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Residents shelter from the sun on Shuwaikh Beach in Kuwait City, Kuwait. Picture: BLOOMBERG/BASSAM ZIDAN AHLAWY
Residents shelter from the sun on Shuwaikh Beach in Kuwait City, Kuwait. Picture: BLOOMBERG/BASSAM ZIDAN AHLAWY

Trying to catch a bus at the Maliya station in Kuwait City can be unbearable in summer. About two-thirds of the city’s buses pass through the hub, and schedules are unreliable. Fumes from bumper-to-bumper traffic fill the air. Small shelters offer refuge to a handful of people, if they squeeze. Dozens end up standing in the sun, sometimes using umbrellas to shield themselves.

Global warming is smashing temperature records worldwide, but Kuwait — one of the hottest countries on the planet — is fast becoming unlivable. In 2016, thermometers hit 54°C, the highest reading on Earth in the last 76 years. Last year, for the first time, they breached 50°C in June, weeks ahead of usual peak weather. Parts of Kuwait could get as much as 4.5°C hotter from 2071 to 2100 compared with the historical average, according to the Environment Public Authority, making large areas of the country uninhabitable.

For wildlife, it almost is. Dead birds appear on rooftops in the brutal summer months, unable to find shade or water. Vets are inundated with stray cats, brought in by people who have found them near death from heat exhaustion and dehydration. Even wild foxes are abandoning a desert that no longer blooms after the rains for what small patches of green remain in the city, where they are treated as pests.

Unlike countries from Bangladesh to Brazil that are struggling to balance environmental challenges with teeming populations and widespread poverty, Kuwait is Opec’s fourth-largest oil exporter. Home to the world’s third-largest sovereign wealth fund and just more than 4.5-million people, it is not a lack of resources that stands in the way of cutting greenhouse gases and adapting to a warmer planet, but rather political inaction.

Graphic: BLOOMBERG
Graphic: BLOOMBERG

Even Kuwait’s neighbours, also dependent on crude exports, have pledged to take stronger climate action. Saudi Arabia said in 2021 it would target net-zero emissions by 2060. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has set a goal of 2050. Though they remain among the biggest producers of fossil fuels, both say they are working to diversify their economies and investing in renewables and cleaner energy. The next two UN climate conferences will take place in Egypt and the UAE, as Mideastern governments acknowledge they also stand to lose from rising temperatures and sea levels.

Kuwait, by contrast, pledged at the COP26 summit in November to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 7.4% by 2035, a target that falls far short of the 45% reduction needed to meet the Paris Agreement’s stretch goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C by 2030. The nation’s $700bn sovereign wealth fund invests with the specific aim of hedging against oil, but has said that returns remain a priority as it shifts to more sustainable investing.

“Compared with the rest of the Middle East, Kuwait lags in its climate action,” said Manal Shehabi, an academic visitor at Oxford University who studies the Gulf nations. In a region that is far from doing enough to avoid catastrophic global warming, “climate pledges in Kuwait are [still] significantly lower”.

Jassim Al-Awadhi is part of a younger generation of Kuwaitis increasingly worried about their country’s future. The 32-year-old former banker quit his job to push for a change that experts argue could be Kuwait’s key to tackling global warming: revamping attitudes towards transportation. His goal is to get Kuwaitis to embrace public transport, which consists only of the buses that are mostly used by migrant workers with low-paying jobs who have no choice but to put up with the heat.

The idea of ditching their cars is completely foreign to most residents in a country where petrol is cheaper than Coca-Cola.

It is an uphill struggle. Though Kuwait has among the world’s highest carbon-dioxide emissions per capita, the idea of ditching their cars is completely foreign to most residents in a country where petrol is cheaper than Coca-Cola and cities are designed for cars.

The London School of Economics, which conducted the only comprehensive survey of climate opinions in Kuwait, found older residents remain sceptical of the urgency, with some speaking of a conspiracy to hobble Gulf economies. In a public consultation, everyone older than 50 years opposed plans to build a metro network like those already operating in Riyadh and Dubai. And the private sector sees climate change as a problem that requires government leadership to solve.

“When I tell companies let’s do something, they say it’s not their business,’’ Al-Awadhi said. “They make me feel I’m the only one who has problems with transport.”

That is partly because most Kuwaitis and wealthy residents are shielded from the effects of rising temperatures. Homes, shopping malls and cars are air-conditioned, and those who can afford it often spend summers in Europe. Yet, the heavy reliance on cooling systems also increases the use of fossil fuels, leading to ever hotter temperatures.

The situation is much worse for those who cannot escape the heat, mainly labourers from developing countries. Though the government prohibits peak afternoon outdoor work during the hottest summer months, migrant workers are often seen toiling in the sun. It was found in a study published in Science Direct in 2021 that on extremely hot days, the overall number of deaths doubles, but it triples for non-Kuwaiti men, who are more likely to take on low-paid work.

It is a cycle that is all too clear to Saleh Khaled Al-Misbah. Born in 1959, he remembers growing up when homes rarely had air-conditioners, yet felt cool and shaded, even in the hottest months. As a child, he played outside through months of cooler weather and slept on the roof in the summers; it is too hot for that now.

Temperature changes in the 2040s and 2050s will have an increasingly negative effect on Kuwait’s creditworthiness, according to Fitch Ratings. Yet despite the growing risks, squabbling between the Gulf’s only elected parliament and a government appointed by the ruling family has made it difficult to push through reforms, on climate or anything else.

Jassim Al-Awadi is part of a younger generation of Kuwaitis worried about their country’s climate future. Picture: BLOOMBERG/BASSAM ZIDAN AHLAWY
Jassim Al-Awadi is part of a younger generation of Kuwaitis worried about their country’s climate future. Picture: BLOOMBERG/BASSAM ZIDAN AHLAWY

So far, there has been little progress on plans to produce 15% of Kuwait’s power from renewable sources by 2030, from a maximum of 1% now. Oil is so abundant that it is burnt to generate electricity, as well as fuel the 2-million cars on the road, contributing to air pollution. Some power plants have switched to gas, another fossil fuel that is relatively cleaner but can leak methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Consumption of electricity and water, heavily subsidised by the government, is among the world’s highest per capita, and it has proven politically toxic to even hint at cutting those benefits.

“That obviously leads to a lot of waste,” said Tarek Sultan, vice-chair of Agility Public Warehousing. When fossil-fuel powered electricity “is subsidised, solar technologies that can provide viable solutions get priced out of the competition”, he said. 

Even if the world manages to cut emissions quickly enough to stave off catastrophic global warming, countries will have to adapt to more extreme weather. As it stands, experts say Kuwait’s plan is nowhere near enough to keep the country liveable.

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com.

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