by Austin Bodetti
Kuwait would seem to have little in common with the environmental movement at first glance. Like its neighbors in the Persian Gulf, Kuwait depends on exporting fossil fuels to power its economy. The country joined Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States in declining to endorse a landmark report on global warming at the Katowice Climate Change Conference last year for that very reason. Even so, Kuwaitis recognize that ever-diminishing oil reserves can only take them so far in the twenty-first century. In preparation for the petroleum industry running dry, Kuwait has embraced environmentalism.
Responsibility for environmental policy falls to the National Assembly, Kuwait’s legislature, and the Environment Public Authority, or EPA, which has run its own law enforcement agency since 2015. The Kuwait Environment Police has displayed an aggressive commitment to environmental protection, earning praise on Twitter. One Kuwaiti parliamentarian even encouraged the EPA to expand the law enforcement agency and expedite prosecutions “to stop improper dumping of waste.”
“The National Assembly and the EPA have implemented effective policies,” said Salem Alajmi, general manager of the Kuwaiti consulting firm Smart Technology for Alternative Energy. “Now, we only need to improve the quality and quantity of the EPA’s employees and apply the rules seriously and fairly.”
Kuwaiti government agencies have launched other initiatives to preserve the natural environment, among them the Environmental Information Monitoring System of Kuwait and the Kuwait Environmental Governance Initiative, a project developed in coordination with the United Nations. Civil society has also offered some assistance. The Kuwait Environmental Protection Society is working to limit pollution while the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR) has inked a memorandum of understanding with the Kuwaiti Health Ministry to determine how best to expand the use of renewable energy there.
“These policies have been very effective in establishing environmental standards to regulate pollution outputs from households to industries,” Mohammad Alshawaf, an assistant professor of environmental science at Kuwait University, told LobeLog. “However, monitoring pollution can be expensive sometimes, but the cost is decreasing because of emerging technologies.”
Strengthening the renewable energy industry may prove the most forward-looking element of the country’s environmental policy. Though Kuwait can produce 3.15 million barrels of oil per day and hopes to reach four million by 2020, the country also consumes 450 thousand barrels each day. To lower this number, Kuwait plans for renewable energy to account for 15 percent of its electricity generation by 2030, an ambitious goal for a country that contains as much as 8 percent of the world’s oil reserves.
“The country is tapping into its abundance of sunshine and wind to generate electrical power,” said Alshawaf.
The Shagaya Renewable Energy Park, a joint venture between civil society, the private sector, and the public sector designed to harvest solar energy, forms the centerpiece of the Kuwaiti strategy to ensure energy security. The participants include KISR, the Kuwait National Petroleum Company, the Kuwait Authority for Partnership Projects, and the Kuwaiti Electricity and Water Ministry, which have substantial expertise in renewable energy and share a commitment to preparing Kuwait for global warming.
“The goal is to be less dependent on fossil fuels in meeting the local energy demand,” observed Osamah Alsayegh, executive director of the Energy and Building Research Center at KISR. “The strategy has been put into action through a number of initiatives.”
As Kuwait produces more renewable energy, it will emit fewer greenhouse gases, gain more time to wean itself off fossil fuels and export-led growth, and slow the effects of climate change.
“This vision has translated into a strategy to transform Kuwait into a low-carbon economy and sustain its prosperity,” Alsayegh told LobeLog. “Such a strategy frees oil from being consumed locally. It can instead be sent to foreign markets to increase revenue, or can be saved for future generations.”
Aside from solar power, the most common example of renewable energy on the Arabian Peninsula, Kuwait is also investigating the potential of wind power. The country has even courted foreign direct investment, inviting Spanish companies Elecnor and Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy to build and oversee wind farms. Given that global warming may render much of the Gulf uninhabitable by 2090, devastating cities from Bandar Abbas to Dubai, Kuwait has more than enough reasons to bankroll the renewable energy industry and support the environmental movement.
“In addition, the deployment of renewable technologies would open up new economic sectors through the establishment of new business and job opportunities,” said Alsayegh. “Moreover, Kuwait is committed to global initiatives to counter climate change—hence, through investment in renewable-energy technologies domestically, Kuwait is meeting these international obligations by mitigating greenhouse gas emissions through the adoption of clean-energy systems.”
As a well-connected, wealthy monarchy, Kuwait has a unique opportunity not only to pioneer clean energy and environmental science at home but also to promote environmentalism abroad. Though Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have greater diplomatic and financial resources at their disposal, their confrontational foreign policies—as well as misadventures in Libya and Yemen—have undercut their influence in the international community. Instead, Kuwait should follow the example set by Oman, which has championed the environmental movement in partnership with the UN.
Alshawaf noted that Kuwait could introduce “economic tools into policies to incentivize the conservation of natural resources and deter waste generation. In many cases, economic incentives have proven that they are cost-effective when compared with non-economic tools.”
In Pakistan, Kuwait has already begun taking these steps. The Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development financed a project to harness hydropower by building a dam there in 2012. The Kuwait Fund could apply the same model to other countries in the Arab and Muslim worlds that have demonstrated a desire and need for renewable energy, from Iraq and Yemen to Malaysia and Niger. Kuwait can help the Global South achieve sustainable development before climate change all but precludes that possibility. At the same time, Kuwait must also realize its own objectives for renewable energy.
“If we continue producing energy with oil, we will burn 900,000 barrels per day by 2030,” Alajmi told LobeLog, acknowleding the future risks of Kuwait’s long-term reliance on fossil fuels. “Renewable energy will conserve oil and lower the emission of greenhouse gases.”
Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda, and his research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.