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Arab Perspective on Rio +20


Arab Perspective on Rio +20

Keynote Address at the 14th Meeting of the Mediterranean Commission on Sustainable Development (MCSD)

Budva, Montenegro, 30 May-1 June 2011


Najib Saab

Secretary General, Arab Forum for Environment & Development (AFED)



The Arab Spring, which started in early December, has been at the center of global news coverage. The topic of my speech is not unrelated to these events. We hope for the Arab Spring to usher in a new direction for economic and environmental sustainability. At the moment the prospects are not good for either one. However, political reforms should be expected to clamp down on administrative corruption as well as the mismanagement of natural resources. More representative governments should bring stronger political will to the sustainable management of environmental resources through effective public policy, whereby people whose lives are most impacted by these concerns and the civil society will have more say in shaping political decisions. Hence we should expect better governance in general to have spillover effects on environmental governance. Inequality, oppression and poverty are at the core of environmental destruction.  As part of the transformation, we should also expect civil society to be freer and more effective.

Despite the high oil revenues reaped from hydrocarbon resources and their spillover effects on non-oil producing countries, Arab economies suffer from structural problems, with fragile political systems, precluding them from adopting effective green transformations. Arab economies remain undiversified. They largely rely on oil and low-value added commodity products such as cement, alumina, fertilizers and phosphates.

Demographic transitions present a major challenge: population increased from 100 million in 1960 to about 400 million in 2011. 60% are under 25 years old. Urbanization has increased from 38% in 1970 to 65% in 2010. If rural development does not become a priority, we will witness more rural migration into cities in search of jobs, which will put more strain on already inadequate infrastructure.

What do these numbers mean?

Current economic development patterns will increasingly strain the ability of Arab governments to provide decent-paying jobs. For instance, youth unemployment in the region is currently double the world average.

The demand for food, water, housing, education, transportation, electricity, and other municipal services will rise. Power demand in Saudi Arabia, for example, is rising at a fast rate of 7-8% a year. Agricultural land around Amman, Cairo and other Arab cities is being lost to the expansion of suburbs. While higher learning institutions are proliferating, the quality of education offered is below average. Gated communities and high-rise office buildings are sprawling, while decent low-income housing is ignored.  Even when capital is available, investments are typically misdirected.

Food and water security pose a major threat. Arab policymakers currently juggle competing demands for food security and environmental sustainability. Food security, a politically motivated proposition, aims to maximize the country's food production, although this typically comes at the cost of depleting fossil water resources. The alternative, however, is importing virtual water, improving sustainability but at the price of food security. If present trends continue, there will be no choice: even if there is a strong political will to achieve food security, water scarcity and population increase will make it exceedingly difficult. 

The 2010 report of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) found that the Arab region is facing impending catastrophic water shortages, as early as 2015. The 2009 AFED report found that the impact of climate change in the region will multiply the risk of water and food scarcity. Yet, some Arab countries with the lowest renewable fresh water resources continue to have per capita water consumption rates which are among the highest in the world. Irrigation efficiency in the region also stands at a very low level of 30%, often to produce low-value crops demanding vast amounts of water.  Cropping patterns and varieties should be changed to produce more with less water, even if this eventually means radical changes in eating habits. Arab countries should also do their part in reducing emissions, through greater energy efficiency, cleaner utilization of oil and gas, and wide use of renewable energy.


Given these challenges, transitioning to the Green Economy is not only an option for the Arab region; it is rather an obligation to secure a proper path to sustainable development.

What should we expect from Rio +20? The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio was about Environment and Development. With not much success in 10 years, the slogan in Johannesburg changed to Sustainable Development, with new goals set. Twenty years later, Rio +20 will be about the Green Economy. As we subscribe to the real transition to a global green economy, we understand it as a path to realize sustainable development, not an alternative, or a ploy to evade the original commitments of the 1992 Earth Summit.  Green Economy should not be left entirely to markets and technology, or to corporate-controlled Social Responsibility (CSR) programs. This carries the risk of putting the entire matter in the hands of global conglomerates, who might monopolize green technologies. Green Economy should be perceived as a novel approach, setting new criteria for conducting business, as well as for government national development agendas, not a new name for re-dressing of old practices.

We perceive the Green Economy as a way to reaffirm and deliver on the commitments of the Rio-1 summit and on the Millennium Development Goals, to eradicate poverty. Developing countries rightly complain that industrialized countries have fallen short of fulfilling the pledges they made at Rio. Official development assistance has declined by one-third, to under 0.22 percent of the gross domestic product of the rich countries, down from 0.35% in 1970, instead of increasing to the promised 0.7 percent.  Developing countries must be helped to follow alternative and sustainable patterns of development without compromising their own national resources and sovereignty.

Taking advantage of its position as a unique regional organization grouping the private sector in the Arab world, together with civil society, academic institutions, and media, with government institutions as observers, AFED took the lead to advance the concept of a green economy as a basis to transform Arab economies in such a direction which allows them to achieve sustainable development. To AFED, this means a transformation from the ‘virtual economy', primarily based on speculation in real estate and financial markets, to ‘real economy' focusing on sustainable production, which alone can protect the natural capital and generate long term job opportunities.

Phase 1 of the AFED green economy initiative will generate a comprehensive report on the Green Economy in a transforming Arab World. Over one hundred experts are working on the report, and holding a series of consultation meetings, leading to a regional conference in October to present and debate the findings. The report is intended to motivate and assist governments and businesses in making a transition to the green economy. It articulates enabling public policies, business models, green investment opportunities, innovative approaches, and case studies, and will address eight sectors: energy, water, agriculture, transportation, cities and buildings, tourism, industry, and waste management.

Phase II of AFED Green Economy Initiative involves putting policy recommendations into practice by implementing demonstration green projects with national institutions as partners. We have already produced a Water Efficiency Manual, and launched a series of Water Efficiency Workshopsincluding water audits, in cooperation with the Ministry of Water and Electricity in Saudi Arabia and other partners. Other activities include an Energy Efficiency Handbook for buildings, and workshops promoting Green Finance, Water Efficiency in Industry, and Sustainability Reporting. The process will continue with inclusive consultations, also involving governments, to help develop a broad understanding and strong regional position leading to Rio +20.

On energy, we support the commitment of the Mediterranean Commission on Sustainable Development (MCSD) implementation plan to promote renewable energy sources and cleaner use of fossil fuels, which require proper transfer of technology. However, as a developing region that depends heavily on oil for income, I caution against selectively imposing new tariffs under the guise of environmental protection, as they could hamper the whole region's development. Proceeds from tariffs, if they were for true environmental concerns, should be shared between producers and consumers, and supplemented with other incentives, clear policy and regulatory framework. The revenue generated should be allocated to advance efficiency, cleaner production technologies and renewable sources of energy.

At the global environmental governance level, we hope that UNEP will get direction and mandate to generate and affect global environmental policies, as a true international organization. UNEP should re-gain its clout with developed countries, rather than limiting its scope to try to coach and preach to developing countries. As far as green economy is concerned, UNEP should play a pivotal role in setting the rules of the game, including financial and economic aspects. Otherwise, environment jargon will become a toy to entertain developing countries and some intellectuals, while big decisions stay in the hands of the rich and powerful.

Now, allow me to share some of our experiences in the two decades after Rio: Arab countries have established Environment Ministries, enacted laws, ratified major international agreements and cooperated with international agencies to implement various environmental projects. Our civil society, slowly but surely, is becoming vibrant and active on environmental matters, and enjoys increasing public visibility.

The post-Rio era was, however, characterized by ready-made solutions which resulted in projects often designed to fit the requirements of donor agencies and the international bureaucracy, rather than the actual needs of local communities. The challenge before us is to redesign how we support civil society and community groups, so that they can lead their people into a more relevant path. However, realizing that civil society cannot substitute governments, efforts should be directed to ultimately affect changes at the policy level.

Rio +20 presents an opportunity to employ green economy as a tool to achieve sustainable development. As the recent developments in Arab countries proved, sustainability cannot depend on a choice between freedom and stability. Equally true, we cannot win a "war on terror" if we fail to wage a determined war on poverty, oppression and injustice.


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ARAB ENVIRONMENT IN 10 YEARS crowns a decade of the series of annual reports produced by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) on the state of Arab environment. It tracks and analyzes changes focusing on policies and governance, including level of response and engagement in international environmental treaties. It also highlights developments in six selected priority areas, namely water, energy, air, food, green economy and environmental scientific research.
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