The iconic Museum of the Future in  Dubai, United Arab Emirates, April 1, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
Main image: The iconic Museum of the Future in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, April 1, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
AnalysisWhat can mega climate conferences really achieve?

Lack of action at first MENA climate meet doesn’t bode well for Egypt’s COP27

Israel’s climate envoy calls on Egyptians to give tech solutions center stage at upcoming COP27 in Sharm el Sheikh; says ‘time for describing the problems is over’

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Main image: The iconic Museum of the Future in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, April 1, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates —  Dubai’s Museum of the Future, housed in a jaw-dropping architectural marvel of steel, takes visitors on a journey to 2071.

Last year marked 50 years since the United Arab Emirates came into being. The museum looks ahead to the next half-century.

The first stop on a whirlwind guided tour is to a space station 50 years into the future, to see how a belt of solar panels constructed around the moon will beam clean energy to all of humanity. (The young guide, from the government’s Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center, assured those present that research into such a project has really begun).

Those living on the station will extract water from asteroids, grow plants pollinated by robotic bees, and wear exo-skins capable of identifying and preventing potential illnesses a decade before they would otherwise appear.

Visitors to Dubai’s Museum of the Future get a glimpse of how the solar panels on the moon will supply renewable energy to Earth in 2071., April 1, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Alongside other exhibits that look fantastical, such as a DNA library of creatures from which scientists will be able to extract what they need to recreate extinct species or genetically adapt existing ones to new climatic conditions, are tech solutions that are already being used, such as vertical farms and building materials made from coconut husks.

Around 110 kilometers down the road, just outside of Abu Dhabi, is Masdar City.

Founded in 2006, it aims to become a model for sustainable business and residential development, and home to research into state-of-the-art technologies, such as green hydrogen, (which uses renewable energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen), urban agriculture, sustainable water use, and green building materials and techniques.

While on the one, incongruous hand, the UAE is expending unimaginable amounts of energy and water to keep its glass skyscrapers cool and provide its residents with grassy parks, a skating rink, and an indoor ski resort, it also has the vision — and the cash —  to place itself at the forefront of innovation to help the world navigate climate change.

An Arab woman tries to keep her balance as she tries to skate on the Dubai Ice Rink at a shopping mall in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, July 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Thanks to the Abraham Accords, it has also has signed memorandums of understanding with Israel, that other force for innovation in the region. One is to partner with Israel’s Energy Ministry on renewable energy, fossil fuel gas, and cybersecurity. The other is to collaborate with the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Innovation, Science, and Technology to create a binational industrial research and development fund.

Talking the talk

But at last week’s first regional UN Middle East and North Africa climate conference, held at Dubai’s magnificent Atlantis Palm Hotel, neither the solutions nor the funding to help countries buy them were anywhere to be seen.

The Atlantic Palm Hotel in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which hosted the first Middle East and North Africa climate conference from March 28 to 31, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

In the words of Tal Ronen, one of just two Israelis to address the confab,  the conference was about “talking the talk, rather than walking the walk.”

The Middle East is warming much faster than the planet as a whole. It has already risen 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — the amount that the United Nations has set as the ceiling beyond which temperatures should not be allowed to rise.

The industrialized world is mainly responsible for carbon emissions. But it is the developing world that is disproportionately shouldering the consequences, among them increased drought and rising sea levels (the latter brought about by melting icecaps releasing more water into the seas).

The annual COP (Conference of the Parties) get-togethers are grand UN affairs that, to date, have focused on policy, negotiations, and international commitments, rather than action.

This photo shows a dry land that was once fertile and green, in Second Village, Qouta town, Fayoum, Egypt, August 8, 2020. The Middle East is the most water-scarce region in the world, but participants at an upcoming climate summit in Dubai will be ensconced in a resort with one of the world’s largest water parks, complete with artificial lagoons, encounters with dolphins, and a mesmerizing aquarium with sharks, stingrays and schools of fish. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

“We have gone beyond negotiations and will now be focusing on implementation,” the UNFCC’s Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa told the Dubai forum.

Francesco La Camera, director general of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), which is based at Masdar City, said he hoped that COP27, to be held in November in Egypt’s Sharm el Sheikh resort, would “really move toward implementation and make things happen.”

But how that will be achieved remains unclear.

As was the case at November’s COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, MENA Climate Week saw many descriptions of the problems and expressions about the need to act, rather than concrete action itself.

Talking heads performed in the main conference halls.

Meetings in side rooms took place in what management consultants call silos. This is where people focus on different subjects, but with no connection to one another. This reporter wandered between sessions on subjects such as early warning systems, carbon trading and how to differentiate between humanitarian and climate aid in politically fragile nations such as Yemen.

It was unclear whether the discussions would further anything other than the knowledge base and networking of those present in the various rooms.

A ministerial round table session, around a very large table, at the Middle East and North Africa climate conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on March 28, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

On the first day of the conference, a “ministerial round table” was held, around a very large table. There were too many participants, and time was too short, for any real discussion to take place.

Participants heard plenty of slogans, one of the most popular addressing the need to “see challenges as opportunities.”

It was Israel’s Foreign Ministry special climate envoy, Ambassador Gideon Behar, who took the microphone to solicit action.

Giving the solutions center stage

He described technologies that Israel has developed to move from rainfed to precise drip-fed agriculture, which can even be used to grow rice; Israeli inventions to store renewable energy without batteries; alternative protein to replace the high carbon-emitting livestock industry; and Israel’s success in afforesting drylands and finding nature-based solutions for carbon sequestration (absorption).

Technology didn’t have to be complex or expensive, he told the session. The Volcani Center, Israel’s national address for agricultural R&D, had developed a protocol for ensuring that grain silos lost just half a percent of their content to pests and diseases, compared to 10 to 40 percent worldwide — something of particular value given grain shortages arising from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Steel grain bins in Ralls, Texas, (Leaflet, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

“We need to make an inventory of solutions,” he said, later telling a different session, “We need to shift the discussion from describing the problem to taking action. We must start discussing scalable, easy-to-implement solutions that impact the lives of people in the region, and Israel has a lot to offer.”

Behar then spent much of the conference meeting with influential officials to push for technical solutions such as these to be given a central place at the upcoming COP27 and COP28 confabs (the latter to be held in the UAE), rather than featured among countless side events from which participants must choose.

Asked how the structure of this kind of conference might be changed in the run-up to COP27, several participants told this reporter that there should be fewer talking heads’ presentations and more opportunities, within sessions, to network; less time for speeches and more time for exchanges of views; and a broader representation of civil society and youth. “We’re in a bubble,” said one carbon tax expert. “Where do you see the posters in Dubai inviting people to join the conversation?”

Rebooting the way leaders think

But the challenge of turning future COPs into something more meaningful and effective demands a much deeper process, many believe.

As Egyptian climate activist Salem Massalha poignantly told a website called Egyptian Streets, COP26, with its leaders flying in and out of Glasgow on private jets, was “really more of a PR event than a summit.”

An Oxfam ‘Big Head’ caricature of US President Joe Biden protesting on the fringes of the COP26 UN Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, November. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)

He said, “To break its climate politeness in COP27, and become a genuine climate leader, Egypt’s summit will need to include more difficult conversations around broken promises and the flawed economic system that is not meeting the needs of developing countries.”

The wealthy nations have not fulfilled a promise they made in 2009 to transfer $100 billion a year to help developing nations cope with climate change, a failure of immense symbolic importance.

And the global economic system is still based on growth and bottom line profits, failing to take into account the economic costs and benefits that policy decisions have on the environment and society.

Renewable and fossil-fuel energy is produced when wind generators are seen in front of a coal-fired power plant near Jackerath, Germany, December 7, 2018. The head of the International Renewable Energy Agency says “radical action” is needed to ensure global warming doesn’t pass dangerous thresholds, warning that greenhouse gas emissions are heading in the wrong direction. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)

According to the most recent Production Gap Report, governments “still plan to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than what would be consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5°C.” It was issued before the tumult and rising prices of oil and gas brought on by the post-COVID-19 rise in demand and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Last week, UN Secretary General António Guterres described the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report as “a file of shame, cataloguing the empty pledges that put us firmly on track toward an unlivable world.”

Governments agreed in the 2015 Paris accord to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) this century, and ideally no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit).

But according to the IPCC panel, projected global emissions placed the 1.5°C limit beyond reach and even the 2°C ceiling in doubt.

Capitalism won’t save the planet

Various post-capitalist models are being developed and talked about, such as Doughnut Economics, which recently entered Israeli discourse.

Doughnut Economics provides a prism through which to judge a project or policy’s alignment with the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed on by the world community in 2015.

These goals range from eradicating poverty and providing clean water and  affordable and clean energy, to protecting life on land and below the water and forming a global partnership for sustainable development.

Tal Ronen, best known as the executive coach and strategic adviser of the late Shimon Peres while the latter was formulating his vision for a New Middle East, took part in the original design of the SDGs.

Today, he is a managing partner and co-founder at YKCenter, named for its chairman, Prof. Yehuda Kahane, an academic, thinker and expert in insurance and risk management who has devoted himself in recent years to steering progress towards implementation of the SDGs.

Tal Ronen (left), managing partner and co-founder at YKCenter, with Ambassador Gideon Behar, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Special Climate Envoy, at the Middle East and North Africa climate conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, March 29, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Solutions and information were not enough to take the world forward, Ronen told a side event to promote YK Center’s work.  What was needed was “a whole new structure of thinking.” It was critical to bring all the relevant parties (stakeholders, in the jargon) to “see the same and to see what’s possible,” rather than to look at what is, in continuation of the past.

The biggest challenge was to transform people’s awareness and move them from “egocentric to ecocentric, from me to we” patterns of thought and behavior, he said, and to get them to work across different sectors, or silos, in an aligned, holistic way.

It was also difficult to find visionary leaders, he added.

“We almost have to reboot ourselves,” Ronen said. “It’s not enough to restart. We need to examine our deepest assumptions in order to move forward.”

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