Keynote address at the conference on the review of the Mediterranean Strategy for Sustainable Development (MSSD)
Florina, Malta, 17-18 February 2015

Four years ago, I addressed the Mediterranean Commission on Sustainable Development (MCSD) in Montenegro, to present an Arab perspective on regional priorities. This was at the onset of the uprisings that started in early December 2010. At that time, we hoped for what was referred to as the “Arab Spring” to usher in a new direction for economic and environmental sustainability. At that moment, the prospects for both were not good; today the situation is gloomy at its best, and in many instances nearer to chaos.

It was hoped that the expected political reforms would put an end to administrative corruption as well as the mismanagement of natural resources. More representative governments were expected to 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 expected better governance, in general, to have spill-over effects on environmental governance. Inequality, oppression and poverty are at the core of environmental destruction. As part of the transformation, it was hoped that civil society would become freer and more effective.

The fact is that, four years later, the region is in overall turmoil. But does this mean that people should give up the drive for change? Last month I heard a head of an Arab state warning, as guest speaker at a regional conference, that “change is not destruction.” The audience cheered, especially that the words rhyme in Arabic (taghyeer and tadmeer) and the public often likes rhetoric. However, I felt that the comment, as true as it is, might conceal a hidden agenda to justify oppression. I wished that, if not for the protocol requirements, I could tell him there and then that sustainability cannot depend on a choice between change and freedom with chaos on one side, and stability with suppression on the other; we cannot win a “war on terror” if we fail to wage a determined war on poverty, oppression and injustice.
The Mediterranean Strategy for Sustainable Development (MSSD) is being debated under conditions of uncertainty and instability in the south-eastern part of this basin. Draft documents clearly reveal that the main challenge is that of governance. For in the absence of good governance, any ad-hoc programs will be wasted; even growth, if achieved, will be short-lived and cannot produce sustainable development.

Four objectives were set in 2005 for the Mediterranean Strategy, which were to contribute to economic development, reduce social disparities, change unsustainable production and consumption patterns, and improve governance. Seven priority areas were selected: water, energy, mobility, tourism, agriculture and rural development, urban planning, sea and coastal areas. After many meetings and extensive review exercises, it is obvious that priorities set ten years ago by the Contracting Parties, as regional response to the global sustainable development agenda, remain the same today. The main outcome of the review was re-grouping sectors in clusters, and adding climate change as crosscutting area.

We knew all along what the problems were; we didn’t agree on how to solve them. Conclusions of the MSSD review show that green economy needs to be deployed as an implementation tool to achieve sustainable development in all the priority sectors.
I shall share with you some thoughts on transitioning to green economy from the Arab region, which shares 6,000 kilometres of the Mediterranean coast.

Arab countries have adopted aggressive economic growth models, but in doing so have gravely undermined progress on social and environmental issues. The ensuing forms of poverty, unemployment, food and water security threats, and environmental degradation continue to plague Arab economies. These shortfalls are not necessarily borne out of natural limitations. Rather, they are the outcomes of policy choices.

The shortcomings in the performance of Arab economies have also significantly contributed to deteriorating social conditions. The persistent poverty and unemployment have led to social marginalization, which is further compounded by income disparities. The aggregate impacts of these shortfalls have caused social and political instability. Demands for change across Arab countries reveal that the mounting economic, social, and environmental strains and the resultant implications on livelihood security have become unsustainable.

Successive reports of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) advocated a development model rooted in a green economy. AFED argues that balancing economic development, social equity, and environmental sustainability provides a sound foundation for addressing the shortcomings of Arab economies, from curbing poverty and unemployment, to attaining food, water, and energy security, to achieving more equitable forms of income distribution. Moreover, a green economy places great emphasis on the efficient use and deployment of natural assets to diversify the economy, which in turn provides immunity against the volatilities and recessionary pressures of the global economy.

The systemic strains caused by Arab development models can be understood by examining indicators across a range of dimensions. Poverty continues to afflict 65 million people in Arab countries. Economic insecurity is further aggravated by disturbingly high unemployment rates of up to 15% for the general population, reaching 30% among the youth. Sharp disparities still exist among Arab countries, and in many cases high growth figures concealed deterioration in regenerative natural capital. An AFED report on Ecological Footprint, produced jointly with the Global Footprint Network, revealed that the deficit between ecological footprint and biocapacity in the Arab region is 50%. This casts doubt on the ability of Arab economies to create the 50 million new jobs projected to be required by 2020 to accommodate new entrants into the work labor force, while keeping current unemployment rates the same.

Arab development strategies continue to be dominated by investments in extractive commodity products earmarked for export markets. Despite generating high GDP growth, this model leaves Arab economies more vulnerable to global market volatilities, while failing to significantly create jobs. The lack of income diversification is a primary cause of the structural weakness of Arab economies.

The state of water resources is nearing a crisis in most Arab countries, driven mostly by policies that encourage over-consumption and tolerate over-exploitation of the scarce water resources available. Less than half of the wastewater is treated, of which less than 40% is reused. Average water availability per capita puts the whole Arab region in the highly scarce category. Among the Arab countries on the Mediterranean coast, only Lebanon falls outside this classification, but its water sector suffers from bad management. In Arab countries today, more than 45 million people, accounting to over 10% of the population, lack access to clean water and safe sanitation.

Food security poses another major threat to Arab countries. This is caused primarily by negligence and underdevelopment of the agricultural sector, resulting in poor agricultural productivity and low irrigation efficiency rates, amounting in most countries to half of the world average. A recent AFED report on Food Security found that Arab countries import half their consumption of basic foods. The net import bill for the food commodities was $56 billion in 2011, including $25 billion for cereals. The escalating food import bills cause large trade deficits, strain the public budgets of Arab countries, and make them vulnerable to export bans by other countries.

Nearly 60 million people in Arab countries lack access to affordable energy services, limiting their opportunities for improved living standards. At the same time, some Arab economies are among the least energy efficient and score the highest energy consumption per capita in the world. A recent Chatham House report warned that, at the present rates of escalating demand for electricity, some oil-exporting countries might have to use all their production locally within a decade, barring them from export income. The policy of building more power plants and providing vast energy subsidies will no longer be economically sustainable.

Transportation policies in Arab countries have focused primarily on highway and road construction, rather than on mass public transit, better urban planning and rural development. The lack of effective intervention policies in the transportation sector has resulted in serious traffic congestion in urban centers, poor air quality in many cities, and land degradation.

Cities in the Arab region suffer from chaotic land-use patterns and excessive urban congestion, leaving infrastructure systems incapable of adequately supporting their populations. Rural-to-urban migration and high housing costs in many Arab cities have contributed to the spread of slum areas, characterized by inadequate, or even absent basic services.
Energy and water use in the existing building stock across the region, particularly in commercial and public buildings, is alarmingly inefficient. The internationalized approach to architecture and construction in the region is far from being adapted to the local climatic conditions, resulting in wasteful use of energy.

Making the transition to a green economy will require a fundamental review and redesign of public policies to stimulate shifts in production, consumption, purchasing, and investment patterns.

Arab governments need to prioritize agricultural rural development as a strategic policy objective to alleviate rural poverty and reverse years of neglect. Such a policy shift would enable farmers, aided by well-designed extension services, to improve seeds, irrigation efficiency, soil conservation, agricultural yields, and sustainable practices. Revitalizing the agricultural sector will increase the Arab region’s share in the productive labor force, improve living standards, and limit rural to urban migration, generating more than 10 million jobs in the sector. In addition, shifting to sustainable agricultural practices is expected to result in savings to Arab countries of between 5-6% of GDP, amounting to about $100 billion annually, as a result of increased water productivity, improved public health, and better-protected environmental resources.

Policy shifts in the water sector must begin with the introduction of institutional and legal reforms that affect water use, regulation, and governance. Arab states need to concentrate on policies that control and regulate water access, promote irrigation and water use efficiency, prevent water pollution, and establish protected areas vital to water resources. Volume of wastewater treated should increase from below 50% today to 90- 100%. The portion of treated wastewater which is reused should increase from an average of 20% today to 100%. Innovative technologies for water desalination should be developed locally, incorporating the use of solar energy.

For the energy sector, AFED proposes sustained investments in energy efficiency and in renewable energy sources through a mix of regulatory standards and economic incentives. A reduction in the average annual per capita consumption of electricity in Arab countries to the world average, through energy efficiency measures, would generate electricity consumption savings that are estimated in monetary terms to reach $73 billion annually. A 25% reduction in energy subsidies would free some $100 billion over a three-year period, an amount that can be shifted to finance the conversion to green energy sources. A 30% reduction in energy requirements due to more efficient industrial processes is estimated to result in annual savings of 150,000 billion kWh or $12.3 billion.

For the transportation sector, policies in favor of mass public transit systems and vehicle fuel efficiency standards are needed. These policy interventions have been demonstrated to have a relatively low cost while yielding high economic, social, and environmental dividends within a short period. The benefits would include the provision of dependable, affordable, and safe transportation services that are energy efficient, while minimizing pollution, congestion, and unmanaged urban sprawl. A projected target of 50% greening of the transport sector, resulting from higher energy efficiency and increased use of public transport and hybrid vehicles, should generate savings of $23 billion annually across the Arab region.
To create healthy and economically competitive urban communities that offer a high quality of living for their inhabitants, governments need to adopt zoning regulations and mixed-use development. For buildings, a holistic design approach that incorporates environmental principles is proposed to yield the highest energy efficiency gains. Building efficiency codes and standards are seen as the most effective institutional levers for influencing construction practices. Integrating energy efficient considerations in the design of buildings is expected to result in a reduction of about 29% of projected CO2 emissions in 10 years, which would cut consumption by 217 billion kWh and generate savings of $17.5 billion annually. In addition, spending $100 billion in greening 20% of the existing building stock in Arab countries over the next 10 years, by investing an average of $10,000 per building for retrofitting, is expected to create four million jobs.
In Arab countries today, mainstream economic planning is still anchored in short-term GDP growth and quick fixes, while disregarding the underlying causes of poverty, inequality, unemployment, and environmental degradation. As such, growth often fails to produce sustainable progress.

A response anchored in a transition to a green economy is the obvious choice. The region does not have to choose between economic development, social equality or healthy ecosystems. By design, the green economy seeks to achieve economic, social, and environmental policy goals.

Making the transition to green development is not a one-time event that can be achieved by a single high-level decision. Rather, it must be viewed as a long and demanding process guided both by top-down policy prescription as well as bottom-up public participation. This approach gives transition the political and social legitimacy needed to ensure wide-scale mobilization of efforts to make it a reality. Good governance is the basic requirement to achieve this, and that’s where the thrust of Mediterranean development cooperation should be directed.

nsaab@afedonline.org www.afedonline.org