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Environment and Economy Can Converge

Environment and Economy Can Converge

Sunday, 26 September, 2021 - 04:30
Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment & Development magazine

US climate envoy John Kerry joined the ranks of environmental activists when he called for direct action that turns scientific research findings into policies and plans. This may be true in an ideal world, but the difference between science and public policy is vast, amid the complex elements involved. Science may recommend an immediate halt to emissions and prevent the extraction of some natural resources, but setting implementation policies is another matter, linked to the repercussions on social and economic conditions. Public policies are always the result of a compromise among different demands, and the best solutions are those that bring gradual change and smooth transformation, to achieve a long-term balance between human demands and nature.


Policy makers often face difficult decisions between contrasting choices. But when a balanced solution presents itself, it is unacceptable to resort to another option that defies logic. Whereas bad choices are a regular practice in countries that lack proper governance, it is astounding when they occur in countries that have made advanced strides in adopting sound environmental policies. What is happening in Jordan recently is an example of this dilemma. It is true that the decision to remove part of the Dana Biosphere Reserve for the purpose of extracting copper was environmentally deplorable, but there were grounds to put forward the argument of its potential economic benefits for debate. The same does not apply to the recent plan announced by the Jordanian minister of energy to build a huge national network to deliver imported natural gas to homes, as this option defies economic logic in particular, not just environmental concerns.


When the same minister announced a few years ago that the ministry was no longer granting licenses for major new solar and wind projects, she referred to a surplus of electricity production in the country. Today, as she reveals a plan to introduce gas networks to homes for heating and cooking purposes, she is going against the trend, as the new global movement is to switch from gas to electricity for domestic purposes. This is true even in countries that produce natural gas, such as the Netherlands, where gas has been banned for years in new buildings, which had to shift to electricity for cooking and heat pumps for heating.


If this is the case of a gas-producing country like the Netherlands, which is dispensing with existing gas networks, then what is the justification for building new networks in a country that imports gas, while enjoying a surplus of clean electricity? Would it not have been more useful to take advantage of, and develop, the existing electricity network to receive a greater load, thus encourage the transition from gas to electricity for domestic uses?


However, despite the difficulty of striking an ideal balance between the requirements of economic development and environmental protection, recent weeks have brought some bright news from the Arab region.


Last week it was announced that the Saudi Farasan Islands Protected Area was added to UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) program. Farasan islands and their beaches, located in the Jazan region in southwestern Saudi Arabia, are characterized by ecological diversity and rare wildlife population, along with unique traditional architectural features and cultural heritage. The new classification places Farasan among the most important sites in the world that adhere to precise scientific standards and requirements to improve the interaction between humans and the environment, thus securing the islands a leading position in the Saudi program to develop sustainable eco-tourism.


As for transforming environmental programs into economic opportunities, the largest Saudi financial group recently announced the establishment of an investment fund to implement programs and projects stipulated by the Saudi Green Initiative. This fund aims to attract qualified local and international investors to participate in renewable energy companies, clean transportation, sustainable water management and climate change adaptation. The fund supports sustainability goals in accordance with the Saudi Vision 2030, which promotes environmental, social and governance initiatives. Simultaneously, The Saudi Public Investment Fund, one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world, announced earlier this month the establishment of the Riyadh Voluntary Platform for Trading and Exchange of Carbon Insurance and Compensation. The platform’s work covers the Middle East and North Africa, which is considered a major Saudi contribution towards facing the challenges of climate change and motivating all sectors to reduce their emissions.


In Egypt, parliament approved a new water resources and irrigation law, which aims to rationalize consumption and reduce pollution of the Nile River. The law endorses lining water canals and adopting drip irrigation instead of flooding, to reduce water wastage. It also stipulates strict requirements on residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural facilities located on the Nile, to prevent excessive pollution. This law is expected to strengthen Egypt’s negotiating position regarding its rights to the Nile. In another development, a few weeks ago Egypt launched a project to introduce renewable energy to its airports.


In the UAE, a group of new projects were recently announced to increase electricity production from sun and wind. Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) confirmed that it will add 600 megawatts of operating capacity from clean solar energy during the current year, bringing production to 1,613 megawatts, compared to 1,013 megawatts at the beginning of the year. While 300 megawatts of solar panels were added in July, September is witnessing the inauguration of the tallest tower in the world to produce electricity from concentrated solar energy, with a capacity of 100 megawatts. Abu Dhabi continues to enhance its capacity to produce electricity from solar energy, after it put into operation the Noor plant, which is the largest independent solar energy complex in the world today, with a capacity of 1,177 megawatts generated by more than 3 million solar panels. It is also expected that the Al Dhafra plant in Abu Dhabi will start producing more than 2,000 megawatts of solar energy during 2022, enough to supply electricity to more than 160,000 homes.


It is hoped that countries that have made remarkable progress in protecting the environment and achieving sustainable development will not backtrack on their achievements, and that the countries whose right choices have started yielding results will continue to achieve more, based on balanced policies motivated by concern about the future. The best political decision remains the one that respects the scientific facts, taking into account the realities of public policy. If the two meet, an ideal solution can be realized.


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