By Batir Wardam
Few Arab cities, including Amman and Dubai took part in the symbolic initiative done two weeks ago to turn off lights in cities for one hour in an activity called Earth Hour advocated by the World Wide Fund (WWF). For many of the still evolving species of Arab environmentalists, this was a much celebrated step.
All Arab environmentalists know for certain that when it came to leadership and willingness to combat climate change and participate in reducing greenhouse emissions, the Arab World was not the best example.
The Arab world can be categorized into the oil producing countries that built their economies on fossil energy and gas emissions, and middle-income countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Syria, Egypt and Morocco that depend mostly on imported oil with little energy diversification. Both sets of countries were not at the fore front of developing and implementing policies and projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Although the Arab World has a lower industrialization rate and less population than developing countries, its per capita production rate of greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide) is high and almost identical as the EU. This is due to the high fossil fuel energy production from the GCC countries. Such a fact puts both moral and economic pressures on the region to start reducing its per capita rate of greenhouse gas emissions. The post Bali process within the Kyoto Protocol for Climate Change puts obligations for the first time on all developing countries for reducing their emissions, including the GCC countries and other oil producers in the region.
Based on scientific evidence, there is a high cost for inaction in the Arab World. Climate change is considered a major threat to the security of the Middle East. A recent report by the EU entitled "Climate change and international security" presented to a European summit in Brussels in March 2008 has warned that "existing tensions over access to water in the Middle east are almost certain to intensify in this region leading to further political instability with detrimental implications for Europe's energy security and other interests".
Climate Change will have its impacts also on the agricultural sector. In a recent report by FAO presented in the FAO near east meeting in Cairo in March 2008 it was stated that crop growing may become unsustainable in some areas as a result of the complex interactions of myriad factors. It said maize yields in North Africa, for example, could fall by 15-25 percent with a three degree centigrade rise in temperature
In response to the increasing necessity for actions against climate change the Arab World has taken important initial steps towards sustainability option, especially at the core issue of renewable energy and combating climate change.
The 19th session of the Council of Arab Ministers Responsible for the Environment that was held at the headquarters of the League of Arab States in Cairo in December 2007 witnessed the agreement of the all Arab countries, for the first time on the inclusion of policies to deal with climate change issues in all sectors within national and regional policies for sustainable development. The declaration further stated the need for the production and use of cleaner fuels, improving the efficiency of energy use in all sectors, expanding the use of cleaner production techniques and environmental friendly technologies. Another important option was identified by the declaration which is expanding the use of economic incentives to encourage more efficient products.
The Arab world has recently became active in embracing and developing new technologies for reduction of greenhouse emissions. The main story in the news currently is the beginning of construction of the first carbon-neutral, waste-free city in Abu Dhabi built by the ‘Masdar’ Initiative. The city will showcase the best available technologies for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. By blending waste management with renewable technologies such as solar and wind power, ‘Masdar’ says the city will use 75 percent less electricity and less than half the amount of water of conventional cities, saving the equivalent of $2bn in oil costs over 25 years. To maximize energy efficiency, the city’s narrow thoroughfares will draw on the traditional architecture of the old walled towns of the Middle East. Carbon emissions saved by these techniques will then be monetized through carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol’s clean development mechanism.
This example is not unique. In the last meeting of the OPEC Ministers in Riyadh four Arab Gulf countries have decided to develop a US $ 750 million research fund for Climate Change. The fund aims to support cleaner and more efficient petroleum technologies for the protection of the local, regional and global environment, and promote the development of technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS).
With all the GCC countries requiring significant growth in the power and water sectors, an estimated $120 billion investment is anticipated in the industry over the next 10 years. This growth of investment if managed wisely will contribute to moving closer to achieving sustainability in the region.
Some of the biggest companies in the region are developing and implementing their own Environmental and Social Corporate Responsibility options in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and shifting to alternative energy sources.
If this package of initiatives can be linked together in a comprehensive paradigm shift towards sustainability and real action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Arab World will be able to declare its role as an active contributor in the global efforts to save the Earth, and enhance the options for sustainability in due course.