Gulf States to be Hoist Early on Climate Change Petard

Yves here. There’s a perverse irony to the fact that the oil-producing Gulf states will be among the first to suffer severe repercussions from climate change. The problem is the rest of us will not be all that far behind in line.

By Colin Chilcoat, a specialist in Eurasian energy affairs and political institutions currently living and writing in the former oil capital of the world. Originally published at OilPrice

Regarding the Middle East and its oil, the late Sheikh Rashid Bin Saed Al Maktoum, longtime Emir of Dubai and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, once famously remarked:

“My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel.”

It’s an apt reminder of the finite nature of oil resources, and, of course, the wealth it brings. But, and this is what the Sheikh was getting at, it’s also a call for prudence and thoughtful transformation. Outside of Dubai, the overhaul of oil-based economies is wholly incomplete, but it’s an idea that holds no less relevance as the region prepares for what could be an even greater challenge: climate change.

According to a study by Jeremy Pal of Loyola Marymount and Elfatih Eltahir of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, large areas of the Persian Gulf may well be uninhabitable by the end of the century. Specifically, the research, published in Nature Climate Change, posits that greenhouse gases will continue to accumulate in the atmosphere at their current pace, sending temperatures to intolerable seasonal highs and increasing the frequency and severity of extreme heat waves. In Kuwait City, Doha, and elsewhere, summer temperatures will frequently reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit; decadal heat waves may top 170 degrees.

Although crippling heat may be a problem for another generation, water, and in turn food, security will reshape the region in near future. With its population set to further explode, water stress – the ratio of water use to supply – is expected to double or triple across the Persian Gulf toward 2040.

While the human effects are better understood, the effects on the region’s vital oil and gas industries are less well-known. Rising temperatures present little direct threat, though extraction operations may become more time- and cost-intensive. Instead, the uncertainty centers on volatile future demand profiles and the rate at which the broader decarbonization movement takes hold.

As such – and considering their high economic reliance on hydrocarbon production – the Gulf States have appeared rather hesitant to commit much, or anything, to renewable energy development, green technologies, or international climate pacts. However, the increasingly negative climate realities – 2 degrees Celsius warming is coming – have dampened the relatively carefree, “damned if we do, not so much if we don’t” attitude surrounding alternative energy. Changes are coming, albeit slowly, and disjointedly.

Count Saudi Arabia among the laggards. The Gulf States’ largest GHG emitter and the world’s largest oil exporter has yet to submit their ‘intended nationally determined contributions’ (INDC) to the UN climate convention – though neither have its regional compatriots Iraq, Kuwait, and Qatar. The kingdom’s 2013 roadmap does outline an ambitious plan to develop some 54 gigawatts (GW) of renewable capacity, mostly solar, by 2032, but such dreams have only been met by delays and mismanaged investments; solar capacity today sits somewhere around 50 megawatts (MW).

It’s a similar story elsewhere around the Gulf. Qatar is expecting its first solar power facility (15 MW) in 2016 and is looking to expand its already established photovoltaic manufacturing industry, but results lag far behind ambition. Kuwait’s solar energy push will begin in earnest, and behind schedule, in late 2017, when the 70 MW first phase of its 2 GW renewable energy strategy is completed.

The UAE is perhaps furthest along with more than 100 MW of solar capacity already online. The country, which submitted its INDC in late October, plans to increase its clean energy mix to 24 percent by 2021, up from about 0.2 percent last year. Dubai’s burgeoning solar market saw record low bids last year, suggesting the energy has a place among heavily subsidized traditional energy sources. Still, its relatively stable business climate is not easily replicated in the region.

To be sure, the Gulf States’ green objectives stem from very un-green desires; rapidly growing domestic consumption – largely fueled by mounting cooling demands – may transform the oil exporters into net-importers in the not too distant future. Sating domestic needs with renewable energy frees that oil for export and alleviates any potential pressure on government coffers.

The recent climate prognosis isn’t entirely new, but the timeline is worryingly accelerated. Expecting an accelerated response however, would require almost paradoxical economic and political bravery heretofore unseen; though, the potential remains.

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  1. vlade

    Last time I was at Dubai’s airport, it reminded me of the scene in Dune when Atreides find the greenhouse, with its abundance of water on otherwise parched planet. And I was wondering how they are going to meet the energy needs to cool it once they run out of cheap gas and oil and temperatures raise… Because it’s not just one site, it’s the whole country that will need it. I guess a lot of the desert will turn into solar farms, but I hadn’t seen any form the air.

    Water is mentioned, but I’d say that’s a bit less of a problem, as all of them have sea, and while desalinated water tastes yuck, it’s way better than no water, and there are solar desalinators.

    1. Carlos

      Yes, you would think with all that sun and sea waiting for solar desalination, they would be scrambling to install solar while the oil money is still rolling in.

      You can’t legislate for stupidity and intransigence.

      1. fajensen

        On top of that, there is Egotism, Greed, Corruption and Sloth in spades too – as well as Tribalism: If a tribally-oriented person does something for society in general, other (tribal) people will think there is something wrong with him; Weakening ones own clan by helping The Others is just Not Done, it’s crazy talk (“We” are getting like that too, mind). Tribalism is why it’s really hard to achieve anything in the 3’rd world and perhaps why we can’t do welfare reforms in the 1’st.

        And religion, my pet peeve – I grew up in a religious area and just about all of our “pillars of society” were totally doing the opposite of what they spouted as “Good Christian Values”.

        The general problem with over-religious people: The “honest” ones think that “God” will fix all of their problems for them and if “He” doesn’t then its because they have “sinned” and didn’t pray hard enough. They crooked ones think that any effort outside of grubbing for oneself doesn’t matter because it’s “all part of God’s Plan” (and the Apocalypse is coming up anyway, real soon now) “and if God didn’t want me to be cheating & stealing, he would do something about it, him being almighty and all, so it’s really a reward for my beliefs”.

        If I was my government, I would up my defense spending significantly and really cut back on the participation in tribal wars, we need the resources Here, not with Obama’s “Bomb the World Better”-projects.

              1. different clue


                What IS “profit”? Where does it come from and how does it get that way?
                What puts the “ofit” in profit?

      2. susan the other

        I think that is just what the article was saying in politically correct language: the Saudis and other oil states are hanging on to their competitive position no matter what because they are not actually casually building up their renewable energy infra, they are slamming it and they can’t give up their oil revenues for now. And admitting to the urgency of their situation will cause more chaos in an already chaotic region. It’s a godawful situation which goes a long way toward explaining why the war is so bizarre and can never be explained. The war that must not be explained.

    2. Nick

      UAE, Saudi, and other Emirates have at least 50-100 years of reasonably cheap oil/gas to tap. Egypt recently doubled it’s reserves of natural gas, buying 15 years of self-sufficiency. Then you have Libya just over the border (currently suffering slight political chaos ;) They have VAST untapped reserves of oil ( in addition to fresh water aquifers).

      All of the Gulf Emirates, Egypt, and Iran, are heavily investing in Nuclear power, which will lower the cost and increase efficiency of desalination. Predictions of mad max style collapse are highly exaggerated.

      1. Phil Farmer

        The Gulf Emirates have lots of ‘guest’ workers. Almost 50% of Saudis population is non-citizen. Will they always be able to keep control of them?

  2. Mark P.

    [1] Carlos wrote: ‘You can’t legislate for stupidity and intransigence.’

    Your assumption is that solar is the magic bullet, a fully mature technology that will support all the infrastructure of a modern state. Without more advanced battery technology that scales, solar isn’t. Battery technology is the key — that’s the primary potential of Musk’s Tesla project, for instance, not the cars — and we may now be getting there. But it isn’t clear that we will get there and short of that it’s injudicious to assume that Dubai is simply being stupid and intransigent about solar.

    Dubai is the bright hope in the region. Relatively speaking.

    [2] Yves wrote in her brief intro: “The problem is the rest of us will not be all that far behind in line.” Yes, that’s the consensus assumption. But it’s not necessarily going to be the case.

    To start with, it’s very clear that some regions of the planet — like the Gulf States — will be bigger losers than other regions. If we think a little more deeply, it’s also possible — though there huge variables — that there are scenarios where there will be winners from climate change. I’ve seen detailed studies where, for instance, Russia and Siberia have a net gain.

    Interesting times.

    1. Paper Mac

      Which studies? The very few credible claims I’ve seen in the climate literature about “winners” are looking solely at a handful of biophysical parameters like germination rates and growing season length. It’s not a “net gain” unless the effects of global trade disruption, migration, etc are considered, and none of the “winners” (Canada, Russia are really the only likely candidates here) are anything like the autarkies they would need to be to offset the loss of global logistical chains, being overrun by climate refugees, etc. These claims will be used to run interference in order to justify governmental inaction, though.

    2. fajensen

      Ah – but – your assumption is that “the modern state” is a static construction, one that cannot change it’s priorities, the elite 1%’ers and the infrastructure to adopt to the new circumstances.

      That may indeed be the case, this has happened before many times to other people, as described in: “The Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archaeology)Mar 29, 1990, by Joseph A. Tainter”. If this happens to us, then we are stupid and deserve it – in my opinion – everything is sitting right in our faces.

      However, through work I see lots of talks on “Smart Grid”, always still with a lot of “padding” of varying energy flows with “biomass”, but, people are beginning to realise that they need to split the electrical grid into smaller “islands” – with local frequency / voltage standards – and connect those “islands” with “smart transformers”, AC/AC converters that can maintain the phase / voltage on both sides of an “island” boundary and control the power flow. The thought of not having 50 Hz everywhere stabilised by heavy rotating machines and strong links is total heresy for a power system engineer, yet, they are thinking about it now.

      The “engineers outrage” will die down with time and the “biomass” placeholder will go away (it used to be on many slides, now it’s only one). The industries that really need constant power will pay for it (local generation, Grid QoS), today it’s consumers who pay, most industries will adjust production rates to match the hourly variation in electrical costs. The “household electronics” doesn’t really care much about “stability” – it’s all at the end of an AC/DC converter anyway, consumption is crashing so batteries – even those that we have today – can keep the homes “on” during “dry” times. Local Storage is happening in Germany now due to network tariffs going up. German industry is whining about it since with households going off grid, they get to pay for their own stability requirements.

      So, I think we can do it – technically and economically we can do it. Politically, well …. we have rat bastards who really make out on the present system, like the Koch Brothers, spoiling and griefing all the way. *That* is the harder problem IMO.

      And “dumb people” …. I see this a lot at work too: People who cannot bear to take some temporary pain (like sell the house they cannot afford now that the wife left at a loss) to avoid the big one (foreclosure, the sack, homicide?) coming right up next. Had a colleague still living with her Ex. – in the house they couldn’t afford!

      The engineering is the easy part.

      1. tegnost

        The situation you describe at the end is very sad. Two people who had their lives destroyed are trying to come out of it as a whole. I, for one , hope they make it. As to engineers outrage you jump right in with “money will fix it”, right now money is easier to get than ever for those you refer to, not a good idea to hope that continues indefinitely. And re the energy islands issue, as I’ve recently grappled with an engineer on this topic I will use his argument many small inputs are the answer, that is what uber and air b’n’b etc… are doing to profit why not use that engineered process for a better end?

    3. Carlos

      Solar can only mature by investment in manufacturing and implementation to bring volumes up and improve reliability.

      The Middle East is literally toast when the oil and gas runs out. Their major viable alternative energy source is solar.

      Water is the issue, with renewable energy desalination, the desert (at least parts of it) can literally bloom indefinitely. Which sane citizen would not wish to pursue such an admirable goal.

      It’s energy storage not just batteries that is an important element of solar success, for example molten salts. A combination of these technologies can certainly do the job but need more investment and development. This is purely lack of political will and short term addiction to maximum capital returns. AKA lack of wisdom AKA stupidity.

      Not singling out Dubai BTW, they are least worse, so good on them.

      Winners and losers? With mass human dislocation and species wipeout, there aren’t any winners.

      1. Lyle

        Actually some of the gulf states have another method of energy storage to use. It is salt water pumped storage. This is being used in Japan right now. Saudi on the Red Sea side has high elevations, as do areas on the south end of the peninsula. Not so much the actual states on the Arabian peninsula side of the gulf however. (Iran also has high elevations near the coast) .Pumped storage is utility scale and can handle lots of energy storage. Once you go to sea water then many more places are possible sites.

    4. rusti

      Without more advanced battery technology that scales, solar isn’t. Battery technology is the key — that’s the primary potential of Musk’s Tesla project, for instance, not the cars — and we may now be getting there. But it isn’t clear that we will get there and short of that it’s injudicious to assume that Dubai is simply being stupid and intransigent about solar.

      I’m also skeptical that any battery technology that exists today is going to scale to 21st-century civilization scale energy requirements. Musk’s battery factory can conceivably drive Lithium Ion pack costs down to the point where they’re increasingly competitive with combustion engines over the lifetime for passenger vehicles, but the “Powerwall” as it stands today is a dubious financial proposition for the needs of a single home, much less grid-scale energy requirements. Flow batteries may hold more promise on this front but I don’t see a development path where they’re going to enable a Solar Powered country any time soon.

      Having said that, I think Carlos’ point stands in that it would be extremely prudent for these rich Gulf countries to start taking more serious measures to protect themselves against the disasters to come rather continuing their current YOLO method of governance (which is the global norm I guess). Taking steps towards a solar-heavy electrical grid should be an obvious starting point given their geographical location.

      1. JTMcPhee

        Those “countries” don’t seem to even act like the Grand geopolitical model nation-state “pursuing ITS (sic, faux personification) national interests,” because as is so clear, what we got is selfish, self-pleasing, greed and titillation-driven Elites that have “gotten beyond” any utility of the “nation” myth. How’s that go again? “This is not gonna end well…”

    5. different clue

      If the RussiaGov agrees with this scenario, then the RussiaGov will obstruct and sabotage every effort to “control” carbon skydumping . . . . esPECially every effort which requires selling less oil and gas for somebody to buy and burn.

  3. Chauncey Gardiner

    Besides the obvious economic and rational scientific considerations that transcend national boundaries, and our own role and that of China in this matter, I believe there is also a significant cultural aspect to this issue regarding the Gulf States that is often ridiculed or dismissed. This is “inshallah”, typically viewed as fatalism through Western eyes.

    Before we start casting stones, perhaps we should get our own houses in order. This is a huge political and economic challenge, both domestically and internationally.

  4. washunate

    This is a great example of the problem of trying to treat environmental protection, especially climate change, as some unique catastrophe instead of seeing it as part of the larger story of failed governance causing preventable human suffering. The Gulf States are some of the most unequal, undemocratic, repressive regimes on the planet. The global slave trade is bigger today than in the 19th century, and women’s rights aren’t much better.

    But of course OilPrice isn’t going to be connecting those kinds of dots.

  5. BondsOfSteel

    With new technologies, they will be able to continue to pump enough oil/gas to power their cities/home until the environment is way past survivable… anywhere.

  6. Oregoncharles

    Did nobody mention sea levels? What does a foot of sea-level rise do to the Gulf emirates? 10 ft? Because those are coming.

    If all the ice melts, it’s 216 ft. That makes the world look very different. Just for a local example, the Willamette River would be an arm of the sea, and so would the small river adjoining our property. Our house is at 220 ft.; that’s 3 rivers and probably 200 miles from the sea. Florida wouldn’t exist at all, or much of the East or Gulf Coasts.

    Haven’t looked at the topos, but I’m guessing the Emirates wouldn’t have a water shortage – salt water, that is.

    1. Synoia

      Consider the infrastructure destroyed with a 200 ft sea level rise,

      Or better yet contemplate the work with 10% of the current infrastructure, and the path of human survival from here and now the then.

      Personally I have a tentative conclusion: Intelligence, as we define it, is an evolutionary dead end.

  7. Helix

    I read this story differently. Energy resources are distributed very unevenly throughout the world, with the Persian Gulf region being especially well-endowed. However, such resources are finite, and with continued use, must eventually decline to the point where control of remaining supplies becomes paramount. The Saudis will find themselves very poor matches for the Chinese, Russians, Americans, and perhaps even Persians, although the latter are pretty well endowed with their own supplies.

    So what will happen? It seems likely to me that we will reach a point when the remaining supplies are commandeered for military operations, with some fraction being allocated to the usual well-connected class. Some may also be reserved for agriculture and essential services (police, fire & rescue, etc.), at least while civil order is still a priority. After that, I think the population at large is going to have to fend for itself, against a very well-armed and well-fuelled class of overlords.

    At the same time, climate change may be causing mass migrations of people who are displaced from coastal areas and regions that have become inhospitable because of higher temperatures coupled with lack of energy to run air conditioning. (One good point of photoelectrics is they operate best just when they’re needed most for air conditioning.)

    And so what is the upshot of these forces? I suspect we’re in for some rough times around the end of this century. At that point, oil depletion is going to begin to bite, climate change could start to cause some serious problems, aquifers will be running dry, and world population is going to be quite a bit higher than it is now. Put all these in the blender and stir them together and you have the makings of a savage and barbaric age.

    All this is predicated on us not coming to our senses first, of course. Given humanity’s choices over the last half century, I’m not optimistic.

    1. Gio Bruno

      (One good point of photoelectrics is they operate best just when they’re needed most for air conditioning.)

      Actually, that’s not accurate. PV panels work best at about 70 degrees F. The 140 degree summers of Saudi Arabia are likely to diminish the efficiency of PV panels substantially. And there are better ways to stay cool than using mechanical AC.

      1. Helix

        Re: “PV panels work best at about 70 degrees F”

        True. So if the solar panels track the sun and avoid shading each other, your point is correct. Commercial scale installations may indeed incorporate these features.

        However, most home-scale installations do not, opting to face due south (in the northern hemisphere) on a fixed mount. In this case, solar flux will be maximum at solar noon, with about 71% max at 9AM and 3PM, 87% at 10AM and 2PM, etc.

        I would be interested in your ideas about cooling without A/C. The best method I know of is to simply burrow down, taking advantage of the temperature stability provided by the thermal mass of the ground. People don’t seem to like this strategy very much, though. I commonly observe that they prefer to run their air conditioners than to simply relocate to the basement during the warm season. Perhaps this will change as the cost of air conditioning becomes prohibitive.

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