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The massive challenge of climate action in oil-dependent Iraq

Oil provides 90 per cent of Iraq’s revenue. Even as farmland dries up, fractured governance makes reform seem almost impossible.

By Lizzie Porter

Flying over southern Iraq at night, the sky burns orange. Heaven and earth are illuminated by dozens of flaming towers in the oilfields scattered across the desert. The towers – known as flare stacks – burn off gases released during the production of crude oil, the black gold that provides more than 90 per cent of the Iraqi state’s revenues. 

Iraq is the world’s second-worst offender when it comes to gas flaring, according to a recent World Bank report, after Russia. Every year, the country’s flare stacks emit billions of cubic metres of carbon dioxide, polluting the local environment and making life miserable for people who live and work near the oilfields. 

The scale of the gas flaring falls in line with Iraq’s significant crude oil output. The country is the second-largest producer in the Opec group, pumping 4.34 million barrels a day, according to an independent analysis by Iraq Oil Report.

For decades Iraq has relied on oil to fund a bloated public sector at the expense of economic diversification. But as Iraq’s delegation, headed by President Barham Salih, arrives in Glasgow for Cop26, the country faces enormous challenges in combating the effects of climate change. A combination of years of conflict, poor governance and a lack of awareness leaves it ill-equipped to implement the needed reform. A rapidly growing population – the number of Iraqis is expected to double to 80 million by 2050 – adds even more pressure.

“I can count on one hand the number of leaders that are even aware of the urgency of the situation,” said Azzam Alwash, a member of Iraq’s Cop26 delegation and founder of Nature Iraq, a non-governmental organisation. “That is how bad the situation is, politically speaking.”

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Gas flaring is just one factor contributing to the climate crisis. A crippled electricity grid forces Iraqis to rely on power generators that belch diesel fumes into the air. Low rainfall and damming on rivers upstream in Turkey and Iran have caused water levels to plummet. Plastic and sewage fill waterways because waste management systems don’t work. This year, there have been widespread crop failures, drought-induced migration and an increasing sense of panic among people who rely on the land to survive. 

“We see more migration towards the cities that are already struggling with poor water and power infrastructure,” said Maha Yassin, a researcher at the Planetary Security Initiative of the Netherlands-based Clingendael Institute. “This is creating social tensions, and maybe more internal conflicts.”

Iraq is making some efforts to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis. The country has pledged to reduce CO2 emissions by 2 per cent in the public sector and 15 per cent in the private sector by 2030. The pledge is made with a condition, though – that there is “stability and financial support”, said Alwash. Despite the territorial defeat of the Islamic State (IS), security in Iraq is still unstable: there are frequent deadly attacks by IS insurgents and armed disputes between tribes.

Earlier this year, the office of President Salih also published a nine-point plan for tackling climate change in Iraq. The ideas sound sensible on paper: a reduction in gas flaring at oilfields, reforestation, lessening reliance on fossil fuels, and better water management. But implementing them will be a challenge. A major problem is Iraq’s fractured system of governance, which mixes armed groups, tribes, political parties and sectarian and ethnic groups. Even when there is a well-intentioned plan for climate-oriented reform, officials cannot or will not act, observers say. 

“Iraq is a hybrid regime where power is not constrained within the state apparatus only, but also with centres of power outside of the state – states within the state – and resources from the rentier economy have helped fund many of the operations of these groups,” said Zeinab Shuker, a professor of sociology at Sam Houston State University in Texas. “As a result, even if there is a state capacity that can tackle something as complicated as climate change and economic diversification, there is no political will to do so.”

Law enforcement is also an issue. “There’s poor management of sewage water, waste management, salinisation in the south [of Iraq],” said Yassin. “I see members of the Ministry of Health and Environment writing warning notes to violators like hospitals and factories, but this never stops these institutions from polluting.”

[See also: Iraq’s election shows a society fraying at the edges]

As for gas flaring, reducing it is easier said than done. The gas can be used as power plant feedstock, or reinjected into underground oil reservoirs. Such practices are happening in some places, but the infrastructure required is enormously expensive and can be politically sensitive. Earlier this year, the minister for natural resources in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region ordered oil companies to end flaring within 18 months. But the edict gave little detail on how oilfield operators – already facing slow approvals and missing payments from the Kurdistan Regional Government – are expected to fund the enormous investment needed. 

In federal Iraq, the Ministry of Oil in Baghdad is trying to develop its solar power generation capacity – although so far, talks and agreements with investors from the UAE, France and Norway have not resulted in photovoltaic panels on the ground. 

With its ill-developed private sector, weaning Iraq off its carbon-heavy and polluting oil industry is a huge challenge. “There are so many regulations that have been inherited from over 50 years of socialism that it is virtually impossible to do anything without falling into the traps of a system that discourages private enterprise,” said Alwash. “On top of that, there is very little public awareness about issues of climate change.”

For now, Basra’s night sky remains illuminated by the light of toxic burning. Rivers stay clogged with rubbish and other pollutants. People continue to be forced to migrate from farms and villages to towns and cities, as the land dries up, unable to bear fruit.

Lizzie Porter is a British journalist based in Iraq, where she is senior correspondent for “Iraq Oil Report”.

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