Dismantling Green Colonialism challenges Eurocentrism and highlights the class-conscious approach to climate justice that is necessary for our survival. In this excerpt, co-editors Hamza Hamouchene and Katie Sandwell explain how the COP process represents a golden opportunity for the ruling classes to advance their greenwashing agenda.
The reality of climate breakdown is already visible in the Arab region, undermining the ecological and socioeconomic basis of life. Countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt are experiencing recurrent severe heat waves and prolonged droughts, with catastrophic impacts on agriculture and small-scale farmers. Ranked as one of the world’s five most vulnerable nations to climate change and desertification, Iraq was hit in 2022 by many sandstorms that shut down much of the country, with thousands of people hospitalised because of respiratory problems. The country’s environment ministry has warned that over the next two decades Iraq could endure an average of 272 days of sandstorms a year, rising to above 300 by 2050. In the summer of 2021, Algeria was struck by unprecedented and devastating wildfires; Kuwait experienced a suffocating heat wave, registering the highest temperature on earth that year, at well over 50ºC; and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Yemen, Oman, Syria, Iraq and Egypt all experienced devastating floods, while southern Morocco struggled with terrible droughts for the third year in a row. In the years ahead, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects that the Mediterranean and Gulf regions will see an intensification of extreme weather events, such as wildfires and flooding, and further increases in aridity and droughts.
The climate crisis was not an inevitable fact: it has been, and continues to be, driven by the choice to keep burning fossil fuels – a choice made predominantly by corporations and Northern governments, together with national ruling classes, including in the Arab region. Energy and climate plans in that part of the world are shaped by authoritarian regimes and their backers in Riyadh, Brussels and Washington DC. Rich local elites collaborate with multinational corporations, and international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Despite all of their promises, the actions of these institutions show that they are enemies of climate justice and of humanity’s very survival.
Every year, the world’s political leaders, advisers, media and corporate lobbyists gather for another United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) on the issue of climate change. But despite the threat facing the planet, governments continue to allow carbon emissions to rise and the crisis to escalate. After three decades of what the Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg has called ‘blah blah blah’, it has become evident that these climate talks are bankrupt and are failing. They have been hijacked by corporate power and private interests that promote profit-making false solutions, like carbon trading and so-called ‘net-zero’ and ‘nature-based solutions’, instead of forcing industrialised nations and multinationals to reduce carbon emissions and leave fossil fuels in the ground.
With COP28 being held in Dubai, UAE, the Arab region will have hosted the climate talks five times since their inception in 1995: COP7 (2001) and COP22 (2016) in Marrakech, Morocco; COP18 (2012) in Doha, Qatar; and COP27 (2022) in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. In recent years, and especially since the 2015 Paris Agreement walked back from the (already grossly inadequate) binding targets established in the Kyoto Accord to allow countries to independently determine their own emissions reduction targets, scepticism about the ability of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to tackle the most urgent challenge facing humanity has grown.
COPs attract massive media attention but tend not to achieve major breakthroughs. COP27, held in Sharm el-Sheikh in 2022, achieved an agreement on ‘payment for loss and damage’ that has been lauded by some as an important step in making richer countries accountable for the damage caused by climate change in the global South. However, as the agreement lacks clear funding and enforcement mechanisms, critics worry it will meet with the same fate as the broken promise (first made in COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009) to provide $100 billion in climate finance by 2020.
That promise was never fully realised, with assistance often taking the form of interest-bearing loans instead. As for COP28, the UAE’s appointment of Sultan al-Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, to preside over the talks seems to many activists and observers to symbolise the deep commitment to continued oil extraction, regardless of the cost, which has characterised negotiations to date.
Middle Eastern and North African states, with their national oil and gas companies, alongside the big oil majors, are doing their best to maintain their operations, and even expand and profit from the remaining fossil fuels they possess. Sisi’s Egypt is aspiring to become a major energy hub in the region, exporting its surplus electricity and mobilising various energy sources, such as offshore gas, oil, renewable energies and hydrogen, to satisfy the European Union’s (EU’s) energy needs. And this is of course inextricable from the ongoing efforts at political and economic normalisation with the colonial state of Israel. The Algerian regime, for its part, is also benefiting from the oil price bonanza and taking advantage of the EU’s scramble for alternatives to Russian gas in order to expand its fossil fuel operations and plans. The Gulf countries, such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar, are no different. The ruling classes across the region have been talking about the ‘after oil’ era for decades, and successive governments have paid lip service to the transition to renewable energies for years without taking concrete action, apart from some grandiose and unrealistic plans and projects, such as the proposed, and controversial, futuristic mega-city of Neom in Saudi Arabia. For these ruling classes, the iterations of the COP process represent a golden opportunity to advance their greenwashing agenda, as well as their efforts to attract and capture funds and finances for various energy projects and purportedly ‘green’ plans.
Egypt’s hosting of the 2022 COP was controversial in view of its government’s record of repression and its efforts to prevent access to the summit by environmental groups and climate activists. In fact, the Sharm el-Sheikh COP27 was one of the most exclusionary conferences in history, with a substantially diminished space for the activism, dissidence, discussions, debates, new connections, networking, collective strategies, actions, and mobilisations needed to generate pressure on global decision-makers to deliver on their promises and promote real solutions to the unfolding climate emergency. The choice of Egypt as the host in 2022, and of UAE as the host for 2023, is not innocent and is a clear indication that the COP process as a whole is becoming more undemocratic and exclusionary. Moreover, the context of the intensification of geopolitical rivalries unleashed by the war in Ukraine is not amenable to cooperation between major powers and provides yet another pretext for continuing the global addiction to fossil fuels. Indeed, it could be the final nail in the coffin of global climate talks.
Dr Hamza Hamouchene is a London-based Algerian researcher and activist. He is the North Africa Programme Coordinator at the Transnational Institute (TNI), and a founding member of Algeria Solidarity Campaign (ASC), Environmental Justice North Africa (EJNA) and the North African Food Sovereignty Network (NAFSN). His writings have appeared in Africa Is A Country, Guardian, Huffington Post, Middle East Eye, New Internationalist, Jadaliyya, openDemocracy and ROAR.
Katie Sandwell is a Programme Coordinator with the Transnational Institute. She has published on global food sovereignty movements, just transition and land struggles and is co-author of From Crisis to Transformation: What is Just Transition?