Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment & Development magazine

Message from the ‘Old Continent’

Some Arab politicians and journalists have been frequently using the term "old continent" recently, often in the context of mocking Europe's current troubles.

The challenging problems Europe is facing as a result of the Russian war on Ukraine go beyond the acute shortage of energy supplies, jeopardizing its very way of life.

I had been asked in recent television interviews about the situation in the "old continent", in the context of discussing the environmental complications of the war. I refrained from commenting on the term, but rather went straight to the heart of the matter.

For this is a wrong and unjust description, that ultimately does not harm Europe's standing, as much as it harms its users, because it may propagate the delusional idea in their countries that, unlike the "old continent", they had succeeded in fulfilling all the conditions for progress and prosperity, and the consumed "elderly" were left with nothing to do but to catch up with them.

While the aspiration to progress remains a duty and a right, it is achieved not by slogans, but by hard work and benefiting from the experiences of others.

Whatever the European Union's setbacks, the convergence of its countries on common economic, cultural and environmental denominators that make it an influential bloc in the world, remains a great experience for Arab countries to learn from, in terms of successes and failures alike.

It is noteworthy that the Arabic word used for "old" is based on an inaccurate translation. Whereas in other languages the reference to Europe as an "old" continent means ancient and mature, the phrase commonly used in Arabic places it in the category of disability and inactive retirement.

Talk about the "old continent" increased in the context of discussing the energy crisis and ways to confront it. This forced Europe to take temporary measures, including reviving the use of coal and nuclear energy, and the search for new sources of gas and oil, in order to avoid being subject to expansionist blackmail through Ukraine.

Instead of putting the problem in its realistic context as an urgent need, some portrayed this as a proof of lack of seriousness in dealing with the issue of climate change. Others even went on to invoke an outdated theory that climate change is a hoax to put limits on development and progress in developing countries.

As we do not live in an ideal world, industrialized countries were not prepared to give up their economic supremacy so quickly and for nothing in return. Nor did poor countries accept to commit to restrictions that limit their right to catch up with growth, for free.

However, the environmental treaties concluded during the past few decades have attempted to distribute burdens and obligations in a manner that allows for fair competition, by imposing a sort of balanced restrictions on everyone, while giving a grace period to developing countries according to their capabilities, and assisting them in switching to cleaner production methods, environmental protection and harnessing resources.

International environmental agreements have succeeded in some areas, and fallen short in others.

Although rich countries have not fully adhered to their promises of aid for development and the environment in poorer countries, developing countries, in turn, bear a great responsibility for their internal failures.

This starts with the absence of good governance and the spread of squandering and corruption, but does not end with the weakness of development plans and the priority of private interests over the public good.

It is true that the West erred in various areas with respect to developing countries, but this does not absolve them of their own responsibilities. Nor will they be able to move forward merely by blaming others and accusing them of conspiring against them.

On top of the calamities caused by the pandemic and the Ukraine war, Europe was further hit by an unprecedented heatwave and drought that smashed water supply and agricultural production this summer, compounded by the refugee crisis that sweltered again in more countries. Most of the refugees took risks to cross to the other side of the Mediterranean to escape repressive regimes or get away from wars and economic collapses in their own countries.

In the face of these multiple problems, European governments are trying to take emergency measures, none of which will be easy.

It is not true that the increased use of coal and the search for other alternatives to Russian gas - which may be more polluting - and the restarting of old nuclear plants, are the only emergency measures adopted by European countries.

Parallel to these measures, which undoubtedly increase carbon emissions in the short term, the EU has adopted tough rules to boost efficiency and reduce consumption. This includes the rationing of lighting in the streets and public places, with the lighting of some monuments completely turned off.

A minimum cooling limit in summer of no less than 25 degrees Celsius is being set, as well as an upper limit of heating in winter of no more than 20 degrees. Several countries have granted additional incentives to use public transportation.

Also, programs were launched to support the switch to heat pumps instead of gas, and subsidies were allocated to improve thermal insulation in residential, commercial and industrial buildings.

Most important is the acceleration of programs to produce electricity from solar, wind and other renewable sources.

The success of these initiatives will not only compensate for the increase in emissions in the short term, but might help meet carbon emission targets earlier than previously planned.

Equally, European electric car technologies and markets have witnessed amazing developments in recent months, which will likely make buying a fuel-powered car a losing investment much earlier than anticipated.

There is no doubt that achieving these changes will be difficult and costly, in light of economic collapses and a war with an ambiguous end that haunts Europe. But it is certain that Europe is trying hard, through policies that combine addressing urgent immediate challenges with major future goals, to get out of the minefields with the minimum of losses.

However, sticking to the plans will not be easy; rising prices could spark social unrest, food shortages could lead farmers to demand increased production as a priority rather than adherence to strict environmental rules, and finance and economy ministers might call for an extension of the European interim deadline to cut emissions drastically by 2030, because they would have to divert available funds to other emergency matters.

However, this stressful atmosphere has not prevented European governments from affirming their climate commitments. For this, Europe deserves credit rather than sarcastic gloating over the "old continent".

It is more appropriate for the gloaters to think of long-term plans that will help their countries to face the upcoming challenges, mainly climatic and environmental risks.

Some Arab countries, having become a key player in international climate action, can also be proud of what they are doing, through the serious ambitious initiatives they launched in the areas of circular carbon, efficiency and renewable energy. Such negative commentators risk throwing doubt on the real commitments of their countries.