Home inFocus Carbon Emissions in the Middle East

Carbon Emissions in the Middle East

Richard Baehr Fall 2009

While global warming alarmists claim that carbon emissions are the primary factor behind global warming (and hold the U.S. responsible, as the leader of the global economy), few blame the producers of the carbon emitting products, who also happen to rank among the world’s top polluters per capita. Lost in the global warming debate is the role of Middle Eastern states.

Greenhouse Gases

The prevailing argument for cap-and-trade systems or direct carbon taxes is that they will impose legal limits, or provide incentives for businesses and consumers to limit the emission of greenhouse gases, which are linked to global warming. While evidence suggests very modest warming over the last 150 years (a little over 0.5 degrees centigrade), global warming alarmists suggest a catastrophe is ahead: 5 to 10 degree centigrade temperature changes by the end of the century, and a much less hospitable planet.

In the last year, however, scientists have increasingly challenged the validity of the science behind the CO2-global warming linkage. Similarly, economists and political figures have questioned the economic costs of the cap-and-trade approach or carbon tax. Skeptics are particularly concerned that the U.S. could adopt a costly new regulatory scheme, while other large CO2 emitters (India and China, for example) do not.

Critics, such as Danish professor Bjorn Lomborg, after conducting a cost-benefit analysis, argue that cap-and-trade will accomplish very little in terms of worldwide temperature reduction, but will come at an extremely high cost. Indeed, as the international community struggles to recover from a worldwide recession, the last thing we need is sweeping regulation with doubtful outcomes that threatens profits and jobs.

For Richer, For Poorer

The United States is routinely singled out as a bad actor by the environmental movement for its high per capita CO2 emissions, which are higher than those of other developed countries with similar or slightly lower per capita incomes. However, U.S. per capita CO2 emissions have leveled off in the last decade, while those in several other developed countries—Canada, Norway, Finland, and South Korea, among them—have continued to rise. This improvement in relative performance has occurred despite America’s non-participation in the Kyoto protocols. U.S. emissions are now headed for levels that are consistent with its high per capita income level.

Of course, wealthier nations typically have higher per capita energy use than poorer countries. Thus, one of the arguments made by China and India against their participation in a global regulatory system that would require them to reduce CO2 emissions is that they are not wealthy countries. Indeed, while they are growing at a far faster rate than the developed world, hundreds of millions of people in each country remain in poverty.

If the world’s climate has warmed in the last 150 years, India and China argue that this is due to vastly increased CO2 emissions from the already developed world. They consider themselves blameless for this. They also consider it unfair to have to cut back their cheaper carbon-based energy use when their per capita emissions are so far below the levels of the developed world.

Some time in the next ten years, China will surpass the U.S. in terms of annual CO2 emissions. But China justifies this because it has a larger population (over 1.3 billion, compared to the U.S. population of just over 300 million). China also notes that U.S. per capita income is between five and ten times the Chinese level.

The Middle East

The arguments made by China cannot be made by the nations of the Middle East. The oil producing nations in the Middle East, particularly those with small populations, such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), now rank among the world’s wealthiest nations in terms of per capita income. They also rank among the world’s worst performing countries in terms of per capita emissions. In fact, the world’s four worst offenders in terms of per capita emissions relative to per capita income are: Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, and Kuwait.

Major broadcast networks have devoted prime time segments to the amazing glamour, conspicuous wealth, modernization, and excess in the UAE (notably the emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi) and Qatar. Among the most documented of these excesses is Ski Dubai, an indoor ski slope connected to a shopping mall. Dubai has also constructed no less than ten golf courses in the middle of its desert, and lures the world’s best golfers each year for the Dubai Desert Classic. Indeed, the Gulf Arab states have created unnatural marvels at great expense, and with heavy energy consumption (not to mention water use).

In these Persian Gulf countries, one can observe a pattern similar to that of the U.S. and Western Europe: high per capita income, and high per capita CO2 emission levels. But while the U.S. and Western Europe have cut back on emissions, the Arab world has done little to nothing to reduce its “carbon footprint.” Qatar has more than three times the per capita CO2 emissions as the U.S., and Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates emit almost twice the CO2 per capita as America. Saudi Arabia emits CO2 at near the U.S. level per capita.

A Lack of Concern

Global warming alarmists take little note of the soaring carbon emissions in the Middle East. Indeed, former Vice President Al Gore and the rest of the movement seem unperturbed by Arab emissions.

Meanwhile, a report in The Arab World Competitiveness Report 2002-2003 presented a very bleak picture of future prospects:

“The most broad-reaching deficiencies in the Arab world have to do with systems of environmental capacity and governance. We see no foundation for thinking that Arab countries will be able to manage the challenges they face in the way of water scarcity, pollution levels, climate change, and population growth in the absence of major institutional reform.”

Specifically, pollution from vehicle emissions, a problem that has been successfully addressed by the West, continues to blacken the air in Arab cities.

Given the authoritarian political systems that dominate in the Arab world, and the ossified social systems that are so resistant to change, it is difficult to see a path forward. One notable critic is Fouad Hamdan, a Lebanese advocate for solar energy. Only, he has yet to find powerful allies in the region to further his cause.

The Shifting Debate

There are other important aspects of the Middle East energy debate that require increased attention. The U.S. sends hundreds of billions of dollars each year overseas to purchase oil, which means that we are sending our petrodollars to some of the world’s worst regimes (Iran, Saudi Arabia, and others). This puts more economic power and resources into the hands of our enemies, and puts America (along with our growing national debt) at their mercy.

The alarming global spread of radical Islam in the last century has been fueled to a great extent by Saudi petrodollars. Additionally, Iran spends hundreds of millions each year to support groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, which have served primarily to destabilize the Middle East.

The proponents of limiting our purchases of foreign oil, however, rarely support proposals to increase domestic oil supply. This would entail drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), offshore oil drilling, or shale oil development (the least controversial of these options).

Drilling Down

The Arab world has the world’s largest oil reserves, and exports most of what it extracts each year. This has been a source of seemingly endless wealth, and the source of the majority of the world’s carbon emissions.

However, oil consumption dropped worldwide in 2008 (by 7 percent in the U.S. alone), and may again in 2009. Indeed, after soaring to $145 a barrel in the summer of 2008, oil prices are now less than half that level. If electric cars and other new technologies soon offer a practical substitute for gasoline-powered vehicles, the demand for oil could drop further, particularly as old cars are replaced by new ones. Governments in both developed and developing countries are already providing financial incentives to move this process along.

This, of course, would lead to a drastic drop in carbon emissions by the countries that embrace the new technologies. It would also leave the Arab world with a great deal of oil, but with fewer customers. This, in turn, could create a situation whereby the Arab states become the primary consumers of oil.

The question then will be: if the U.S. weans itself from hydrocarbons, will global warming alarmists finally blame the Arab world for consuming its own oil and emitting more carbon? This remains to be seen.

Richard Baehr is a distinguished fellow at the Jewish Policy Center, and political director of The American Thinker.