Perspectives 9 - Environmental Activism in the Light of COP21

It was a critical turning point, and a dream come true for some in the movement, when the world celebrated the international climate agreement in Paris last year.  One hundred and ninety seven countries signed the agreement and pledged to phase out greenhouse gases (GHG) and head toward a zero carbon future.

While some environmentalists have claimed that Paris will not solve the problem, it is clear that this is a turning point in the history of the fight over climate change.  Even if it is not enough, the agreement gives us clear guidance and a way to move forward in our national efforts toward a future where climate change will be a thing of the past. The fact that so many countries whose economies are based on fossil fuels agreed to work towards ending the fossil fuel era is something that we should all be celebrating.  Furthermore, that all the signatories agreed to be responsible, and accountable, for finding solutions is also worthy of celebration. It is fitting that the final Paris accord won widespread acclaim from the world’s media and politicians


This deal has been 20 years in the making. The Kyoto Protocol adopted in 1997 only covered the emissions of developed countries. After a series of high-stakes and high-profile negotiations, the Paris Agreement has the support of the international community and forms a commitment to limit the global temperature rise to below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Moreover, the final text of the Paris Agreement is based on the latest climate science, and clearly states that the world must reach zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by the second half of this century, and it is binding.  


However the work is not yet over.  Now is the time to be more ambitious, to insist that we move towards a zero emissions pathway, and achieve 100% renewable energy by 2050.


Each country arrived at the conference with its own pledges, the so-called Intended National Determined Contributions (INDCs) - they now have National Determined Contributions. These national targets, and strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions set the foundation for the success of the Paris Agreement. It is now the responsibility of each country to deliver these goals. However, the climate plans by independent countries are not enough, as the emissions curbs in the commitments only put the world on track for a 3C rise in global temperatures by 2100.


Through the weeks of negotiations the politicians representing the Arab group, moved by short term profit, ignored their people’s needs. However, in the final days, with pressure from media and civil society, this began to change.  Finally, the Arab Group stepped up and showed that it had heard the demands of civil society in the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region. The work that IndyACT (The League of Independent Activists) and other groups have been doing over the past few years has been reflected in this new deal.  The text recognizes our concern that the MENA region is one of the most vulnerable in the world to the impacts of climate change.


Countries in the region have been suffering from extreme heat, for example in Iran, temperatures exceeded 48C for seven consecutive days in August last year.[1]  Whereas extreme weather used to occur sporadically in the MENA region, these events have happened within mere weeks of each other and are a stark reminder of what life could be like if climate change takes hold, and if the region fails to take action. The 5th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)  presents substantial evidence that increasing greenhouse gases (GHG) concentrations are responsible for much of Earth's warming in recent decades. This climate change will lead to even more extreme weather patterns. According to a new research report published in Nature in October 2015, not only will severe storms hit the region, but it will suffer heatwaves beyond the limit of human survival as the consequences of increasing concentrations of GHGs.[2]


Although some of the rich countries in the Gulf region think that putting a lot of effort and money in to reducing heat with air conditioning is a good solution, not only is this unsustainable / counterproductive - as the resources are currently still coming from fossil fuels, but it also does nothing to address the very serious economic and political consequences of unabated climate change. The World Bank’s report ‘Turn Down the Heat: Confronting the New Climate Normal’,[3] published in November 2014 clearly demonstrates that increased temperatures in the MENA region will place already scarce water resources under intense pressure, with major consequences for human life and regional food security.  The potential decline in agricultural productivity will have strong repercussions for economic growth and social stability. In Jordan, Egypt and Libya—crop yields could drop by up to 30 percent by 2050 if temperatures rise by 1.5 to 2°C.  All capital cities in the region will face many more exceptionally hot days each year.  The increase in temperatures will put severe pressure on natural resources and crops.  This is likely to lead to increased migration which in turn may increase the risk of conflicts in a region that is already dealing with a mass migration crisis due to political instability in a number of countries. These predictions do not take into consideration rising sea-levels - another projected effect of global warming as polar ice caps melt. Rising sea levels could cause billions of US dollars-worth of damage to cities like Alexandria, Benghazi and Algiers, and to Egypt’s Nile river basin.


In order to translate the success of the global deal in Paris into sustainable, green and low-carbon development requires a lot of hard work,  harder than many  activists in the Arab region realize.  It is the role of mature, experienced, activists and environmentalists in the region to spread word about this global goal - not only through awareness and advocacy, but through mobilizing communities around  the necessity of achieving this.


Regional leaders need to recognize the destabilizing effects of extreme weather and tackle it at source by agreeing on strong commitments to phase out GHG emissions, and invest in renewable energy such as solar power.  This can be done by supporting the outcomes from the Paris climate negotiations


The Paris agreement is only the beginning. During COP22 in Morocco, in November 2016, Arab countries have a great opportunity to showcase their renewable energy investments, make the agreement stronger, build on the popular will of the Arab people, and work towards something they can be proud of!


During the last decade grassroots movements across the Arab region have started shaping and advocating political and social debates about climate change,  led by IndyACT who founded Arab Youth Climate Change movement with other partners and recently launched the climate action network ‘Arab World. ’ ‘Arab World’ is one of the first networks dedicated to climate change solutions and capacity building for civil society actors and activists in the region -  but is this enough?


People need to step forward for their rights, and not only environmentalists. With everything happening in the region and all the political instability, climate change is not a priority for many - but we have to join the dots.  If the instability in the region is largely because of inequity, and lack of access to resources, the question then is:  What will happen when essential resources become more and more scarce? To make these sorts of connections, and to link climate change to people’s everyday lives, this is the responsibility of the activist movements.


The world is witnessing dynamic change in the global energy sector, with renewable energy becoming mainstream in many countries.   The MENA region needs to embrace this clean energy innovation, and keep pace with the rest of the world by transitioning to a clean energy future. Currently in the MENA region fossil fuels are still the dominant energy supply for electricity, and fossil fuel subsidies play an important role in discouraging any real effort at investing in clean energy alternatives.


However, there have been some encouraging signs, in 2014, a record number of solar projects were awarded in the Middle East with a combined capacity of 294 MW, a four-fold increase over the previous seven years combined.[4]  According to Greenpeace’s Energy [R]evolution scenario, 2015, an ‘energy transition’ is well within reach.   By 2050, in the ‘basic’ Energy [R]evolution scenario, 93% of the electricity produced in Middle East could be from renewable energy sources. In this scenario new renewables – mainly wind, Photovoltaics (Pv), Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) and geothermal energy – would contribute 86% of the total electricity generation. Already by 2020 the share of renewable electricity production would be 14% and 52% by 2030. Under a more advanced scenario, 100% electricity supply from renewable energy resources, or around 1,510 GW installed generation capacity is possible by 2050.[5]


After COP21 and on the road to COP22 environmental activism should be scaled up.  Countries like Morocco are leading with renewable energy, hosting the biggest Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) plant in the world, while in Jordan mosques and churches are acting as role models in adopting renewable energy.  Clean technologies are getting cheaper and more innovative. The movements calling for a 100% Renewable energy future must increase their political advocacy, as the political will in the region is the key to solving climate change problem.



In this context we are witnessing the emergence of new coalitions like ‘CAN Arab World’.  These new coalitions are not only hosting environmental groups but also a range of organisations including NGOs and CBOs who are working on human rights, access to resources, and technology innovation. These coalitions are now building towards COP22 by advocating to ensure that   governments are held accountable for their obligations to scale up climate mitigation action until average temperature rise is brought well below 1.5 degrees Centigrade, and the Arab region is protected from the impact climate change.

Climate change movements in the Arab region should adopt the following tactics in order to be successful:


  1. Delegate more to youth movements: Arab region environmental NGOs from the 80s and 90s are no longer attractive to the younger generation. The fight is now for the younger generation, but that does not necessary mean that we should eliminate the older organizations and movements.  However, they should engage and collaborate with younger NGOs. In some Arab countries the movement has traditionally been dominated by older men. This is no longer attractive, especially for young female activists - people no longer want to hear the same old speeches. It is also crucial that public figures relevant to the younger generation, are encouraged to champion campaigns and speak out on environmental issues.


  1. Engage and mobilize: In order to succeed we need to fight with the people, not for the people.  A lonely environmental movement with no support from vulnerable communities, or other movements will not be successful. In order to succeed, not only must we must mobilize for the cause, but the communities themselves must rise up and demand change. It can no longer be about giving one way lectures to students, it is about engaging them to fight with you.


  1. The changed climate fight: green activism is no longer about ‘tree hugging’, it is now about the real economy with more and more innovative technologies, and renewable energy prices getting cheaper and cheaper. The economy must now be central to our arguments not only with political figures but also with a general audience. The region is struggling with a lack of resources, unemployment, war, and high prices. Once our argument becomes relevant to them we will get heard. Creating Jobs, lower governmental debt, creating a healthy atmosphere and smart cities are among  today’s arguments for a green future.


  1. Build Coalitions: building coalitions beyond the environmental sector is one of the key components of success inside a very dynamic political arena.


IndyACT is now hosting CAN Arab World and supporting the Arab Youth Climate Movement (AYCM) with their expertise. These movements are now engaging in high level advocacy and building toward greater success in COP22. It is no longer about the UNFCCC process alone, it is about engaging civil society, with both public and private stakeholders, to adopt initiatives that will elevate climate change solutions before the 2020 deadline for the  implementation of Paris agreement,  and before the NDC’s review in 2018.  With all this potential within our grasp, activists should be urging the regional governments to implement immediate remedial action by developing projects that cover peak energy demand, helping to get energy to people who lack access by investing in distributed off-grid projects, and supporting the growing employment opportunities in renewable energy.