Confronting climate change poses a formidable challenge, particularly in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), where the impact of increasing temperatures, persistent droughts, frequent floods, and reduced river flows, partly influenced by neighboring actions, can be daunting. However, a burgeoning global movement is emerging, emphasizing the importance of local climate initiatives and acknowledging the crucial contributions of autonomous nations, federal regions, and megacities in achieving the Paris Agreement's objectives. It is also recognized that individuals, communities, non-governmental organizations, and businesses can be empowered to take action at the grassroots level.
The KRI is well-positioned to play a role in addressing climate change, not only for its own people but also for fellow Iraqis, and to connect with other regions and megacities in the Middle East and around the world to become part of the answer to a global problem.
Iraq is widely recognized as one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. Thousands of people in southern Iraq have already been forced to leave their homes due to droughts that have derailed their livelihoods. Agricultural decline and crop failures are becoming more frequent. About 40% of Iraq is affected by desertification, leading to more frequent and intense dust storms. Iraq is the fifth-most vulnerable country to climate change and the 39th-most water-stressed, according to the UN.
While the situation in the KRI is less dire, the region also faces grave challenges. For example, underground water levels in Erbil have decreased by 500 meters in the past two decades, from 200 meters in 2003 to an alarming 700 meters last year.
KRG climate action
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has been proactive in mitigating and adapting to climate change. Under the leadership of KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, the KRG has already built ponds, dams, and reservoirs, and has plans for more to advance the agricultural sector and supply sources of clean energy. Prime Minister Barzani has called on the Iraqi federal government to support these projects, which also benefit parts of Iraq beyond the KRI.
The KRG is committed to minimizing gas flaring from its oil fields. The Garmian power plant, a 165-megawatt station, already utilizes flared-gas recovery from the Hasira oil wells to produce electricity.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Barzani laid the foundation stone for a 25-MW solar power plant and, last month, he inaugurated an asphalt recycling factory in Erbil, the first of its kind in the KRI and Iraq.
The KRG’s Ninth Cabinet has its sights on many more projects, including forestation as a means to protect ecosystems and promote biodiversity while also providing livelihoods to local residents.
Actions such as these by a growing network of cities and regions collaborating on climate change have made the world take notice. A summit will be held within the 2023 UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai in December to bring subnational leaders into the process.
The COP28 Local Climate Action Summit will gather leaders of regions, governors, and mayors, who are increasingly essential in helping national governments reach emissions targets and net-zero ambitions while building resilient economies and societies.
Federal regions such as the Kurdistan Region, devolved nations such as Scotland, or states such as California, are often closer to the challenges that climate change presents and can be nimbler at finding solutions than national governments.
Network of alliances
The groundwork toward this summit began many years ago with an expanding network of alliances of regions and megacities that decided they could better serve their citizens by proactively seeking solutions themselves, rather than waiting for action from their national governments.
The Under2 Coalition was founded in 2015 by the U.S. state of California and the German state of Baden-Württemberg, along with 10 other signatories. The coalition sees itself as a “community of state and regional climate leaders.” Over the past eight years, more than 100 states and regions have joined them and made key commitments toward emissions reductions. Among its members are Ararat in Armenia, the Association of Regions of Morocco, Catalonia, Scotland, and Quebec.
The Under2 Coalition says that it brings together 260 governments representing 1.75 billion people and 50% of the global economy.
Meanwhile, Climate Mayors is a bipartisan network that covers nearly 60 million U.S. citizens. In addition to providing local climate leadership, the organization says that it builds political will for U.S. and global climate action. Hundreds of its members have committed their cities to the Paris Agreement.
Another example is the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a network of about 100 mayors from the world’s leading cities that are united in action to confront the climate crisis. Founded in 2005, the C40 World Mayors Summit in Buenos Aires last year was the organization’s largest gathering of mayors, with over 200 cities participating. Among its members are London, Hong Kong, Amman, and Dubai.
Power up their punch
These and many other alliances of regions, states, and cities are collaborating to scale up their resources, work towards common climate financing initiatives, power up their punch in climate diplomacy, and share best practices.
National governments need their cities, states, and regional governments to act, if they are to reach their climate targets. The UN Development Program estimates that up to 80% of the adaptation and mitigation actions necessary to tackle climate change will be implemented at the subnational or local level of governance.
A combination of visionary leadership, ambition, and practical solutions makes the difference. The KRI has that combination and is ready to be the regional agenda-setter for climate action. It is assessing the steps that it has taken so far while also looking ahead toward a strategy to see our people into a future where they are better equipped to face climate change.
Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman is Senior Advisor to KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani for Foreign Affairs and Climate Change.