Kuwait, among the hottest places in the world, lags behind on climate action
It was so hot in Kuwait last summer that birds fell dead from the sky.
Seahorses boiled to death in the bay. Dead clams covered the rocks, their shells cracking open as if steamed.
Kuwait has reached a scorching 53.2 degrees Celsius (127.7 degrees Fahrenheit), making it one of the hottest places on earth.
The extremes of climate change present existential perils around the world. But the record-breaking heat waves that ravage Kuwait every season have become so severe that people are finding them increasingly unbearable.
At the turn of the century, scientists say being outside Kuwait City could be life threatening, not just for birds. A recent study also linked 67% of heat-related deaths in the capital to climate change.
And yet, Kuwait remains one of the world’s leading oil producers and exporters, and per capita is a major polluter. Mired in political paralysis, he remained silent as oil states in the region joined a chorus of nations setting targets to eliminate emissions at home – but not to curb oil exports – ahead of the United Nations summit on the climate last autumn in Glasgow.
Instead, Kuwait’s prime minister offered a years-old promise to cut emissions by 7.4% by 2035.
“We are under serious threat,” said environmental consultant Samia Alduaij. “The answer is so timid it doesn’t make sense.”
Saudi Arabia is launching futuristic car-free cities and Dubai plans to ban plastic and expand the emirate’s green parks.
While the relatively small populations of the oil-rich Gulf Arab states mean that their emissions reduction pledges are minor in the grand scheme of limiting global warming, they have symbolic significance.
Yet the wheels of government in Kuwait, which has a population of 4.3 million, seem more jammed than ever – partly because of populist pressure in parliament, and partly because the same authorities who regulate broadcasts of Kuwait derive almost all of their income from pumping oil.
“The government has the money, the information and the manpower to make a difference,” said lawmaker Hamad al-Matar, head of the parliament’s environment committee. “He doesn’t care about environmental issues.”
The country continues to burn oil to generate electricity and ranks among the world’s top carbon emitters per capita, according to the World Resources Institute. As the asphalt melts on the highways, Kuwaitis bundle up for freezing air conditioning in malls. Renewables account for less than 1% of demand, well below Kuwait’s target of 15% by 2030.
An hour’s drive from the seedy suburb of Jahra, wind turbines and solar panels rise from clouds of sand, the fruit of Kuwait’s energy transition ambitions.
But nearly a decade after the government set up the solar field in the Western Desert, its wastelands are as glaring as its silicon and metal.
At first, Shagaya’s energy park exceeded expectations, the engineers said. The first power plant in the Persian Gulf to combine three different renewable energies – solar, wind and solar thermal – put Kuwait at the forefront. The wind farm outperformed, generating 20% more electricity in the first year than expected, the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research reported.
But the optimism and momentum quickly evaporated. The government relinquished control of the project to attract private funds, an unprecedented move that raised a tangle of legal questions over how the developers would sell power to the country’s sole power supplier.
Instead of continuing the success of the hybrid energy model, investors have devoted the rest of the park to the production of solar thermal energy, the most expensive. Years of delays and canceled tenders followed. The future of the project remains uncertain.
“Officials made the wrong decisions,” said Waleed al-Nassar, a member of Kuwait’s Supreme Councils for Environment, Planning and Development. “There was nobody who acted or wanted to understand. Everyone says, ‘Let’s just do what we’ve been doing for 70 years.’ »
Disputes have also plagued the natural gas industry. While natural gas causes significant emissions of climate-warming gases, it burns cleaner than coal and oil and could play an important role in a low-carbon future for Kuwait.
Kuwait’s 63 trillion cubic meters of gas reserves, or 1% of the world’s total, remain largely untapped. Fields shared with Saudi Arabia in what is known as the Neutral Zone have been closed for years as the countries quarreled over land use.
The elected parliament, which sees itself as a defender of Kuwait’s natural resources against foreign companies and corrupt businessmen, frequently hampers gas exploration. Lawmakers have long sought to challenge the government’s authority to award lucrative energy contracts, summoning oil ministers for questioning over suspicions of mismanagement and blocking major projects.
The legislature also wears the mantle of preserving Kuwait’s lavish welfare state, believing the government lacks accountability. Kuwaitis enjoy the cheapest electricity rates and gasoline prices in the world.
When ministers suggest the government stop spending so much on grants, lawmakers literally fight. Debates in the chamber can degenerate into fistfights.
“That’s one of the biggest challenges. It is considered an ingrained right for every Kuwaiti citizen,” said urban development expert Sharifa Alshalfan.
With lavish subsidies for even the wealthiest, she added, Kuwaitis live on waste, leaving home air conditioners running for months on vacation.
“We don’t have any actions that cities have taken around the world to influence individuals to change their behavior,” she said.
The stagnation plunged the country into a historic financial crisis. Kuwait’s budget deficit soared by more than $35.5 billion last year as oil prices plummeted.
As Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates vie for share of a rapidly growing renewable energy market, environmentalists in Kuwait are stepping into the role of town crier.
“Renewables make so much more sense financially,” said Ahmed Taher, an energy consultant who is promoting a new business model that cuts Kuwait’s energy subsidies by inviting homeowners to buy shares in a solar project. “(The government) needs to know how much more money Kuwait could save and how many more jobs it could have.
But for now, Kuwait continues to burn oil.
Layers of dense pollution cover the streets. Sewage rushes into the steaming bay. Fish carcasses washing up on shore produce a lingering stench, which activists describe as an acrid manifestation of the country’s politics.
“When you walk along the bay, sometimes you feel like throwing up,” said Kuwaiti conservationist Bashar Al Huneidi. “The abusers win and I get discouraged every day.”