A global climate agreement signed by 195 countries including Lebanon in Paris Saturday has been hailed as a promising step toward capping carbon emissions that, if left unchecked, will lead to catastrophic climate change by the end of the century.
Whether the global community will meet the global warming target set out in the deal is of tremendous consequence to Lebanon, which depends on snowfall to replenish its aquifers and predictable weather patterns to sustain its agriculture.
But as a policy prescription, the pact is of limited significance. Lebanon, as a developing country, must simply control the rate of its carbon emissions growth, rather than reduce emissions in absolute terms.
Lebanon is already beset by severe ecological degradation, brought about by decades of poor land-planning and environmental mismanagement. Few displays could have better encapsulated the country’s compounding crises than when seasonal rains left rotting trash to stagnate in the capital’s flooded streets earlier this fall. More than a manifestation of climate change, the sorry scene was a display of government incompetence, experts say.
Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk, who attended the negotiations in Paris and returned Tuesday, praised the framework of the climate deal. “The new agreement aspires to a future free of [carbon] emissions and prepared to confront climate change.”
Global temperatures have already risen by an average of 1 degree Celsius since the pre-industrial era, shifting weather patterns toward extremes and deteriorating ecosystems in Lebanon, the Middle East and beyond.
Human activity is the driver behind the warming trend, induced by fossil fuel burning deforestation, and agricultural expansion. The Paris agreement aims to cap carbon emissions and restore the natural “sinks” – such as ocean biospheres and trees – to absorb greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
Signatories agreed to hold global warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, a ceiling scientists say the nations will have to honor to have any chance to avoid climate disaster.
The Paris agreement avoided prescribing a mechanism to meet the 2 degrees Celsius warming target, instead asking signatories to set their emissions targets, report on them, and revise them every five years.
Developing countries do not have to reduce emissions, however; only to curb the rate of growth, under the principle that growing economies cannot – and should not be asked to – bear the economic costs of drastic emissions cuts, when fossil fuels remain the cheapest and most readily obtainable source of energy.
It means Lebanon will have some leniency in setting and meeting its targets, though real work must be done to reverse existing environmental policy and mitigate the certainty of moderate climate change.
“We are already seeing the effects of climate change [in Lebanon],” said Ali Darwish, the president of Lebanon’s Green Line Association, an environmental advocacy group. “When the trees that should flower in March flower in October, this is an indication that something strange is happening.”
“We already have seasonal changes,” he said, pointing to the unseasonable variation in wet and dry days. “The distribution of rain is as important as the quantity itself,” he said, warning that shifting precipitation patterns will force costly agricultural adaptations.
At the same time, Darwish cautioned against ascribing too much weight to climate change to explain severe weather phenomena today. Regular coastal flooding is the fault of urban sprawl, deforestation, and underdeveloped drainage systems.
“Yes, climate is changing, you have a redistribution of rain, but what you’re witnessing is a lack of planning, for which you are blaming climate change,” he said.
“Imagine if the climate really changes, what will happen. If we’re talking about the extremes that the scientists are really talking about, we’ll be in deeper trouble.”
In another acknowledgement of the responsibility of the developed countries to take the lead on controlling emissions, the Paris agreement mandates richer nations to transfer $100 billion annually in climate support to developing countries.
Lebanon has much to gain from this arrangement – if the money is spent properly.
But observers are skeptical. “Will the money provide us with 500 megawatts of wind turbines? No,” Darwish said.