It was telling that the Libyan who made headlines at this year’s COP 27 summit was not Mohammed al-Menfi, head of the country’s Presidential Council, but 12-year-old schoolgirl Revan Ahmed. While al-Menfi gave a boilerplate address outlining Libya’s vulnerability in the face of climate change, Ahmed - who attended the climate talks as part of a Unicef delegation - cut to the chase. “We need new policies,” she said. “We need to use renewable energy.” Her generation, she added, was being overlooked in the debate. “We are not decision makers. That is why we are easily ignored.”
Ahmed’s COP 27 appearance aside, public awareness of the impact of climate change remains low in Libya and no political party has embraced the environmental agenda. Since 2011, the country’s fledgling civil society space has included a handful of environmentally-minded individuals and groups but their efforts have struggled to gain wider traction. Some officials within Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) privately acknowledge the need for public awareness campaigns to ensure the Libyan population is better informed about the broader global conversation regarding the future of fossil fuels and how it will affect their country.
Climate change presents considerable challenges to oil-rich Libya. Not only is its economy almost completely dependent on the export of hydrocarbons, making it extremely vulnerable to peak oil demand, Libya is one of the most arid countries in the world. Its water demands far surpass its renewable supply. The Man-Made River project, which provides 60 per cent of all freshwaters used in Libya, is reliant on water from non-renewable aquifers that cannot be recharged by rain.
The UN and other international agencies have warned that projected temperature increases, rising sea levels and more frequent extreme weather instances raise the prospect of depleted water resources, threats to coastal communities, and reduced agricultural productivity which will exacerbate food insecurity. Already, the country imports about 75 per cent of the food required to meet local needs.
At COP 27, Mohammed al-Menfi noted the risks of rising sea levels for Libya, noting that the country has the longest coastline around the Mediterranean and that is where 95 percent of its population live. He detailed how scarce rainfall and reduced water resources have caused severe droughts that hamper agricultural output in the longer term. Libya, he told the summit, was one of the countries most threatened by climate change. That handwringing has not been matched by a sense of urgency at home, however.
More than a decade after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya’s transitional governments have paid little attention to the mounting climate-related challenges faced by the country. Although Libya signed the Paris Agreement in 2016, it has not ratified the convention and has not submitted any communications to the UNFCCC (United Nations for Framework Convention on Climate Change). Libya is the only country in the world not to have conducted a carbon inventory.
Libya’s electricity system relies on the burning of its own fossil fuels. As a result, the country has Africa’s highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions, emitting two to four times more than any other country in North Africa.
In recent years, the National Oil Corporation(NOC) has taken steps to lower the carbon intensity of its oil and gas production and has pushed for the development of renewable energy initiatives but government engagement has been piecemeal despite pressure from international interlocutors. To give one example, British officials now publicly cite Libya’s green transition as a key priority in bilateral talks. The new NOC chairman Ferhat Bengdara, who was appointed in August this year, has said the renewables sector remains a priority but he has also demanded what he calls a “balanced approach” to the energy transition.
Prime minister Abdulhamid Dabaiba told delegates at the COP 26 summit in Glasgow last year that he had created a new ministry focused on environmental issues and formed a national committee on climate change. Dabaiba has publicly sought to highlight the renewables sector as a way of attracting foreign investment and his Government of National Unity (GNU) plans a number of solar energy projects in partnership with companies including Eni and Total but it has achieved little in terms of meaningful, long-term climate change mitigation, particularly when it comes to diversifying Libya’s economy beyond hydrocarbons.
Libya’s continuing political crisis - the GNU’s legitimacy is contested by a rival entity and there are no signs that elections promised for December 2021 will happen anytime soon - means the country’s climate-related challenges are likely to remain low on the domestic agenda. The GNU was appointed as part of a UN mediated process in early 2021 and the last parliamentary elections took place in 2014. Without a government bolstered by a solid electoral mandate, little progress can be made.
Whatever government might emergein the near future, it must prioritize economic diversification to reduce Libya’s dependency on fossil fuels. It should also incentivise the energy transition by improving conditions for private sector investment in the renewable energy sector. Efforts to stabilise the electricity grid should include investment in energy-efficient technologies.
An integrated water policy - including expanded desalination programmes - could help the country better navigate dwindling water supplies. Some officials privately argue a water tax should be introduced but acknowledge that may be politically difficult. That gets at the heart of what should be a wider priority: ensuring the Libyan population is aware of how climate change is already affecting their country and the challenges it will present in the longer-term. Public awareness campaigns are key and the role of civil society is crucial. If ordinary Libyans are better informed about how their way of life is likely to change in the decades to come, that is half the battle.