Renewable Energy and the Middle East Revolutions
by Avril David
As protesters across the Middle East continue their fight for democracy and liberation, speculators have drawn attention to the inevitable impact of this instability and change on the oil and gas sector, in oil price spikes.
Looking at these two trends—calls for democratic empowerment and spiking oil prices—it seems that we could be nearing the time for seriously putting the renewable energy discussion (and renewable energy partnerships) back on the table.
On January 17 at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called for a “global clean energy revolution,” saying that “investing in the green economy is not simply a luxury of the developed countries. It represents opportunity for job creation and economic growth in developing countries.”
As we hope for a sustainable and robust transition to democratic empowerment in countries across the Middle East, perhaps we can also begin envisioning what new models for international energy partnerships might look like, models that are based on a shared foundation of and commitment to democratic empowerment. If handled right, economic growth, political empowerment, and renewable energy solutions could work together as a mutually reinforcing system in a newly democratic Middle East.
Take the issues of Egypt as an example. According to the U.S. Energy Information Association, Egypt’s oil production peaked in 1996 at 935,000 barrels a day. Since then, production has declined by nearly 30% to about 660, 000 barrels a day. Food prices in Egypt used to be subsidized by oil revenues, and those subsidies were significantly cut back, despite record high global food prices in 2010, adding to the frustrations of an already struggling population.
According to the U.N. Population Fund, Cairo’s population has nearly doubled over the past 30 years as many rural poor have moved to the city seeking work. In addition, an influx of refugees fleeing neighboring Sudan’s civil war has added to the city’s population burden. As a result, a new urban poor population has taken root in Cairo, with the vast majority living in informal settlements without access to electricity and without political clout.
To add to this already difficult picture, the city also suffers from what water experts refer to as “genuine water scarcity” (Pacific Institute, 2002), which is caused by general climate dryness and large fluctuations in the area’s limited rainfall. According to the Pacific Institute’s Water Resources Index, Egypt will be considered a “high stress” water region by 2025, plagued by frequent shortages. Cairo’s growing population adds to the city’s water management problems. As more unplanned settlements are added to the city, the eastern boundary of Cairo gets pushed further out to undesirable lands in the desert without access to planned or natural water sources.
Initiatives such as Desertec offer a possibility for how the international community might start a new energy chapter with the Middle East, one that provides a renewable energy source, creates jobs, and increases potable water. According to information on the Desertec website, Desertec involves “concentrated solar power” stations based in the desert that would supply energy to North Africa and the Middle East, with excess energy being distributed to European Union countries. Desalinated water produced during the solar energy production process could be distributed to Egyptian settlements, increasing the drinking water supply and improving public health; improvements in public health are widely viewed in the development community as a positive contributor to economic development.
But Desertec is just one potential solution. As these movements progress, it will be interesting to see if and how we can work together with these countries to build a more sustainable and empowered future—both environmentally and politically.