Thursday, September 28, 2017

Can Tunisia Set the Template for Responding to Climate Change?

By: William Edwards
Produced & edited by: Michelle Michael

In the more than 3,000 hours of sunlight that the southern half of Tunisia soaks in a year, an increasingly energy-hungry Europe sees an opportunity.

That’s why the European Union, eager to partner with a politically stable nation in North Africa, has agreed to invest in a cable and solar power plant that would send energy directly to Malta, Italy, and France, if the involved governing bodies can come to a deal.

While the E.U. would stand to benefit from an agreement, economists believe a successful negotiation will benefit Tunisia, too. The project would provide substantial economic relief to the country, which expects to see a decrease in resources like water, crops, and energy stemming from climate change.
The country plans to start exporting solar energy from the Sahara to Europe

“Tunisia has a huge potential in renewable energy that—if it is valued—could help the economy to grow rapidly,” said Dr. Aram Belhadj, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Carthage. “Paying attention to solar energy could resolve many social and environmental problems that could threaten the whole Tunisian transition process such as unemployment, regional inequality, air pollution, and water scarcity."

Climate Change in Tunisia

Tunisia is not among the countries that are most culpable for climate change. According to the country’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, it only contributes 0.07 percent of the world’s total carbon emissions.

But culpability bears no relation to who will inherit the consequences of climate change. Tunisia, who in 2014 acknowledged in its constitution the government’s duty to protect its citizens against the rising global threat, knows it is on the losing side of the looming crisis.

It will see its landmass, with half of its border on the Mediterranean coast, shrink because of rising seas. It will continue to endure hotter summers; suffer from harsher droughts; and as a result, likely see a decrease in the production of crops like olives, dates, and grain—exported commodities that play a crucial role the country’s agriculture industry (according to the Oxford Business Group, these account for about nine percent of the country’s GDP).

“What I’ve experienced on my land is that we’re now five months without rain” said Malek Lakhoua, a physician who also operates his family’s olive farm, Domain Sidi Mrayah, in Zaghouan, about 35 miles south of Tunis. “We see a decrease in the rate of the rain in general, and also a period of rain which is not tolerant of the growth of the trees... This kind of change influences the quality and especially the taste of the olives.”

Agriculture, Irrigation & Economy

Part of an olive press in Tunisia. Photo courtesy: Dennis Jarvis via flickr
Olive oil is Tunisia’s most lucrative agricultural export—they are consistently one of the world’s largest producers of it. The warming temperatures will have the greatest impact on small farms like Lakhoua’s, which he says produces about 5,000-6,000 liters of olive oil per year. Conditions worsen when farms get farther south in the country and closer to the Sahara Desert. Larger farms who can afford to adequately irrigate their crops are less affected at the moment.

In the absence of irrigation opportunities, there is a risk of tree loss. However, comparatively remunerative olive oil prices—with strong international demand in recent years—encourage farmers to irrigate,” said Dr. Mohamed Salah Bachta, a professor of agro-economics at the National Institute of Agronomics in Tunisia. “Some farmers have adopted intensive systems—irrigation that has a high density per hectare.”

However, if water continues to become more scarce, it will become harder for farmers to afford intensive irrigation without raising their prices. According to Cairo Jennings, a United States diplomat who worked in the U.S. Embassy’s Environment, Science, Technology and Health portfolio in Tunis from 2015-2017, Irrigation also becomes logistically more difficult over long distances because of surface evaporation and the high cost of installing pipes.

A lack of water from severe droughts will also lead to greater food scarcity within the country—the country already imports half of its food, according to Jennings—and affect the energy supply as well, as the country harvests hydroelectric power from dams. This is where solar energy, both through exporting it and using it within their borders, could help the country, he said.

“Tunisia’s trying to sell this as ‘Hey, you pay to put in this power interchange and we will build out our solar capacity in the desert and you can basically use us as your power plant,” Jennings said. “If they could sell electricity to European markets and get paid in Euros, then that would be extremely supportive of their economy.”

A Role Model in the Arab World

Solar panels on the rooftop of a house in Sayada, Tunisia.
Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Since the 2011 Arab Spring, Tunisia has been seen by the West as an example for other countries in North Africa and the Middle East. It has the longest surviving democratic government since the revolution. It has recently made humanitarian advances in overturning laws that the government deemed unfair to women. Now, economists say, a solar deal could make Tunisia an economic example, too, for its neighboring nations.

“Countries like Libya and Egypt could develop a new economic model based on high added-value sectors, notably renewable energy,” Belhadj said. “Diversifying the economy, decreasing the weight of fossil fuels, and developing new exports strategy could then boost the growth and secure the current citizen welfare—without jeopardizing the future generation’s wellbeing—in these countries.”

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