Najib Saab. 11/6/2023

Social Development (AFESD), was a milestone in Arab environmental action; going beyond recognizing and describing the problem, to proposing practical solutions, with the participation of major Arab development finance institutions, all of whom pledged to put climate, and environmental considerations in general, at the forefront of their concerns when evaluating projects, especially in the fields of energy, water, food production and infrastructure.

They were all there at AFESD headquarters: OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID), Islamic Development Bank (ISDB), Saudi Fund for Development (SFD), Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development (KFAED), Abu Dhabi Fund for Development (ADFD), Arab Monetary Fund (AMF), Arab Gulf Programme for Development (AGFUND), and the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa (BADEA). From early morning until the end of day one, they listened to a group of senior experts, who presented the facts of climate change in Arab countries, and its impact on food, water and energy security, human health, low-lying coastal areas, cities, rural areas and forests. They followed presentations on successful applications in areas of energy and water efficiency, renewable energy, hydrogen production to carry and store energy, green buildings, and sustainable agriculture. They also listened to practical proposals to reduce carbon emissions, the main cause of global warming, by adopting alternatives that maintain a balance between economic growth, human needs, environmental protection and natural resources.

The issue of preparedness to deal with some of the irreversible effects of climate change, namely adaptation, occupied a leading spot in the discussion. The conversation went beyond general theories to practical proposals, such as building barriers to protect inhabited and agricultural coastal areas from rising seas, to enforcing restrictions on building in low-lying areas and moving activities to other locations; designing the infrastructure, such as roads, electricity, water, sewage, and other networks, to withstand high temperatures; adjusting food production methods, in terms of the quality of crops, seeds, and irrigation networks, to suit rising temperatures, water scarcity, drought, and increased salinity. Most importantly, limiting waste in all sectors and control consumption patterns, before increasing production. Participants listened to a scientific presentation that showed that what Arab countries lose from agricultural production, both local and imported, during transportation, storage and distribution, is sufficient to bridge the largest part of the food gap, if reduced by 80 percent, which is a feasible goal.

The Arab Fund headquarters was also the ideal location to discuss buildings that are equipped to adapt to high temperatures, as it was designed so that it doesn’t get direct sunlight, with highly efficient thermal insulation, unlike most commercial and government buildings in the region, which are characterized by huge glass walls that act as greenhouses and heat collectors. AFESD headquarters is an example of what buildings ready to adapt to soaring temperatures should be like, using mainly passive methods.

Good governance and putting an end to waste and corruption were also amply discussed, with calls for enforcing the implementation of reforms in public policies as an integral part of the financing process.

Discussions concluded that climate and environmental action should be integrated in development policies and programs, not added as a secondary component. This calls for establishing a scale of priorities that allows for the use of funding available in current budgets to implement programs amended in this direction, with greater efficiency and less corruption, before searching for new funding sources and increasing the burden of loans, because reform precedes greening. They also called for readiness to deal with a very rapid transition to renewable energy, due to the consequences of the war in Ukraine, as a result of geopolitical and economic factors on the one hand, and the requirements of mitigating carbon emissions to achieve climate goals on the other. This calls for diversifying the economy, primarily energy sources, by investing the current surplus income, due to higher oil and gas prices, in clean and renewable energy projects, in addition to hydrogen, to maintain competitiveness in energy markets, and in creating new lines to widen the income spectrum.

It is not surprising to hear experts and specialists in the fields of environment speaking with passion and enthusiasm about the need to accelerate climate action. However, the surprise came on the second day of the conference, when Arab financial institutions made detailed presentations of their plans to expand their contributions to financing climate action, whether in projects that lead to reducing emissions or those that support measures to deal with adaptation. While the pledges of some funds for environmental and climate projects exceeded 50 percent of their total commitments over the next ten years, all of them pledged to apply strict environmental standards as a condition for financing any project or program, of any kind, warranting that they do not harm the environment or exacerbate the climate problem.

Climate action has become a reality in a changing Arab world. This was demonstrated in an article that happened to be published in a leading pan-Arab newspaper, on the opening day of the conference, on renewable energy and hydrogen, as investment in the Arab future, apart from being a necessity to achieve carbon neutrality and combat climate change. This was written by the same columnist who published an article a year ago, in the same newspaper, describing climate change as a conspiracy against oil-producing countries.

The Arab conference for cooperation on climate change was distinguished by the unprecedented seriousness in dealing with the issue on the part of financing institutions, far from the public relations ambience. This was mostly evidenced by the presence of the Arab Fund Director General & Chairman, Bader Alsaad, during all conference sessions, listening to every speech, participating in the dialogues and taking notes, the result of which will hopefully appear soon in actual implementation.

AFESD conference may be the best practical preparation for Arab finance institutes and development funds for the upcoming COP28 in the UAE. The climate summit will be an opportunity for the oil-producing countries to demonstrate the intention and ability to provide added value, that is not limited to the export of oil and gas, and to enter as a strong partner in global climate action, as well as in new energy markets.