The "Saharisation" of the Mediterranean

For a Shared Agenda on Climate Justice

According to all reliable scientific scenarios, the Mediterranean is one of the world's regions where the effects of climate change will be most pronounced, together with Central America, the Caribbean and large areas of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Temperatures have already started to increase, and will rise even more steeply from the second half of the century onwards, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Overall, the dynamic picture drawn by current scientific research regarding the future of the Mediterranean in the short term depicts a Basin which is much hotter than the global average, presenting a degree of change equivalent to that of the last million years, with no major differences in degree between the North, South and East but with a strong seasonal imbalance and the gradual advance of desertification towards the Northern Mediterranean.

"Business as usual" would result in an average maximum increase of +3.4°C for the planet as a whole. However, in the case of the Mediterranean, this could reach two degrees more, up to 5.4°C. At best (according to the "intermediate" scenario that assumes the development of clean energies and improved technologies), it is well above, more than double, the maximum temperature increase ceiling of +2°C which the large industrial nations agreed on in the Copenhagen Accord as a basis for stabilising the climate between now and the 22nd century.

Rainfall, on the other hand, will become increasingly scarce, especially in the Southern Mediterranean, giving rise to severe problems regarding water, forest fires and the fertility of agricultural soil. In 2000, more than one third of the Mediterranean population (35.2 percent) already suffered water stress, i.e., had less than 1,000 m3 per person per year. The process of desertification will continue to progress steadily in North Africa and the Levant, regions which are already strongly affected today.

The continental climate will disappear almost completely from North Africa and the Levant (for example, in Kabylia and in much of the Moroccan Atlas region, as well as in Lebanon). All this will lead to an extremely high risk of water shortages for agriculture, human consumption, and for the natural ecosystems themselves.

Sea levels will continue to rise, and at ever-increasing rates as the century progresses, depending on what happens to the Arctic ice cap. However small the rise in sea level about which much still remains uncertain, it will nevertheless decisively affect the tourist economy on the coast and could cause large-scale human displacement in highly populated areas near the deltas of important rivers. Finally, the threat arising from the combined effects of climate change and natural disasters due to external causes, such as earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes, should be mentioned.

Regional responsibility for the climate corresponds roughly to demographic weight: about 7.4 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions originated in the Mediterranean in 2007, for a population representing 6.7 percent of our species. However, the differences between the South and East of the Basin compared to the North are as marked as they are for the planet as a whole. Paradoxically, the most vulnerable areas (the Levant and especially North Africa) are those which have contributed least to GHG emissions in the Basin.

Demographic and social changes

One third of the population in Mediterranean states lives in coastal areas. A first indicator of the extreme vulnerability of societies in the Basin is what is called the "low elevation coastal zone" (LECZ), i.e., coastal terrain lying less than ten metres above sea level. Globally, this zone occupies only two percent of the Earth's land surface but holds ten percent of the total world population (or 13 percent of the urban population). In total, about 60 million people may be living in coastal areas in the Southern Mediterranean and Levant, and this number could rise to 100 million by 2030. Unfortunately, this region would be the second most vulnerable on the entire planet in terms of natural disasters associated with climate change.

The population is growing and regenerating at a dizzying pace in the South and the Levant, whereas in the North it is stagnant and aging. Far and wide, coastal areas are being engulfed by urbanisation and human occupation. Despite the existence of important mineral resources (mainly oil and natural gas) in the South, the income gap, and above all the social inequalities between rich and poor in Mediterranean societies are increasing within and between the North and South.

The impact of climate change will also depend to a large extent on the capacity for social cohesion and the welfare of different societies. In any emergency, the rich and those social classes with access to a public safety net will be better positioned to face the situation. The poor and those with least access to public health and social protection mechanisms will suffer more and will become innate candidates for a migratory exodus in the most precarious of conditions.

As climate change brings about the desertification of Sub-Saharan Africa, there is an unseen but enormous influx of environmental refugees at the gates of North Africa who are intent, at whatever cost, on reaching the Eden of Europe. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) warned that by the middle of the 21st century there could be approximately one billion climate refugees around the Earth. In other words, this means one in every nine humans. In 2006, the African continent was home to 924 million people, and it is expected that by the middle of the 21st century this population may have more than doubled, reaching almost two billion inhabitants.

Among the eight states whose populations will triple, four (Niger, Mali, Chad, and Guinea Bissau) form part of Sub-Saharan Africa, which is the most vulnerable region on the continent in terms of climate and natural resources such as water and agricultural land. Without a technological, economic, and social revolution in the near future, many of these new Africans will have no choice but to migrate north across the Maghreb and the Mediterranean, significantly increasing the risk of military involvement in maintaining security in the Basin. In terms of geostrategic security, the Mediterranean is not a minor peripheral region. On the contrary, it represents one of the most extensive and dangerous security borders between North and South.

What will happen to tourism?

Economically, tourism has become the dominant economic activity throughout virtually the entire region which receives 32 percent of all international tourist traffic. The Mediterranean received around 300 million tourists in 2008, with 100 million more predicted for 2025. 80 percent of this tourism is based on sun, sand and beach resorts, and the trend is stable. In fact, the Mediterranean is the great swimming pool of the world, and has ranked as the first international tourist destination for decades. However, with rising temperatures the states sending the largest numbers of tourists to the region, the Central and Northern EU countries, which supply 90 percent of visitors to the Basin's beaches, will witness a marked reduction in the desire to travel due to global warming, as they will enjoy neo-Mediterranean temperatures at home. The days of coastal tourism reliant on low-cost airlines may be numbered.

At the same time, merchandise logistics in large port areas throughout the region and export agriculture in the South and the Levant constitute the other two major strategic alternatives for the present regional economy. Climate change, however, increasingly threatens the future of these three economic activities.

This direct threat to the region's stake in tourism should clearly be placed in the context of the tourism sector's own responsibility for the climate. Traditionally, it has been estimated that the tourism industry (not only hotels, but also transport, food, materials, and destination services) generates between four and ten percent of total GHG emissions. Much of tourism's climate footprint is related to air transport, which generates up to 75 percent of the sector's emissions. The United Nations, in a sector-specific study, concluded that tourism held up to 14 percent of global responsibility. According to the United Nations, in an unsustainable climate scenario (a rise of between +3°C and +5°C in temperature), the tourism sector's share of responsibility would be between ten percent and 20 percent by 2050. If rapid progress was made to ensure a minimum climate scenario (limiting the increase in global temperatures over the same period to +2°C), the impact of tourism would be more than 50 percent.

For a shared Mediterranean agenda on climate justice

On the eve of the final term of the Kyoto Treaty, Mediterranean societies are facing an uncertain and dangerous future with neither institutions nor collaborative tools that would help to promote a social and climatic transition aimed at ensuring humane, democratic and healthy living conditions for coastal societies. Neither a purely nominal Mediterranean Union nor the United Nations' historic and well-meaning, but solely mechanical Blue Plan will be sufficient, and the lack of full cooperation between Northern non-governmental organisations and North African communities represents a further stumbling block.

Without forgetting that it is urgent that we devote every effort to devising and carrying out mitigation proposals (for example for a significant reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in aviation and tourism) and adaptation plans (to protect the most fragile and vulnerable Mediterranean communities, especially along the coastal strip of North Africa and Egypt), the vital question should not be "What can we do to stop climate change?" in the region, but rather: "How do we want to live here?"

The sense of a shared sea was lost during the second half of the 20th century, and it has become imperative to restore the idea of the Mediterranean as a shared living space. In this unique context, which demands new forms of resistance and resolution, the priority of social and environmental activists should be democratic empowerment of Mediterranean societies in terms of:

  • Understanding in detail and in relation to the region as a whole, the nature of the climate scenarios that will have a direct effect, in what might be called a campaign for citizen "climate literacy."
  • Strengthening protective measures for the most vulnerable local communities in the most sensitive areas.
  • Creating mutual support networks for social and institutional initiatives in the North and South of the Basin capable of putting projects and emission reduction targets in place and greening consumption, in order to ensure rapid and free technology transfer of clean technologies from the North to the South of the Basin.
  • Practising Mediterranean citizenship based on the idea of a new global citizenship, which would enable our presence to be felt through a unified voice at global forums where the future climate of the planet is decided.

Joan Buades is a critical researcher in tourism, environment and globalisation and member of the ALBA SUD research team. He also works with the Research Group on Sustainability and Territory (GIST) at the University of the Balearic Islands (UIB) and with other social organisations.

Adapted from "The Mediterranean: Caught in the Carbon Microwave: Severe Climate Threat, More Inequality and the end of Coastal Tourism. An overview of global risks in the Mediterranean in the 21st century. By Joan Buades. AlbaSud, January 2012.

English translation: Centro Superior de Idiomas de la Universidad de Alicante, S.A.U. 

(TW 70, March 2013)