In August 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its landmark study on the current state of climate change. The report provides a stark account of the impact that human-induced global warming has had on the climate system. This includes increases in the frequency and intensity of hot extremes, marine heatwaves, heavy precipitation, agricultural and ecological droughts, more intense tropical cyclones, and reductions in Arctic sea ice and permafrost.1 In February 2020 the Antarctic region observed its highest temperature on record at 18.3 degree Celsius, in 2017 the Kuwaiti Mitribah weather station’s reading of 53.9 degrees Celsius was the uppermost temperature ever recorded in Asia and among the highest recorded on earth.2 Although the IPCC warns that many changes due to Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions are now irreversible, it does stress that reducing GHG emissions - and reaching at least net zero CO2 - would limit the warming effect and changes to the climate system.3
The IPCC has reported in its six-assessment report on Asia that is has high confidence that heat extremes and marine heatwaves will continue.4 For the Arabian Peninsula specifically the IPCC states that increasing warming levels are projected to raise the intensity, frequency, and totals of precipitation.5 Kuwait is at the forefront of the risks for natural and human systems that continued global warming pose, and a leading emitter of GHG and exporter of hydrocarbons. Several scientific studies on Kuwait have detailed how climate change is central to producing ever more extreme weather events in the country, including: record-breaking land and sea surface temperatures6; increased severity of droughts and dust storms7; and more frequent and severe flash floods.8
The government of Kuwait has recognized that many sectors are vulnerable to the impact of climate change, including coastal zones (in particular Kuwait Bay), the marine ecosystem, water resources, and public health (with increased heat stress and increased cardiovascular and respiratory diseases).9 The government has stated that it, “is committed to efforts that harmonize economic growth with a low-carbon, climate-resilient development.”10 The State Audit Bureau in March 2021 reiterated the government’s commitment to tackling climate change and the need for regulatory bodies to address it.11
Kuwait’s GHG emissions, however, have accelerated in recent years. CO2 emissions have increased 140 percent from 1994 to 2016.12 According to a recent UN technical assessment, the country is expected to continue to experience increases in its total annual GHG emissions going forward.13 Kuwait’s economy is a carbon economy: oil accounts for 90 percent of the country’s revenue and more than half of GDP; it holds one of the largest reserves of oil and gas in the world and has some of the lowest production costs. Perhaps to a greater extent than many other countries, Kuwait faces profound social and ecological impacts both from continued global warming and global efforts to move to net-zero carbon societies.
The government of Kuwait has recognized the global transition away from fossil fuels and efforts to limit global warming will have profound implications on the country’s economy, environment, and social life more broadly. The goal of this research is to provide a situated account of climate change in Kuwait, to examine how the inhabitants of Kuwaitis (both citizens and non-citizens) understand and experience climate change, to assist in policy and scholarly efforts that are working toward achieving low carbon socities in Kuwait and beyond.
Source: Kuwait Biennial update report (2019); Kuwait's Second National Communication to the UNFCCC (2019).
Source: Atkinson, G., & Gelan, A. (2021). Sustainability, natural capital and climate change in Kuwait.
In November 2021, around 190 world leaders, will gather in Glasgow, Scotland, for the 26th annual summit of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties (UNFCCC COP26). In 2015 at COP21 in Paris, every country agreed to work to limit global warming to 2 degrees and aim for 1.5 degrees; and to set out Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) on how they would reduce emissions. Six years later and the world is not on track to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. The targets announced in Paris would result in warming well above 3 degrees. The world needs to halve emissions over the next decade and reach net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century if global temperatures are to be limited to 1.5 degrees.14 At COP26, countries will be asked to update their NDCs to align with reaching net-zero by the middle of the century and to invest in renewables.
In April 2018, Kuwait officially submitted its first NDC (authored in November 2015). The report stated that the government sought to manage the impact of climate change and work toward moving to a “low carbon equivalent emissions economy”.15 It would achieve this through commitments to energy production from renewable energy that have been realized in part through the opening of the Shahaya Renewable Energy Park, a 3.2 GWe solar power, photovoltaic and wind energy complex. Like many countries across the Arab region, many measures reported in the NDCs are “intended” and pending financial support. Kuwait’s NDC, for instance, includes the long-stated ambition - in discussion since the late 1970s - to create a mass transit (metro) system. Salpie Djoundourian’s analysis of mitigation and adaptation measures reported in NDCs across the Arab world shows that Kuwait reports the highest percentage of projects (56%) in the region that are either completed or being implemented.16
While Kuwait has not updated its NDC for COP26, it submitted its second National Communication in July 2019 and its first Biennial Update Report (BUR) in September 2019 to the UNFCCC. The BUR detailed that the energy sector is the largest source of GHG emissions, accounting for 95.6 percent of total national emissions in 2016.17 Most emissions from this sector stemmed from electricity and desalinated water production (58 percent), transport (18 percent) and the oil and gas industry (11 percent).18 A technical study on the energy sector for the fourth master plan notes that Kuwait is facing a significant rise in energy demand in the rapidly growing residential sector due to the high consumption of water and use of air conditioning. 19 All fresh water is from high energy consuming desalination plants in Kuwait and the country has among the highest per capita water consumption rates in the world (35,415 IG in 2015).20 Air conditioning accounts for 65 percent of the electric peak demand in a building and residential buildings consume about 60 percent of national power.21 The technical study on energy also noted a disregard for sustainable building practices in construction.22
This study responds to the Government of Kuwait’s stated key needs outlined in its Second National Communication report to build public and policy-maker awareness on climate change, and to better integrate climate change considerations into national planning and policy dialogues.23 It contributes to the scholarly literature that has stressed the importance of climate change as a “lived experience” and the need to include more people in the debate about how to confront the structural roots of the climate crisis.24 There exists only a small literature on the awareness and understandings of climate change in Gulf Arab countries and this report aims to make a foundational contribution to this work.25
Our research shows that while the government of Kuwait has committed the country toward moving to a “low carbon equivalent emissions economy” there is an absence of discussion as to what this pledge means or how it should be implemented. There is a broadly shared experience of the impact of climate change in Kuwait, which respondents described in terms of extremes of heat, more severe dust storms and flooding. However, this report indicates how many in Kuwait do not actually appreciate the scope or severity of the issue. This research also evidences a wide divergence among the inhabitants of Kuwait as to how seriously the issue of climate change should be taken now or in the future, with several framing it as a Western or “luxury” concern compared to other issues deemed to be more pressing priorities. Experts engaged in this research expressed their frustration at the lack of understanding among government officials about climate change, and the levels of seriousness in which they approached the issue.
Our study shows that within Kuwaiti society climate change is not a priority: there is little to no dialogue around climate change or the impact that global efforts toward net-zero economies could have for the country. In conducting our research, however, we found there is a noticeable generational divide, with the youth (ages 15-24) showing greater concern with climate change than the older generations. Our research highlights how those most vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change are already among the most marginalized in the country. Migrant workers and the stateless community (bidoon) are employed to a greater extent in outdoor activities and generally live in poorer urban areas than Kuwaiti citizens. This population will be at greater risk from the fatal consequences that higher temperatures, flooding and more severe dust storms bring.
This research paper draws on qualitative data derived from over 35 semi-structured interviews in English and Arabic conducted by the research team, one high-level policy focus group, two focus groups with Kuwaiti youth, an analysis of the December 2020 Kuwait parliamentary elections and a media review.26 This research was conducted from October 2020 to July 2021. The focus groups were held under Chatham House rules. All participants interviewed for this study were provided with consent forms and given the option to undertake interviews anonymously or on the record. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic most of the interviews were conducted online via Zoom or WhatsApp. The interviews engaged: state officials, candidates for national elections, scientists, environmental consultants and activists, NGO workers, and other Kuwaiti citizens and non-citizens. Climate change is widely regarded by scholars to exacerbate inequality.27 Therefore, interviews also engaged Kuwait’s most vulnerable communities, such as the bidoon [stateless] population and migrant workers, to illuminate the extent to which they are impacted by climate change.