to advocacy related to climate change, but links it to the broader crisis in the area:
Political instability is one of the main obstacles we encountered during our work in Lebanon. For example, when we were organizing the Climate March in Beirut prior to Cop21, a major terrorist attack was conducted in one of the Lebanese capital’s neighborhoods (one day before the Paris attacks in November). As for the lack of funds available for environmental campaigning and advocacy, it can be explained in the light of the Syrian refugee crisis. Almost all the donors are funding emergency projects in the region, which leaves little room for other concerns.
However, she remains optimistic for the future of climate change activism, at a pan Arabic level insisting:
Climate change is now on the radar of many Arab communities. As the head of climate and energy campaigns in the Arab region for IndyAct, I deal with many activists and groups in countries where you would never imagine people could care about such an issue, countries like Iraq, Libya and Syria.
She explain that:
There are many reasons why climate change is now getting more attention at a local community level. The impact of climate change in the region is more and more perceivable and difficult to handle. For example, the heat wave that hit Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, caused many fatalities, as well as the rise in sea level and the flooding in many areas in the region. For all these reasons, IndyAct remains involved in numerous local and international campaigns, in the line of the ones that were conducted on the way to Cop21 in Paris. It is also hosting CAN Arab world, and the number of its members is constantly increasing: 70 in the Maghreb countries alone, many more in GCC countries - and all are extremely involved in the cause!
In recent years, Lebanese civil society has been increasingly engaged on the international level. However, there is still a lot to do in order to fully involve Lebanese NGOs in all aspects of the fight against climate change: not just in influencing national policies and raising awareness, but also - because it will become inevitable in the future - tackling the consequences of global warming.
Since the government has consistently shown its incapacity to implement comprehensive solutions to environmental problems, it seems inevitable that civil society’s role will prove crucial in the coming years. In this context, additional training and assistance will be necessary, but not sufficient. It is time for the NGOs and Universities engaged in the field, to coordinate their efforts in order to improve the efficacy of their advocacy, and their ability to fight climate change - and in a more global sense, to create a real movement for change.