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

Reforming Regimes Must Precede Greening

A recent international report placed Lebanon among top countries that have made progress in switching to solar energy to produce electricity, by increasing capacity exponentially within three years. Some considered this an international recognition of a great national success, overlooking the fact that such sporadic single solutions do not solve communal problems of the public, and do not prevent states from collapsing. This corresponds to the announcement of random 'green' initiatives worth billions in other Arab countries, most of which failed to deliver the promised results, and did not stop the terrible economic collapse. It is fair to ask whether the real problem is in the economy and the system as a whole, or in the 'green' alternative component.

The answer to this question requires a careful analysis of the situation in each country. It is imperative that individual initiatives and private sector contributions, important as they are, do not lead to general results that are sustainable and benefit all people, unless they are part of a comprehensive national plan. The erroneous and unproductive policies of governments are capable of erasing the potential benefits of all individual initiatives. Those who believe that it is possible to build a real economy through auxiliary initiatives, based in countries governed by crumbling public institutions, are disillusioned and daydreaming at best. The only beneficiaries in these cases are a group of those who know which side the bread is buttered. The obvious facts confirm that those Arab countries suffering from bankruptcy, with the majority of their population living below the poverty line, are the same ones that are home to some of the richest individuals, most of whom accumulated their money from illegal sources, by exploiting the loopholes of chaos and arbitrary policies.

Going back to the Lebanese "greening" model, we find that sharing the benefits of monopolies and exclusive privileges prevented real change, as in renewable energy. During two decades of futile discussions, successive governments were unable to pass a law to connect solar electricity produced on rooftops to the public grid. While the arguments to delay action centered around bogus claims, such as technical obstacles, the actual motive was always to protect the monopolies of companies that had exclusive rights, for decades, to buy electricity produced by public plants, at prices below the real cost, and sell it to consumers with a large profit margin. With the complete collapse of public electrical services in the country, the monopolies shifted to a handful of communal generator operators, who supply consumers with limited electrical energy in exchange for exorbitant fees. While public administrations and some environmental groups wasted time for years measuring air pollution, from the chimney of a restaurant here and a wood stove there, in a scandalous waste of millions of grants and loans, dilapidated power stations and private generators, operating on the dirtiest types of polluting fuel, continued to spew their toxins in the midst of crowded neighborhoods.

Amid this utter chaos, which ended with a complete blackout, coinciding with the bankruptcy of the state that squandered people's deposits for the benefit of a small corrupt minority, few who could afford it resorted to solar power. Only those who were financially able were forced to install photovoltaic solar panels on their roofs as a last resort, while the majority remained in the dark. That was done out of necessity and not to protect the environment, by using the small amount of cash some people were able to rescue from their squandered deposits, or via donations from family members abroad. And because solar energy was required to cover most of their electricity consumption, as a main source not an auxiliary one, they had to install mostly obsolete storage batteries, to be used in the absence of enough sunlight. This is an unusual and very expensive process, as generating electricity from independent solar panels, not connected to the grid, is only suitable and economic for remote areas where there is no distribution grid. The primary use in these cases is for communication centers and public services such as water pumping, where the solar panel and battery solution is less expensive than extending the public network, or for basic needs of remote cottages.

While people deprived of electricity in Yemen and Syria installed small solar panels with limited capacity, to light a lamp, charge a phone and a cheap battery, or operate a small refrigerator in the best cases, most of the installations in Lebanon aim to obtain electrical supply to operate all appliances and lights for most of the time; this contradicts the basic principles of efficiency and environmental protection. An economically sound operation requires connecting private domestic electricity production to the public grid, where operators buy surplus production during the day to reduce the load of their plants, and sell electricity from their traditional stations to consumers at other times. Some countries, like Belgium, moved to a second level which requires the installation of efficient storage batteries together with solar panels on private roofs; only surplus production, after instant private consumption and fully charging the batteries, is fed to the public grid. This measure is soon expected to become the norm, combining clean energy and efficiency, while protecting the public grid from overflow, due to fast growth of installations.

As for the Lebanese solution, which some considered an achievement, it is in fact no more than an ad-hoc measure that cannot be sustained. This is because the batteries do not last for more than two years, they cause dangerous pollution when disposed of, and the need for electricity supplied by traditional sources will continue, in the dark days of winter or when consumption exceeds the storage capacity of the batteries. This means that toxic emissions from private generators and public power plants, which use the worst types of fuels, will persist. It would have been more appropriate for the international organizations to support the installation of solar panels and batteries to operate basic public services, such as communications and water stations, which fail regularly due to lack of power on the grid.

A few months ago, I heard an international official praise the support provided by his organization during the past ten years to the Central Bank as well as commercial banks in an Arab country, dedicated for loans to finance "environmentally friendly" projects. He was not amused when I pointed out that banks in that country were actually, at the time, providing consumer loans to individuals - one of which was intended for plastic surgery - or they were lending customer deposits to a bankrupt treasury to waste on a failing public sector and finance corruption, instead of financing productive projects. Since that time, commercial banks have collapsed along with the Central Bank, for obvious reasons which needed to be addressed before granting "green loans", which disappeared along with the rest of deposits.

The economic collapse that some countries in the region are witnessing is not surprising, except perhaps for those who refused to see the facts as they were or for the corrupt cliques who imagined that deception could perpetuate indefinitely. This should be a lesson for those who have been talking about investing in the environment and greening the economy, in isolation from the prevailing economic, political and social conditions. It is not possible to build a "green economy" in the absence of the correct foundations and principles of an economy in the first place, because this undermines both environmental and economic concepts. It is also not possible to build viable economic, environmental and social policies and plans in the absence of sound political, military and security foundations. Reforming policies and public systems must precede greening them.

Najib Saab is Secretary General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development- AFED and Editor-in-Chief of Environment & Development magazine.