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Towards Arab Green Recovery

Towards Arab Green Recovery

Sunday, 14 March, 2021 - 05:30
Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment & Development magazine

As a glimmer of light began to twinkle at the end of the pandemic tunnel, it became imperative for Arab countries to initiate long-term recovery plans. Limited immediate aid alone will not suffice, because the economic, social and environmental impacts will last for many years, and the same old approaches will not be enough to address them. Whereas few countries in the region did start developing plans that go beyond emergency programs, most of them are stuck in the preliminary stage of securing vaccines, basic medical treatment and minimum means of survival, at a time when a large number of people lost their source of livelihood, with unprecedented global decline in economic activity and income levels, threatening with grave dangers.

“Green, Resilient and Just Recoveries in the Middle East” was the topic of a panel discussion organized by the Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government, as part of an initiative to develop specific options for public policies to ensure rebuilding on sustainable foundations. It is noteworthy that sustainability considerations, including protecting the environment and natural resources, were at the heart of the initiative, which reflects a new trend that cannot be ignored. Despite the economic and social challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the environment has been included as a major item on the agenda.

There are many questions related to the environment and natural resources for the post-corona era: How will energy mix be, at which levels of consumption? In which direction will the aviation and tourism sectors navigate? What kind of jobs will be available? What is the impact on investments in food production and health? Will there be a change in the management of natural resources and protected areas?

Being green assumes that the plan should be climate-friendly, reducing carbon emissions, while adopting the principles of circular economy, which lead to a reduction in the wasteful use of natural resources, leading to continuous use and re-use in a closed loop. Resilience mandates that recovery plans should protect against economic and environmental shocks, by giving people the ability to cope with changes. Equity and equality combine all these considerations, ensuring that the benefits reach all, leaving no one behind.

The panelists agreed that energy markets will witness fundamental changes in the coming years, which will be mostly apparent in oil and gas exporting countries. The decline in consumption during the downturn may rise in the first years of recovery to make up for the shortfall. However, the shift towards clean and renewable types of energy, which began in recent years, will continue at a faster pace, after many countries placed reducing carbon emissions as a condition for companies to obtain a fair share of the huge recovery funds. This year has witnessed an unprecedented rise in full electric cars, and some companies, such as Volvo, have confirmed limiting their production to electric cars no later than 2030. Renault is another brand which plans to limit its production to pure electric cars within a decade.

As for the aviation industry, which is related to business and tourism, it will be forced to radically adjust its strategy, after businessmen became accustomed to holding virtual meetings remotely, which turned out to be a valid and useful alternative in most cases. Face-to-face meetings and conferences will not be dispensed with, because the internet does not provide equal opportunities for human interaction. However, the future will combine the two, which could cut business travel in half. On the other hand, the exhibition market is expected to flourish, because buyers aspire to closely examine, touch and test devices and machines, whether it’s a computer, a car or industrial machinery. This will make it attractive to develop travel offers which combine exhibitions and tourism, because post-corona travelers will be keen on combining multiple activities in one trip.

Tourist’s habits may change, where many would opt for nearby domestic and regional holidays, either in their own country or in neighboring countries. We will see longer holidays, to compensate for the trouble of more complicated travel procedures that will last for a long time, and the expected rise in plane ticket prices, thereby combining more destinations in one holiday. The demand for heritage and nature tourism will increase in the Middle East, as people come to Arab countries not only for warm climate and beaches, but also to discover their natural wealth and heritage. All this calls for developing new tourist destinations and marketing them using a new approach. If in the past some considered the desert to be dead land, they will discover that many Western tourists yearn to enjoy its silence and unique tranquility. Above all, it is required to develop ecotourism programs geared at the exploration of nature, and manage traditional tourist sites and facilities in a manner that protects environmental integrity, not only because this is a noble and ethical act, but because it is an important factor for marketing in our times.

Arab countries in the post-coronavirus era should support scientific research, especially in the fields of health, energy, water, food production, and nature protection. Traumatic experience in the past year has taught us the importance of being partners in science so that we can benefit fully from its results. Oil will enjoy at least thirty years open window as major and necessary component of the energy mix. During this period, producers need to carefully utilize the income from oil export to further advance human development in their countries and diversify the economy. Exporting countries must strongly support research to develop cheap and effective methods to capture, store and reuse carbon in a safe manner, because this brings benefits not only to oil exporters, but to all mankind.

Arab countries must empower a new generation capable of filling the needs of a new labor market, experiencing transition in interests. Focus will turn to jobs in computer programming, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, clean energy, food production and water resource management.

Before starting new programs, we need to make an inventory of those which have been developed during the last twenty years, but not properly implemented. Most Arab countries may find that many of the right plans were there long ago, but needed to be revived and linked to a long-term strategy, with periodic monitoring of implementation that allows for identifying achievements and deficiencies in order to make improvements in a timely manner. Meaningful transition must be accompanied by reviewing subsidies for some commodities to rationalize consumption, and the equitable distribution of taxes and tariffs, in such a way to provide incentives and deterrents. It is imperative to set realistic growth targets that rely mainly on trained local manpower, while minimizing the proportion of expatriate workforce.

Just as coronavirus did not require permission to spread from one country to another in the region, achieving sustainable development goals requires Arab countries to develop effective policies based on full regional cooperation in all fields, starting with realistic homogeneous regional economic commissions, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council, an example which needs to be strengthened and recreated in other parts of the region.

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