Exploring Carbon Emission Reduction Efforts in the MENA Region

The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, urging member states to address critical issues such as inequality, development, and climate change within a 15-year timeframe (2015-2030). Goal 13.2.2 focuses on integrating climate change measures into policy and planning, specifically by analyzing countries’ annual total greenhouse gas emissions. This project’s objective is to assess the progress of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region toward achieving this goal, with implications for the global community.

The MENA region is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, experiencing double the warming rate compared to other parts of the world. Despite this, the region is also a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, indirectly through oil exports, although this has not increased as rapidly as the global trend. MENA countries must now address the challenge of diversifying their economies and policies to align with the SDGs while simultaneously combating climate change’s consequences.

Based on data collected by the World Bank over three decades on annual greenhouse gas emissions, it is evident that the MENA region accounts for a small proportion of the world’s total CO2 emissions in kilotons since 1990 (see Figure 1). However, it is important to note that this data reflects total emissions, not per capita figures. When considering emissions per capita, the MENA region has significantly higher numbers. Although countries such as China, the United States, and Russia have higher emissions, their larger populations and land areas account for this difference. Despite this, it is clear that the global trend of greenhouse gas emissions is consistently increasing, with two minor decreases following the 2008 economic crisis and in 20015 following the signing of the Paris Agreement on climate action and the creation of the SDGs. In contrast, the MENA region’s relative growth has been significantly lower.

The two biggest economies of the region, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are currently getting a lot of media attention, as they are taking big steps toward achieving SDG 13. The UAE was the first country in the region to ratify the Paris Agreement. Currently, it has set a goal to reduce carbon emissions by 23.5% by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The UAE has also committed to producing 50% of its electricity from renewable sources. Similarly, Saudi Arabia has promised to achieve net-zero emissions by 2060 and is currently taking measures to diversify its economy and move away from its high dependence on oil exports, as detailed in its Vision 2030 development plan. 

On the other hand, it appears that Iran and Iraq are less inclined to collaborate with global efforts to combat climate change. Iran has not signed the Paris Agreement and has shown no indication of pursuing sustainable development during recent climate change conferences, given its reliance on fossil fuels to sustain its economy. Similarly, Iraq, despite ratifying the agreement, has been slow to take significant action to reduce its dependence on oil exports and improve its infrastructure to make oil extraction less damaging to the environment.

In this context, we can gain a better understanding of the CO2 emissions from the highest emitting countries in the region, which are also among the states most affected by climate change. These countries include Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, the UAE, and Iraq. Figure 2, which represents the World Bank’s data on global emissions in kilotons per year from 1990 to 2020, shows that the first three countries mentioned have been experiencing relatively faster growth in emissions compared to the latter. Although all of these countries have relatively stable emission rates, it is noteworthy that, except for Iran, some of them experienced a slight decrease in emissions after signing and ratifying the Paris Agreement in 2015. Saudi Arabia, for example, reduced its CO2 emissions by around 50,000Kt since then, while Turkey and the UAE also experienced a slight decrease in emissions since 2018.

As previously mentioned, the UAE was the first country in the region to commit to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, followed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which has extended its deadline to 2060. However, Iraq has not yet presented efforts to reverse its emissions trend, despite their international agreement to achieve the 13.2.2 Goal. Egypt, which hosted the United Nations Climate Change Conference’s COP27 in 2022 has demonstrated its government’s concern about the issue but it has yet to make concrete efforts towards reducing emissions.

The MENA region’s slow progress in reducing carbon emissions can be attributed to its heavy dependence on oil exports and fossil fuel-based industries. Although countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia have taken steps to diversify their economies, the region as a whole still relies heavily on oil and is far from being sustainable without it. Moreover, many governments in the region depend on oil revenue to provide benefits and prevent civil unrest, making them hesitant to move away from it. Furthermore, the lack of significant action by major emitters like China, Russia, and the US reduces international pressure on MENA countries to reduce their emissions. Finally, although governments in the region and around the world face the consequences of climate change, such as droughts and heat waves, they struggle to prioritize climate change in their policies.

About the authors:

Paula Milanez Zafalon is a junior double majoring in International Relations and Spanish.

Luiza Vaskys Lima is a sophomore majoring in International Relations and Philosophy, with a minor in Environmental Studies and Sustainability.

Editor’s note: This entry was written for Drew University's PSCI 229 Middle East Politics.