Pathways toward improved regional cooperation in the Middle East are rarely smooth, and the road towards environmental and climate action is no exception. Rarely benefiting from high-level political attention or a surplus of resources, environmental issues have been too easily pushed to the sidelines due to other regional priorities. However, a recent series of dire climate change reports and effects have helped reverse this trend, with new threats emerging to economic progress and regional stability. The current common environmental challenges - such as climate change - faced by regional states present opportunities for improved policymaking and closer cooperation at regional and sub-regional levels in the Arab world.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says the 1.5˚C goal is technically and economically feasible, but depends on political leadership to become reality. While different parts of the MENA region are vulnerable to threats, climate change obviously does not respect national boundaries - and countries in the region are facing several similar threats. Implementing adaptation and mitigation measures, where possible, will simply not be viable if each country follows a purely domestic approach.

The potential benefits would very likely be neutralised by a lack of alignment between similarly affected countries. While dealing with climate change itself is unquestionably a global responsibility, anticipating its consequences for the Arab region and dealing with them will be rendered much more effective with regional cooperation.

Where are we today in terms of regional cooperation?

The media is replete with articles describing the various ambitious climate action programmes announced in the MENA region. However, as every player knows, political will and cooperation, though critical, are only part of the story. Divided by deserts, and with a number of shared challenges, there have been plenty of discussions between the region’s states around cooperating to tackle environmental issues - but a surprising number of them have resulted only in unimplemented reports, strategies, and summits. A major reason for this is that the participants, whether environment officials or consulting agencies or experts, often lack the authority or commitment to move beyond consultations or report writing to turn cooperation initiatives into a reality.

The regional group known as the Gulf Cooperative Council or GCC, whose political, socioeconomic, and geographic similarities go a long way towards explaining its relative cohesiveness and increasing institutionalisation, might hold the key to progress. Despite intense competition among its member states in many areas, and despite the ongoing crisis surrounding the Qatar crisis, the GCC could hold the most promise of any Arab sub-regional group for moving towards integrated environmental governance - although progress to-date remains limited.

The countries in the Gulf and MENA regions need to unite in joint climate action, while recognising that the fulfillment of their economic aspirations is highly dependent on their interlinked environmental sustainability. As the GCC states endeavour to transform into knowledge-based economies, there are numerous opportunities for collaboration on climate change that should not be hindered by the current political tensions among its members.

Other sub-regional groups such as the Levant (Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq) and the Maghreb (Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia) have had less success in intergovernmental cooperation on the environment. Morocco, however, has been an active player ever since COP22 in Marrakech; it has been actively investing in renewable energy and has called for greater regional cooperation on grid-sharing in the Maghreb region.

Forging a more optimistic scenario for regional environmental cooperation will not require a radical transformation of present-day politics or policymaking. To start with, there is no shortage of draft plans for environmental cooperation in the region. Much of what is lacking today is simply following through on ideas already under development.

Collective action needed

With all Arab States signing and a few ratifying the Paris Agreement, Arab countries have embarked on a new economic priority to build truly sustainable and resilient economies that will last beyond oil and natural gas. The Arab countries’ vulnerability to climate change is real, and joint action to move towards low-carbon development and green growth will in turn enable them to make further contributions to global climate action. Given the similarities among Arab countries in terms of their economic structure, natural resources and climatic conditions, important synergies could be achieved through regional cooperation.

Unfortunately, while countries in the region have been increasingly involved in cooperation on climate action, regional and sub-regional cooperation - such as between members of the GCC - remains fragile. As the Arab region states endeavour to transform to post-oil and gas-based economies, there are numerous opportunities for collaboration on climate change that should not be hindered by the current political tensions between member states.

The climate actions and emission pledges that have been made so far are inadequate both regionally and globally, and many are conditional on other countries keeping their side of the bargain. Fresh momentum is sorely needed in 2020 in our common battle against climate change. Upgraded nationally determined contributions (NDC) could build on recent growth rates, pick up targets from national energy plans, and more closely reflect renewables' cost-effective potential. This would strengthen the effectiveness of the Paris Agreement and help significantly to limit the global temperature rise.

No region on Earth is expected to be harder hit by climate change then the Arab world. No other region has already displayed quite so clearly the potential threats to stability and peace that rapid environmental change may bring. Responses at the national level will be necessary, but perhaps not sufficient, for mitigating these threats and forging a sustainable path to development by cooperation.

Improved information sharing, technical cooperation and political negotiation at regional and sub-regional levels will play an important role in forging this cooperation. While it is easy to identify obstacles to cooperation in the Arab World, these obstacles should not be used as an excuse for despair and inaction. The reality is that climate change presents both a threat and an opportunity to the region. This threat should unite us, and success will depend on carrying this political commitment to climate action and implementation. If the world’s biggest economies are accelerating climate action, everybody else will have to take notice.