By Najib Saab, Issue 160-161, July 2011

The Arab Spring, which started in early December 2010, has been at the center of global news coverage. The topic of AFED 2011 report is not unrelated to these events. We hope for the Arab Spring to usher in a new direction for economic and environmental sustainability. At the moment the prospects are not good for either one. However, political reforms should be expected to clamp down on administrative corruption as well as the mismanagement of natural resources. More representative governments should bring stronger political will to the sustainable management of environmental resources through effective public policy, whereby people whose lives are most impacted by these concerns and the civil society will have more say in shaping political decisions. Hence we should expect better governance in general to have spillover effects on environmental governance. Inequality, oppression and poverty are at the core of environmental destruction. As part of the transformation, we should also expect civil society to be freer and more effective.

Despite the high oil revenues reaped from hydrocarbon resources and their spillover effects on non-oil producing countries, Arab economies suffer from structural problems, with fragile political systems, precluding them from adopting effective green transformations. Arab economies remain undiversified. They largely rely on oil and low value-added commodity products such as cement, alumina, fertilizers and phosphates.

Demographic transitions present a major challenge: population increased from 100 million in 1960 to about 400 million in 2011. 60% are under 25 years old. Urbanization has increased from 38% in 1970 to 65% in 2010. If rural development does not become a priority, we will witness more rural migration into cities in search of jobs, which will put more strain on already inadequate infrastructure.

What do these numbers mean?

Current economic development patterns will increasingly strain the ability of Arab governments to provide decent-paying jobs. For instance, youth unemployment in the region is currently double the world average.

The demand for food, water, housing, education, transportation, electricity, and other municipal services will rise. Power demand in Saudi Arabia, for example, is rising at a fast rate of 7-8% a year. Agricultural land around Amman, Cairo and other Arab cities is being lost to the expansion of suburbs. While higher learning institutions are proliferating, the quality of education offered is below average. Gated communities and high-rise office buildings are sprawling, while decent low-income housing is ignored. Even when capital is available, investments are typically misdirected.

Food and water security pose a major threat. Arab policymakers currently juggle competing demands for food security and environmental sustainability. Food security, a politically motivated proposition, aims to maximize the country’s food production, although this typically comes at the cost of depleting fossil water resources. The alternative, however, is importing virtual water, improving sustainability but at the price of food security. If present trends continue, there will be no choice: even if there is a strong political will to achieve food security, water scarcity and population increase will make it exceedingly difficult.

The 2010 report of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) found that the Arab region is facing impending catastrophic water shortages, as early as 2015. The 2009 AFED report found that the impact of climate change in the region will multiply the risk of water and food scarcity. Yet, some Arab countries with the lowest renewable fresh water resources continue to have per capita water consumption rates which are among the highest in the world. Irrigation efficiency in the region also stands at a very low level of 30%, often to produce low-value crops demanding vast amounts of water. Cropping patterns and varieties should be changed to produce more with less water, even if this eventually means radical changes in eating habits. Arab countries should also do their part in reducing emissions, through greater energy efficiency, cleaner utilization of oil and gas, and wide use of renewable energy.

Given these challenges, transitioning to the Green Economy is not only an option for the Arab region; it is rather an obligation to secure a proper path to sustainable development.

What should we expect from Rio +20? The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio was about Environment and Development. With not much success in 10 years, the slogan in Johannesburg changed to Sustainable Development, with new goals set. Twenty years later, Rio +20 will be about the Green Economy. As we subscribe to the real transition to a global green economy, we understand it as a path to realize sustainable development, not an alternative, or a ploy to evade the original commitments of the 1992 Earth Summit. Green Economy should not be left entirely to markets and technology, or to corporate-controlled Social Responsibility (CSR) programs. This carries the risk of putting the entire matter in the hands of global conglomerates, who might monopolize green technologies. Green Economy should be perceived as a novel approach, setting new criteria for conducting business, as well as for government national development agendas, not a new name for re-dressing of old practices.

We perceive the Green Economy as a way to reaffirm and deliver on the commitments of the Rio-1 summit and on the Millennium Development Goals, to eradicate poverty. Developing countries rightly complain that industrialized countries have fallen short of fulfilling the pledges they made at Rio. Official development assistance has declined by one-third, to under 0.22 percent of the gross domestic product of the rich countries, down from 0.35% in 1970, instead of increasing to the promised 0.7 percent. Developing countries must be helped to follow alternative and sustainable patterns of development without compromising their own national resources and sovereignty.

Renewable energy sources and cleaner use of fossil fuels, which require proper transfer of technology, should be taken as priority. However, as a developing region that depends heavily on oil for income, AFED cautions against selectively imposing new tariffs under the guise of environmental protection, as they could hamper the whole region’s development. Proceeds from tariffs, if they were for true environmental concerns, should be shared between producers and consumers, and supplemented with other incentives, clear policy and regulatory framework. The revenue generated should be allocated to advance efficiency, cleaner production technologies and renewable sources of energy.

In the two decades after Rio: Arab countries have established Environment Ministries, enacted laws, ratified major international agreements and cooperated with international agencies to implement various environmental projects. Our civil society, slowly but surely, is becoming vibrant and active on environmental matters, and enjoys increasing public visibility.

The post-Rio era was, however, characterized by ready-made solutions which resulted in projects often designed to fit the requirements of donor agencies and the international bureaucracy, rather than the actual needs of local communities. The challenge before us is to redesign how we support civil society and community groups, so that they can lead their people into a more relevant path. However, realizing that civil society cannot substitute governments, efforts should be directed to ultimately affect changes at the policy level.

Rio +20 presents an opportunity to employ green economy as a tool to achieve sustainable development. As the recent developments in Arab countries proved, sustainability cannot depend on a choice between freedom and stability. Equally true, we cannot win a “war on terror” if we fail to wage a determined war on poverty, oppression and injustice.