A fast pace of development in the Gulf has taken its toll according to environmental experts. The region’s first ever ecological footprint atlas, put out by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED), prompted authors to formally name it a “Survival Report.”
“Since 1979, Arab regions have experienced huge ecological deficit and it is increasing,” said Najib Saab, Secretary General of AFED, as he introduced a panel of representatives from companies who participated in a sustainability program.
“We cannot do this forever—use oil income to buy imports,” he continued. “The other consideration is the over-exploitation of natural resources. We are robbing future generations of their right to live.”
Saab chaired the side event entitled The Role of Arab Business in the Transition to a Low-Carbon Economy, wherein representatives of big business and resources in the region spoke about their participation in a program designed to raise awareness and reduce environmental impacts–120 companies participated. The program entailed periodical sustainability reports specifically outlining mitigation programs and results.
“A lot of information needs to be addressed,” said Rashid Bin Fahed, the UAE’s Minister of Environment and Water, who provided more context on the region. “We need data to arrive at a better assessment of what we have.”
The UAE’s figures were initially off, Fahed explained, because unlike more closed systems where consumption is easier to track, the UAE is a trade hub for the entire region, and 90 percent of goods are re-exported, i.e., in transit rather than consumed or simply traded. Adjustments revealed actual consumption patterns, however.
“We found that 80 percent of our footprint is from carbon,” Fahed said. “We and other Gulf countries rely on carbon to generate energy … we initially lacked the means to develop sustainable sources for such commodities.”
Fahed said that the UAE is counting on Masdar City to test and customize renewable technologies, with an aim of deriving a significant amount (around 8 percent) of energy from renewable sources.
“Conservation is not a choice anymore,” he said. “We have to do it according to a standard, and a lot of awareness campaigns are underway. We believe that the green growth strategy will be the umbrella for the development of the UAE. We have the means to achieve it. We’ve already done a lot in the energy and transport sector.”
When the World Resources Institute (WRI) surveyed citizens around the world, asking if climate change was an urgent matter that demanded an immediate response, 50 percent of US residents, 60 percent of Europeans and 90 percent of Arabs said yes, Andrew Steer, WRI’s President and CEO said, mentioning that, unsurprisingly, 99 percent of small island state residents think along these lines as well.
“We’ve moved from an empty world to a full world,” he said, “and we are pushing the barriers … with a massive increase in the middle class, 800 million vehicles on the road today that could increase to 3 billion by 2050.”
With 70 percent of the human population projected to live in cities by 2050, Steer said urban environments have potential to be part of the solution or part of the problem. He cited Beijing as an example where the footprint of city residents is higher on average than that of those in rural China. In contrast, he said, the footprint of New Yorkers is smaller than that of residents living outside the city.
In addition to suggesting a shift in taxation schemes to create a shift toward renewable development and a stop to subsidies on fossil fuel-based energy, Steer suggested an overhaul of business as usual at large companies in terms of assessing their impacts.
“We need to reset the compass in terms of measuring progress … it’s better to cut down quarterly reports so people have a longer-term view,” he said.
In the end, he echoed a common sentiment throughout these events calling for more investment in technology and collaboration. “It’s nice to stay up all night and argue [referring to the final days of COP, featuring round-the-clock policy negotiation], but we need to see something happen; we need to stop this zero-sum game.”
Raji Hattar, Chief Sustainability Compliance Officer at Aramex, an Arab-based provider of logistics, transportation and shipping services, spoke about sustainability measures the company has taken to cut down on resource consumption. The company–which involves more than 66,000 employees based out of more than 12,000 offices and operates in more than 240 countries, with a fleet of around 33,000 vehicles–has implemented many eco-friendly programs at every level of its operation, he said.
In addition to the regular generation of footprint reports, Hattar said the company has adopted strict standards around everything from vehicles (based on low emissions ratings) and printers (double-sided only). He said that the ISO 14000 standards of environmental management and mitigation strategies are exercised from training to high levels of operation. Recycling and smart (degradeable and recycled/reclyclable) packaging are standard as well, he said.
Alain Saliba, speaking on behalf of Kharafi National, Kuwait, described measures the company is taking to reduce their environmental footprint, placing emphasis on awareness campaigns. As business development manager at Kharafi—which specializes in infrastructure development around water, wastewater treatment, reclamation, solid waste management, oil recovery as well as facilities management across the MENA region—Saliba described an e-mail campaign based on repeated messages to all employees encouraging energy-saving practices around the office and home.
“You have to hit repeatedly with the information,” he said. “It’s as if you are tapping on someone’s shoulder, at first they are bothered but don’t turn around, but eventually, they will turn around and ask ‘why are you tapping me with this?’ That’s when the message gets through.”
Michael Nates, Director of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability at ACWA Power International, Saudi Arabia, gave an overview of the impact of subsidizing electricity across the MENA region (highlighting that every country in the MENA region is subsidized) and offered an alternate financial model wherein payment for electricity could be channeled toward solar power in Saudi Arabia. The goal, he explained, is to understand the impact of subsidies and then minimize them so that the system is tight and the market can decide the value of power, no matter the source. With this scheme, over time, renewables would prove advantageous.
Nates outlined the compelling case for renewable across the MENA region—if electricity becomes a paid commodity—stressing the financial viability of setting up the technology and implementing it through both public-private partnership and independent providers so that the cost is competitive. Saudi Arabia plans to invest US$ 109billion in solar energy systems—plans to finalize in 2013 and first farm to be operational in 2015 with a goal of covering 30 percent of its energy needs by 2030.
Considering that US$ 136billion was invested worldwide in solar in 2011, this move toward independence in the energy sector could potentially “spur the next wave of innovation and local capacity building in the region in terms of renewable energy,” according to Nate’s presentation. This is not to mention skilled and semi-skilled job market such an investment will create.