Najib Saad 22/6/2020

Amid news about the increasing number of coronavirus deaths, confirmed cases, and the fear for new waves of the virus, other positive news has gone unnoticed. This includes news that proves that the will to live and progress is stronger than any pandemic or disaster. Few recent events stood out in this context at the environmental level.  

Dubai witnessed the completion of the world’s tallest solar power tower, part of the largest concentrated solar power project in the world. This is a major contribution to the implementation of the objectives of the Dubai Clean Energy Strategy, which had set the target of providing 75 percent of Dubai’s total power output from clean energy by 2050. The importance of this technology lies in its ability to turn solar radiation into thermal energy, which can be stored to produce electricity after sunset. It is worth noting that the partners in this project, besides the Chinese Silk Road Fund, are the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) and ACWA Power, a Saudi company that has become a leading global player in the renewable energy arena.  

One day after Dubai’s solar power milestone, Saudi Arabia made its clearest commitment to date to shift to green economy policies. In a virtual seminar held last week in preparation for the G20 summit to be hosted by Riyadh next November, the Minister of Energy Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman announced that Saudi Arabia will accelerate its energy efficiency program and expand the use of solar and wind energy in the coming decade. Efficiency will not only be limited to reducing consumption, but will also contribute to achieving an increase in industrial and agricultural output, enhancing the welfare of citizens, improving access to modern communication and expanding sustainable transportation networks. Achieving a better quality of life in this sense will not necessarily equate to greater consumption and more carbon emissions.

Changing the Saudi Ministry of Petroleum to Ministry of Energy had already marked a new era in which oil has become part of the energy mix, in line with the overall diversification of the economy. Referring to a new facet in the Saudi economic transformation plan, Prince Abdulaziz stressed his country’s commitment to put the principles of circular economy in action, by rationalizing consumption and reducing waste, as well as promoting recycling and reuse. All these efforts will help preserve the environment and contribute to global endeavors designed to reduce carbon emissions that cause climate change.

Rather than using the extraordinary pressures that the global economy is facing today as an excuse to ease environmental reform, Prince Abdulaziz said that the pandemic should incite more rigorous environmental measures. These should be enforced together with devising alternative tracks leading to balanced development that enhances the health of both people and the environment. Perhaps the most prominent passage in the minister’s speech is his observation that celebrating low carbon emissions due to the pandemic will not last for long, as immediate global action is needed to reduce carbon emissions in the long term as a prerequisite to successfully deal with climate change. I have intentionally repeated the reference to the Saudi Minister of Energy’s speech at various instances to avoid confusing his statements with those of an environmental activist or head of an environmental organization.

Along similar lines, another development last week almost went unnoticed, as the Supreme Council of Universities in Egypt approved the inclusion of sustainable management of natural resources among the accepted topics of the Master’s Degree in various specializations. Concurrently, the Egyptian Minister of Environment also announced that a new batch of educational material related to climate change, biological diversity and desertification has been integrated into educational curricula at all school levels, in addition to the inclusion of the environment in extracurricular activities and field studies. The material to a large extent draws on the Environmental Education Manual produced last November by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED). The elaborate manual, part of AFED’s environmental education initiative, has been designed to help Arab ministries include reliable environmental content in school curricula and integrate environmental topics in extracurricular activities. It was offered to ministries and schools across the Arab world in print and online versions.

At the same time, the preoccupation with finding a coronavirus vaccine did not stop scientists from continuing to develop environmentally friendly products, the latest of which is a substitute for plastic that can be produced from seaweed. This degradable substance can replace single-use bags and packaging materials, which are currently of the most precarious pollutants, especially in the oceans.

Another positive piece of news that also almost went unnoticed is a study from the University of California, which showed that roughly half of Earth’s ice-free land remains without significant human influence. Despite the fact that human activities have destroyed many of Earth’s resources, we still have another largely untouched half that is capable of supporting human life. The positive takeaway is thus that we can work to save this largely untouched half from being destroyed while repairing the other half.  

From state policies to science, not all news is negative. When the minister of energy of the largest oil country and environmental experts agree on similar priorities and start talking the same language, we know that we are on the right track. Sustainable development is based on working in harmony with nature, not against it. Equally, it does not make sense to consider protecting the environment a romantic endeavor that disregards sustainable development, which is the only path to progress and better quality of life

Did the coronavirus pandemic play a role in stimulating these positive ideas and initiatives? So far it has at least taught us humility by revealing that the will to live and progress will always prevail, despite all drawbacks.