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Lebanon has the intent, but does it have the funds to act on climate change?
With the country grappling with a deep economic crisis, its civil society is playing a significant role in protecting the environment.
After another year of record-breaking temperatures and extreme weather disasters, wealthy countries that were under pressure to make good on their commitment to mobilize funds to help poorer countries deal with climate change agreed on historic “loss and damage” at COP27 in Egypt. The deal is hailed as a potential turning point that acknowledges the vast inequities of the climate crisis.
Lebanon is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and according to reports, it will cause a 14% decrease in the country’s GDP by 2040. The Lebanese Environment Ministry estimates a further reduction of 32% by 2080.
Vahakn Kabakian, the climate change advisor at the Ministry of Environment, said Lebanon could benefit from the loss and damage funds.
“The fund can instill comprehensive risk assessment, management, and risk insurance for damaged crops, homes, and infrastructure. In addition to these economic losses, non-economic losses can include human life and human health, lost access to territories, and biodiversity loss,” says Kabakian.
“Can you imagine the cedar tree, Lebanon’s national symbol, can no longer grow in Lebanon due to climate change?” he adds.
In the Middle East, Lebanon was among the first Arab countries to develop an action plan to support renewable energy in 2010 and commitment to adaptation to climate change. But with successive non-functional governments, corruption, overlapping financial crises, and the pandemic, pledges were not honored.
“Lebanon has gone through the right motions. However, implementation on the ground is not happening for many reasons, mainly because of financial constraint and corruption,” said Nadim Farajalla, director of the climate change and environment program at Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs of the American University of Beirut.
“The intention to work on climate has always been there. The environment is figured in the policy statements of all governments. We talk the good talk, but we don’t do the work,” Farajalla adds.
WORSENING ECONOMIC CRISIS
Lebanon is grappling with a deep economic crisis after successive governments piled up debt following the 1975-1990 civil war with little to show for their spending binge.
Banks, central to the service-oriented economy, are paralyzed. The currency has crashed, driving a swathe of the population into poverty.
Financial constraint is the main obstacle to any action on climate change. The ministry of environment’s budget was cut to the minimum as the government earmarked whatever funds it had to support more pressing and fundamental needs such as fuel and food and paying the salaries of public servants.
Before 2019, several environmental initiatives were made, including the Lebanon afforestation initiative that sought to reintroduce native species in forests. The government approved a major wind farm in the country’s north, promoted renewable energy, and outlined energy efficiency regulations.
“What happened after October 2019 sort of unraveled everything,” Farajalla said, adding that Lebanon, nonetheless, has since produced its state of environment reports.
Many environmental problems persist, including groundwater contamination and a lack of proper solid waste management. And urgent solutions are needed for power generation.
For almost two years, Lebanon has suffered a quasi-total blackout. Electricity is secured through private generators, one of the leading causes of air pollution. On average, the state-run electricity company, Électricité du Liban, supplies Lebanese households with only a few hours of electricity every few days.
“Restoring regular electric supply will improve the air quality polluted by diesel generators. Electric supply is crucial for the water treatment plants because water quality and solid waste management is our second biggest environmental hazard,” Farajalla says.
Although a small country, Lebanon has a robust civil society engaged in environmental activism. The Lebanese Eco Movement, a network of 60 environmental NGOs, was established ten years ago to preserve the country’s natural resources and cultural heritage.
The group has an environmental observatory across Lebanon run by two employees and some 300 volunteers. It actively raises public awareness about environmental hazards and collaborates with legislators to push for environmental policies and laws.
“We monitor violations in all regions, such as tree-cutting, arson, and waste dumping in waterways and rivers. We also have teams of first responders in Akkar (north Lebanon) who check forest fires in the region, which were mostly human-induced,” says Fadlallah Hassouna, President of the Lebanese Eco Movement.
“We aim to increase Lebanon’s green areas from 13% to 30%, but we are struggling against violators and the politicians who cover them. But we will not give up,” Hassouna adds.
The currency devaluation and the raised prices of fuel and diesel to operate power generators prompted many to shift to solar energy to generate power.
“The crisis has raised public awareness about the importance of alternative, sustainable energy sources. It accelerated the shift to solar energy, but only the rich can afford to install solar systems,” says Hassouna.
He stressed that Lebanon desperately needs a government focused on protecting its depleting natural resources.
“As long as we have a corrupt ruling class, we will not be able to implement international commitments to adapt to climate change. We have no solid or non-solid waste management plants, no green power plants, and we have not implemented plans to reduce carbon gas emissions,” Hassouna adds.
Things are changing slowly. The Lebanese government has recently established the Lebanon Green Investment Facility and called on countries and donors to invest in and help finance it.
The facility would be initially geared towards supporting private Lebanese entities, primarily energy-related projects.
“The facility’s objectives are to provide blended finance, including private equity mixed with grants and concessional loans from donor communities. It will have a framework governed by private entities and supported mainly by international organizations,” Kabakian said.
Despite all the odds facing Lebanon’s efforts on the environment, Farajalla remains optimistic, stressing that the country has strong potential for renewables.
“We are not a total disaster. However, things are not moving as fast as we would like them to,” Farajalla says.
“People are more aware now, and many enterprises are becoming innovative in dealing with trash, polluted waters, and controlling emissions. Governments’ sensibilities are now heightened, and if people organize properly, we can push for more.”
“The foundations are slowly being put in place; different laws and plans are being devised. Let us build on those, and as we build, we clean up the mess,” he adds.