By Khaled Diab
The Arab world no longer dismisses environmentalism as a western luxury and is gradually awakening to the massive environmental challenges.
9 October 2009
The Arab world is gradually awakening to the massive environmental challenges ahead for the region.
The environmental movement has long been regarded with suspicion in the developing world. For two centuries, the west has had a more or less free hand to pollute with impunity, deplete the planet of natural resources, exterminate most of its stock of wildlife that might pose any kind of threat to human safety and wipe out biodiversity not only in its own backyard but also across the planet.
Given this trail of destruction and distrust, it is perhaps unsurprising that well-meaning and far-sighted eco-warriors out to protect cuddly killer cats, hug trees against the deforester's axe and fume over emissions have often been viewed as little more than latter-day missionaries sent out to subdue the restive natives and keep them from aspiring to better things.
This unfortunate perception was partly a coincidence of history. Although environmental campaigners in Europe and north America are as old as the industrial revolution, widespread social awareness of environmental degradation did not emerge until after World War II, with the industrialised level of destruction wrought by that conflict and the fearful potential consequences of the nuclear age.
At about the same time, the newly independent former colonies embarked on a postcolonial drive for rapid industrialisation and the desire and ambition to match and perhaps better western standards of living. Despite the emergence of cleaner and greener technologies, this was largely done with little regard for the environmental impact of modernisation, partly because developing countries could not afford the new technologies.
In recent years, many developing countries, faced with massive environmental degradation and poor air and water quality, have reached a similar stage in their industrialisation cycle as Europe and the west were at in the 1950s and 1960s, with the environmental movement gradually becoming more than a fringe concern. This, coupled with the impacts already being felt by climate change and the massive upheavals ahead, means they are slowly awakening to the reality that development and the environment are not two separate entities.
In the Arab world, although direct industrialisation has slowed down over the past three decades, modernisation has not – stressing the environment enormously. The region may be the world's main petrol pump, but this finite resource is rapidly dwindling and dependence on it has affected air quality in large urban centres and on the coastal plains where half of the region's population lives. Major investment in harnessing the region's massive solar resources makes both economic and environmental sense.
In addition, although climate change largely carries a ‘made in the West' label, the region is set quite literally to take the heat for it. Both temperatures and populations are expected to rise over the coming decades, causing water reserves to diminish, or at best stagnate, and desertification to accelerate. This means that scarce water will become even scarcer. Rising sea levels could also threaten major coastal population centres.
Faced with all these emerging challenges, it is unsurprising that the latest Arab Human Development Report dedicated an entire chapter to the environment and natural resources.
As in many other areas, Arab leaders do not always set a good example. Take King Muhammed VI of Morocco, whose enthusiasm for cars prompted him to take the outrageous step of chartering a Hercules transporter plane to fly his Aston Martin from Rabat to Britain for repairs. Before we laugh off those eccentric and peculiar Arab leaders, it is worth recalling that the US president – who travels abroad with two planes and an entire fleet of cars – has a carbon footprint estimated to be the equivalent of 2,200 energy-guzzling US households.
A group of independent experts has produced a report dedicated to the region's environment. The Arab Environment Future Challenges Report estimates that environmental degradation costs the region about 5% of its GDP.
The document also identified Abu Dhabi as a trailblazer in environmental action, commending its environment strategy for 2009 to 2013 as a “model” for other countries to emulate. Environmental action in the small emirate is also reaching the grassroots and the new generation. For instance, 50 Abu Dhabi schools are in the process of “going green” and reducing their ecological footprint.
A few weeks before the Copenhagen climate conference, Beirut will play host to the 2009 conference of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development where a new report will be released and experts will debate what action needs to be taken. As occurred at Kyoto and may well happen in Copenhagen, it remains to be seen whether greater awareness of our heavy-footed environmental bootprint will translate into effective and sustained action.
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 28 September 2009. Read the related discussion.