Elections in Lebanon avoid climate problems despite floods, wildfires and power cuts

Lebanon has seen raging wildfires, devastating floods and repeated power cuts that bring businesses to their knees. Yet climate change issues are largely absent from the political agenda ahead of this weekend’s parliamentary elections.

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With the economy in freefall and rampant corruption infuriating the public, would-be MPs said the climate was not seen as a top concern by voters facing crises on all sides.

“Climate change is an important and crucial topic, but given the overwhelming problems in Lebanon, this issue can wait,” opposition party Taqaddom candidate Najat Saliba told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview. .

None of the main political parties presented a climate policy program ahead of the May 15 election.

The heavily armed, Iranian-backed Shiite group Hezbollah and its allies collectively won 71 of 128 seats in Lebanon’s last vote in 2018.

The upcoming election is the first since the start of the economic crisis in October 2019, which sparked widespread protests across the country.

Nearly three quarters of the population have been forced into poverty, medicine and fuel are scarce and electricity is only available for a few hours a day, in what the World Bank has called one of the world’s worst crises. financial institutions in the world in 150 years.

Environmental activists said the expansion of renewable energy such as solar power and other green policies could help provide long-term solutions to some of the country’s major problems and future-proof against new ones. political and economic shocks.

“The deployment of renewable energy has a number of benefits, including job creation, lower local air pollution and lessening our dependence on fossil fuels,” said Carol Ayat, finance expert at the energy at the American University of Beirut (AUB).

“This would help insulate our economy from external energy shocks while reducing our (export trade) deficit by reducing our imports of fossil fuels, which are a major contributor to our current situation.”

Surgery canceled

Lebanon’s descent into financial ruin began in 2019, the result of a mismanaged spending spree that drove up debt, political paralysis as rival factions quarreled and the reluctance of foreign lenders to bail out the country unless it reforms itself.

The country has not had a 24-hour power supply for decades. But the latest economic crisis has worsened the situation, with some regions now having access to the electricity grid for only two hours a day, if at all.

Much of Lebanon is powered by private diesel generators, many of which are run by companies, while shortages of foreign exchange have hampered fuel oil imports.

According to Triangle Research, a policy and research organization based in Lebanon, renewable energy production accounted for less than 3% of total electricity production in 2018.

This file photo taken on April 3, 2021 shows an aerial view of Beirut, the Lebanese capital, in darkness during a power outage, with the headquarters of the national company Electricité du Liban (Electricity of Lebanon) in the foreground. (AFP)

Ayat, a senior fellow at AUB’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, said government – whoever it is – should optimize renewable energy generation.

“Any energy reform strategy should seek to provide all Lebanese with the cheapest, cleanest and most sustainable electricity supply possible,” she said.

The uneven power supply has had ripple effects across society, from hospitals forced to postpone life-saving surgery and schools to close, to bakeries unable to produce bread, a cheap staple for the poor. struggling families.

At a Beirut hospital, Karim Mdallal told the Thomson Reuters Foundation he had broken his arms and legs after falling down the stairs in an accident, but had not yet had surgery .

“My surgery was scheduled for today, but it was canceled due to power outages. I will have to wait a few more days,” he said.

While energy supply may be one of Lebanon’s most pressing environmental issues, it is far from the only one.

Lebanon has struggled for years with waste disposal: the “mountains of garbage” that dot the country have become a symbol of the government’s inability to provide basic services.

Rubbish piled up is seen along a street in Ain el-Remmaneh, Lebanon September 21, 2020. (Reuters)

Rubbish piled up is seen along a street in Ain el-Remmaneh, Lebanon September 21, 2020. (Reuters)

The country also faces climate-related disasters, from heavy coastal flooding that destroyed crops last year to wildfires that leveled homes, which Ayat said required policies to reduce risk and ensure the safety of people.

The “insensitive” politicians

Even as environmental activists stress the need for action to promote clean energy and climate resilience, they have little hope.

“Climate change has become more urgent in recent years, but politicians in Lebanon have, on the whole, remained unmoved,” said Julien Jreissati, Middle East and North Africa program director for the environmental organization Greenpeace.

Voters are also largely apathetic, Jreissati said.

National politics has been dominated by a handful of parties for the past 30 years. Some political pundits have suggested that Sunni figurehead Saad al-Hariri’s recent exit from politics is likely to cement Hezbollah’s grip on power.

But this weekend’s election will include voices pushing for change from a group of independent candidates.

Ziad Abi Chaker, an environmental and industrial engineer who presents himself as a freelancer in Beirut, is one of the rare candidates to have mentioned the climate crisis.

Abi Chaker, whose main policies include pushing for the introduction of a zero-waste recycling plant in the suburbs of Beirut, acknowledged that incremental reforms would not be enough – but said any step forward would be progress .

“Gradual change is better than nothing or going backwards, especially in Lebanon,” he said.

“(That’s) what I aim to do if elected.”

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