The Economy, Land & Climate Podcast

How has climate change affected Lebanon? With Assaad Razzouk

June 24, 2022 Economy Land & Climate Insight Team
The Economy, Land & Climate Podcast
How has climate change affected Lebanon? With Assaad Razzouk
Show Notes Transcript

Lauren talks to Assaad Razzouk, host of the Angry Clean Energy Guy podcast and British Lebanese clean energy entrepreneur. They talk about the recent elections in Lebanon, systemic problems with climate finance, and the ways a clean energy transition could help struggling economies. 

Lauren:

Hi, you're listening to the Economy, Land and Climate Podcast. I'm Lauren Sneade, and this episode I'll be talking to Assad Razzouk, the CEO of a renewable energy company headquartered in Asia. Assad is British Lebanese and hosts the Angry Clean Energy Guy podcast. A thought leader in the climate debate, Assad has often commented on the impact of climate change in the Middle East and in Lebanon.

Assad:

We keep getting delayed by kind of rear guard action by vested interests from fossil fuels and it's just making the whole thing much more challenging, because governments aren't putting their foot down.

Lauren:

I asked Assad about Lebanon's recent elections and whether they had any effect on the climate debate in that region.

Assad:

Yes, of course. Hi, Lauren. Well, first of all, there isn't a climate debate in Lebanon. The concerns of citizens are far more basic because as you know, they do not have centrally provided power, approximately 21 hours to 24 hours per day, which means that most of the country runs on diesel engines, with a tiny proportion running on solar panels. And then second, there's hardly any conversation about climate change, or its environmental impacts or plastic pollution, or the state of rivers, for example, and waste in the country. You're absolutely right that the country has had an election recently, the election was somewhat underwhelming, in the sense that even after the complete collapse of the banking sector, and an explosion in the port of Beirut caused by complete negligence, still, many of the political groups that were in power were returned. The what you might call new voices, or independent voices, represent about 10% of the new parliament. And everybody else is pretty much a reordering of what was there before. So while the elections did bring in some change, I would say that change was incredibly modest compared to the challenges that the country faces. Everything I've just talked about, from a banking collapse to an ineffective government, to no electricity, to massive pollution, and a healthcare system, you know, under the under enormous pressure.

Lauren:

And Lebanon is a region where climate change has been described as a threat multiplier. Can you talk a little bit about what that means?

Unknown:

Well, the Mediterranean region as a whole is one where climate change has been clearly labeled as a threat multiplier. And what that means is that it will multiply some of the features that are undesirable in that region. So for example, climate change could result in less agricultural land, more extreme weather instances, sea level rise, which not only Lebanon, but most countries, south and east of the Mediterranean, really aren't prepared for, less fish in the Mediterranean Sea, less snowfall, in Lebanon, for example, and generally hotter conditions. Plus around Lebanon, as we've seen recently, a marked increase in the tempo of sandstorms, for example. There's all sorts of unexpected impacts that are coming. And I don't think the science really, while it is trying to predict the impact of climate change and how it plays a role as a threat multiplier, is of course on top of every potential scenario, because it can't, it can't be.

Lauren:

And would you say that climate change is exacerbating the political crisis in Lebanon?

Unknown:

No, I wouldn't. If climate change plays out across the eastern Mediterranean and the southern Mediterranean, but probably just as if not more importantly, the Arabian Gulf in Africa, and of course, South Asia, the way we would see it in Europe, first and foremost is probably through an increase in the number of climate refugees. I mean, I wrote an article as long as 2012, I think in The Independent about the risk of increasing numbers of climate refugees. Having said that, Lebanon to date isn't particularly a country that's a number of refugees by boat into for example, Europe's shores. However, as I said, climate is a threat across that entire region. So all the way from South Asia, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, through Iran, which has had severe water problems caused by both mismanagement and climate through to Iraq, the Arabian Gulf countries, and North Africa, all of that country, all of that region is changing because of these climate impacts.

Lauren:

And Lebanon is eligible for climate finance, correct?

Unknown:

Yes, Lebanon is eligible for climate finance, but donors don't know how to really get that money to it. Because at the moment, foreign donors are, you know, whether it's multilateral development organisations or bilateral development organisations.

Lauren:

Sorry, could you explain for our listeners, what the differences between multilateral and bilateral organisations are in this context?

Unknown:

Yeah, of course. So multilateral would be people like the World Bank, for example, the International Finance Corporation, ie development institutions that are owned by lots and lots of countries. Then you've got the regional ones like EBRD, the European Bank for Reconstruction Development, which are owned by mostly the European countries. And then you have the country specific development organisations. So institutions like FMO, out of the Netherlands, or Proparco, and the French Development Bank out of France, and similarly out of most European countries. And so all that crowd is actually quite supportive of funding a revival of the Lebanese economy for all sorts of reasons. However, in effect, it's unable to do so until the country which has a collapsed banking system, and a government that they don't trust, agrees a deal with the International Monetary Fund, another multilateral development institution and puts its own house in order. It's very difficult to receive concessionary and development finance, if your house isn't in order, if people think a lot of the money is going to be siphoned off, or if you don't have a banking system, a functioning banking system, I should say, and Lebanon suffers from all of these.

Lauren:

But wouldn't you also say that many of the countries that desperately need the climate finance are countries where that does apply, that the house is in disarray, because they are countries which are going through political crises and because they're countries which have been badly affected by climate change?

Unknown:

Look, sadly, very few countries rise to the level of Lebanon, in terms of having a combination of a dysfunctional government that foreign institutions don't trust, combined with a banking collapse, combined with every other factor that you know, of. And so it's kind of the totality that looks much worse than many developing countries. And in any case, I think funds can be dispersed and are available, but they will only be dispersed once the country agrees a deal with the International Monetary Fund and is in effect, at least mildly bailed out, and promises to implement reforms that would give some comfort to donors and multilateral and bilateral development institutions, that their money is going to actually go where it's intended.

Lauren:

And what would those sorts of reforms be in Lebanon?

Unknown:

I mean, to be honest, I don't even know where to start. But for example, you've got a non existing power industry, electricity system, which is controlled by a monopoly by the state and is unable to provide any reliable electricity. So as I said, as little as one or two or three hours a day, I should say, as much as one or two or three hours a day to its population. So you need to reform the electricity system. And this has a direct bearing on climate, right, because in the meantime, Lebanon is consuming enormous amounts of diesel, whose price has increased massively because of the Ukraine War, and therefore has impacted the poor and the middle class and even the wealthier residents of the country in even more dramatic ways than they were experiencing just before the Ukraine war. So you have to reform the entire electricity system. And you know, what's very hard to understand is, you could probably power the entire country on solar and wind in about 24 months, however, you don't have the legislative framework to do so. So it's impossible for anybody to even try. And people have been knocking at the government's door for many years, I'm talking international development organisations. And yet, we have not seen a reform of the power sector. Then you've got to reform the waste management sector, you've got to reform the administration, the civil service, you've got to potentially reform the pension system, there's a whole slew of critical reforms that are just not being done. And so meanwhile, the country is, in effect, barely floating. Because it's lucky only in one sense, it has about 5 million residents, but it does have 15 million Lebanese abroad, who remit foreign currency back to Lebanon, and therefore keep the country afloat at a minimum level.

Lauren:

And speaking more widely, what do you think are the big barriers to wide deployment of solar technologies in the Middle East and that region? Speaking very basically, there's a lot of sun there. And so you'd think that there's massive opportunities to actually have a proper universal solar rollout? But what do you think are the big barriers to that?

Unknown:

The big barriers have been the entrenchment of an addiction to fossil fuels in the system. And when I say the system, I mean, for example, the regulatory environment, you know, if you actually aren't allowed to set up a solar power plant, how can you even start thinking about it, in some countries in that region, or in that case, others just have very strong vested fossil fuel interests that slow everything down, Algeria being an example. Others have weak access to finance; Tunisia, and Lebanon, for example. With Lebanon probably checking all of the previous boxes. And so the barriers are varied. I mean, Saudi Arabia has been talking about deploying massive amounts of solar power for a decade, yet, it's just about starting, maybe. Why? Because it's got so much invested in its oil and gas industry. And hence, the motivation, you know, isn't there to just get it done. Iran would be the same story plus no access to international finance. It's kind of not so much 'what are the barriers?' It's like, 'where do I even start?' with the barriers. All of them by the way, Lauren, are artificial barriers, because there's no question that in a country like Lebanon, a citizen would save 80% of what they're spending on fuel, if the country was powered by solar and wind. So it's not affordability or cost, or any of that.

Lauren:

So do you see getting Lebanon powered by solar and wind as an ultimate goal, both in terms of their economy and in terms of climate?

Assad:

As I said, it can get done in two years. But you need the country to - now subsequent to its elections - form a government that has a mandate to get this done. That's what basically it has failed to do for approximately, I don't know, 15 years or something. And so I think while yes, you can power the entire country, and for that matter, all the neighbouring countries as well, and all of North Africa with 100%, solar and wind and batteries, because you can and it's straightforward, and there's published research about how you do it in everyone of these countries, it's not going to get done without a supportive regulatory framework and without stopping the addiction to fossil fuels and to fossil fuel subsidies. Because what's even worse is everybody subsidises I mean the oil and gas and coal that's actually driving the whole problem of climate.

Lauren:

Would you say that after the general elections that Lebanon have just had that that's feeling like an impossibility to do in the next few years?

Assad:

Unfortunately, it's hard to be optimistic. However, you always have to believe, look, it's a bit like climate change. It's very easy to look at climate change as a problem and then to get depressed, because no matter what you and I do, we're not going to have any impact, right? And then people get despondent, and then they disconnect from the topic, while the last thing they should do is get despondent and disconnect from the topic, because in fact, everybody can do something that's actionable, and potentially scalable, if they apply themselves in groups at finding what it is, and then acting, and every country therefore, you know, ultimately requires the same solution. And Lebanon isn't any different. So the citizens and residents of the country together with their elected government, you know, whoever they chose, have to want to do it. And then there needs to be levers of change, and pressure that's applied by those citizens.

Lauren:

Obviously, clean energy is your field of work. So are there any examples globally of countries doing the right thing in terms of the Clean Energy Transition?

Assad:

People or countries?

Lauren:

Countries.

Assad:

Because as far as people are concerned, there are hundreds and hundreds of millions of people that are trying to do the right thing, right? Their actions are scattered, I would say, and you know perhaps not focused on scalable solutions. But the goodwill around doing something about climate change is pretty global. So make that billions trying to do the right thing. As far as governments are concerned, yes, there's plenty of governments trying to do the right thing, but perhaps not going about it in the best possible way. So I'll give you an example. After the Ukraine war highlighted Germany's extreme vulnerability to not only imports of fossil fuels, but actually paying for fossil fuels that are fueling that war, the very same war that they're suffering from, which in effect the Germans are partly paying for, financing, they woke up and said, 'You know what, we're going to be 100% powered by renewable energy by 2035 instead of 2050'. So they advanced their own deadline by 15 years, in less than two weeks, right? So massive change can happen. And so as a declaration of intent, it was very powerful. However, look at what they're doing now. Everybody in Europe is scrambling to actually develop gas terminals, right? They are consistently not applying the necessary conviction and dialogue with their own citizens, because cutting off Russian gas requires sacrifices, but people will make sacrifices, if you explain to them why they should. Instead of doing that, they are putting billions into climate wrecking gas infrastructure projects right now. Right? So there's new liquefied natural gas facilities being proposed in Germany, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands, Canada. I mean, all of that is wrong, because all of that goes completely contrary to in some cases like Germany, the actual laws that they have on their books.

Lauren:

And you mean the actual laws that they have on their books in terms of -

Assad:

- in terms of going 100% renewable and being netzero by a certain date. Because many of these countries have these laws. And so look, the answer to your question is complicated. There are many governments trying to do the right thing. The British are, the Germans are, the French are, the Spaniards, the Italians, the Nordics certainly are, India and China are going almost beyond the call of duty in trying to accelerate renewables, but also the manufacturing capability for solar panels, wind turbines, inverters, electric cars, batteries, you know, you name it, but we keep getting delayed by kind of rear guard action, by vested interests from fossil fuels, and it's just making the whole thing much more challenging because governments aren't putting their foot down. And to close on that topic, citizens have to help push their own governments [to] put their foot down. So movements like Insulate Britain or Extinction Rebellion or Fridays for Future, or 350.org around the world are critical in effecting change because they apply sustained pressure on their elected leaders. And we're just going to have to keep doing this.

Lauren:

Yeah. And as you're talking about nationally determined contributions, it was a news headline last year that Lebanon had updated its climate pledge, and that it was committing to increasing its GHG emission reduction target from 15% to 20%. And do you think that it's fair that countries like Lebanon, who are facing such political crises should be relied upon to meet those increased targets?

Assad:

Yeah, I think it's absolutely fair. First of all, climate action, saves money, and lives, and health care costs, and the environment. So it's not just about the environment, this is about people's lives. And this is about cost as well. Climate Action in Lebanon, as I said, would decrease fuel bills by 80%. What's not to like about that, while saving lives, and lessening the burden on the healthcare system, and cleaning up the environment? And the same, frankly, applies in every country in the world. There's this misunderstanding that climate action is a cost. But in fact, it's not. It's climate inaction which is the cost. It's fossil fuels which are the cost. And so the answer to your question for every country in the world is yes. Absolutely.

Lauren:

Thanks very much to our guest Assad Razzouk, CEO of gear and energy and host of the clean energy guy podcast. We've been the Economy Land and Climate Podcast and if you like what you've heard, head on over to our website at www.elc-insight.org or you can follow us on Twitter @elcinsight. Tune into our next episode when Bertie Harrison-Broninski will be talking to Drew Pendergrass, coauthor of 'Half Earth Socialism: a plan to save the future from extinction, climate change and pandemics.'