COP26: An Opportunity for A Healthier Caspian
Nov 25, 2021
The COP26 Summit, which took place October 31-November 12, highlighted how Central Asia needs to come to terms with the environmental challenges facing its landscape and endangering its people, economies, and wildlife. The Summit presented opportunities for Central Asian states to take more serious action to fight climate change and to remediate its impacts on the region, while also showing ways developed industrialized countries can assist. While important steps were taken at the Summit, there remains much room for continued action and cooperation.
Central Asia confronts serious environmental problems, ranging from desiccation of the Aral Sea due to cotton monoculture and water supply mismanagement, pollution of the Caspian Sea and drinking water, soil salinization, and erosion, to the lingering environmental impacts of nuclear weapons testing. These environmental problems were already serious during the Soviet Union period. Now, they have become more important than ever for development, well-being, prosperity, and stability in Central Asia. Many Central Asian economies heavily depend on agricultural production, but all need water as well for their often growing populations. However, with the impacts of climate change, the certainty of those supplies is in doubt. Access to water resources has already led to bilateral and regional tensions, and even to border clashes. Global warming has exacerbated these environmental issues, including by affecting a key source of the region’s water: the snowpacks in the Himalayas and other mountain ranges.
Central Asian states, realizing the seriousness of the situation, have begun to act. On November 2, UN agencies at COP26 formed a water and climate coalition, led by Tajikistan and Hungary, to strengthen and improve water resource management. Furthermore, in about a week from now, Switzerland will host the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference (MC12), originally scheduled for June 2020 in Nur-Sultan, chaired by Kazakhstan’s Minister of Trade and Integration Bakhyt Sultanov. Not unlike COP26, the MC12 is expected to feature discussions on how to use international trade to advance climate goals.
At the same time as the COP26 discussions focused on cutting carbon emissions, the world faces a growing need for energy. A further important factor for the region is that oil and gas production plays a weighty economic role in several Central Asian states, including as a top source of government revenues and foreign exchange. A phase-out of oil and gas exports means trying to find alternative revenue sources. Additionally, the imposition of carbon taxes on imports into the EU and other trading partners poses another factor that can lessen the international competitiveness of products from the region. However, as the current tight gas market in Europe and high prices for natural gas globally show, there is an ongoing need for reliable energy, a reality that raises additional environment-related questions for governments and economic enterprises in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Nevertheless, the transition to a lower carbon future, like other steps to address environmental realities, can mean economic as well as environmental gains. Capturing methane can translate into increased quantities of natural gas for sale while preventing the release of the harmful compound into the air. Increased energy efficiency lowers costs for private consumers as well as businesses. Tapping the extensive solar and wind power potential in the region can provide needed electricity at prices competitive with power generated by hydrocarbons, but without the pollution, thus addressing domestic political pressures arising from poor air quality while also cutting carbon emissions.
COP26 saw several achievements. The five Central Asian states made a collaborative effort to submit ambitious nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Kazakhstan, especially, took major steps towards addressing climate change. Together with the Swedish-German firm Svevind, the country is developing 45GW of wind and solar capacity, part of which will be used to power hydrogen-producing electrolysers. Kazakhstan was also the first Central Asian state to establish an emissions trading scheme, and the country also pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.
However, one of the key – and certainly contentious – topics at COP26 was support from the developed industrialized countries for developing countries as they transition to cleaner energy futures and take measures needed to mediate the effects of climate change. This was part of the discussion by the Energy Transition Council at COP26, but there have been no official details for how this will be achieved. Yet, there is already funding available from the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and other international institutions as well as from bilateral donor agencies. Something else that should be recognized is the potential for the export of newer, more efficient energy technologies and systems to Central Asia and the Caucasus. While not featured in the news coverage of COP26, these commercial dealings could be important wins for all concerned.
While Central Asian governments should coordinate internationally, including with their neighbors, especially on such matters as transnational issues of water management and energy production, they need to act domestically as well. Nur-Sultan’s mayor recently decided to drain the wetlands around Lake Taldykol to build new urban development despite complaints from environmentalists and residents about the city’s worsening air quality. Similarly, Bishkek has suffered some of the worst smog in the world due to poor urban planning that has seen little supervision from state bodies. To signal that Central Asia is serious about climate action, it should not turn a blind eye towards its domestic policies. Large-scale reform should go hand-in-hand with small-scale environmental actions to improve the sustainability of the Central Asian landscape and the health and well-being of its people. This should not be left forgotten in the aftermath of COP26.