Complex Made Simple

Middle East green economy, sustainable energy should mean opportunities not sacrifices

Misconceptions surrounding sustainable energy and consequential inaction will lead to a 'train wreck' – and greater efforts are needed to transition towards a Middle East green economy, according to experts from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), ahead of the UN's Rio+20 sustainable development conference in June.

Sustainable Arabia: Clean Energy, held in Dubai, provided a platform for UNDP representatives and regional experts to discuss ideas and encourage policy dialogue. Amidst a series of sessions on green developments and energy challenges in the Arab region, a rousing call to action was heralded from several corners.

UN Resident Coordinator Robert D. Watkins told that most Middle East residents are not waking up to the environmental ‘destruction’, or the economic opportunities that a sustainable green economy would offer:

“In this region I don’t think people are waking up . There’s a small percentage of the population who are acutely aware and actively involved in advocating for political reforms to address some of the issues, but I don’t think that is the vast majority of the population.

“It’s a very consumerist society and so long as the wealth is there, there’s a contentment to continue with the status quo. There’s a train wreck approaching and people don’t want to see it.”

Middle East lags behind in policy-making and per capita consumption

Watkins uses a broad brush to label the Middle East as ‘one of the worst’ in terms of effective energy and land use policies, excessive water consumption and faltering agriculture, but acknowledges that no administrations are idle. The deepening issue is based on resource demands outpacing existing solutions.

“The wheels have actually been turning quite quickly,” says Watkins. “There has been a lot of progress, but the problem is that the speed of progress is short of the growth of population. The burgeoning population and sustained environmental deterioration has meant that there’s a gap between the progress made and the rate of destruction.

“It’s not like we’ve just stayed still and things have gotten worse, there is a lot of forward movement – but the other changes, particularly population growth, have just outstripped that progress and I don’t think we’ve come to terms with how we can adjust the two so that progress is greater than the destruction.”

Employment lies at the heart of the problem – and the solution

A responsibility lies with the private sector to provide a long-term vision for the public sector; to provide clarity on the rules of the game and to assume them they will not keep shifting.

“You can’t separate these issues from politics. We’ve seen social revolutions take place in a number of countries in the region and I don’t think they’re taking place by coincidence – concerns are heightened by unemployment.

“The fact is some parts of the Middle East region are seeing 30% unemployment of youth – this is not totally unrelated to the demonstrations we’ve seen. The effects of unemployment have contributed greatly to instability in the region.”

The concern that a transition to a green economy means sacrificing economic growth may not be unique to the Middle East, but UNDP delegates are advocating ahead of Rio+20 that it is more key to focus on the opportunities presenting from renewable energy, efficiency and other green developments.

“I think there’s a fear amongst many countries that this transition towards a more environmentally sensitive economy means economic sacrifice. We’re trying to explain how that is not the case. In fact, you can create a whole economy on the basis of this transition.”

Gulf oil producers must realise shift to full energy mix, cooperation

“The region seems to be in the middle of a paradigm shift,” says Yannick Glemarec, UNDP Executive Coordinator and Director of Environmental Finance, who also sat down with to discuss energy challenges:

” is shifting from seeing itself as supplying oil to the rest of the world, to supplying energy. A lot of the sovereign funds are increasingly interested in financing large scale renewable energy installations. The region could definitely be a large part of the solution for mitigation.”

The current global spend for long-lasting infrastructure for water, transport and energy, tallies up to $6 trillion a year – around 10% of global GDP. Glemarec cites estimates that this will increase to $10 trillion by 2020. If it was feasible to ensure that these investments were low emission and climate resilient, it would completely change business models worldwide:

“There are pressure points in the global economy which could enable us to dramatically accelerate towards a green society. If 20% of the infrastructure spend is from the Arab region, that is a $2 trillion spend by 2020, designed to foster a rapid transition toward a green society.

One of the problems with renewable energy is intermittency; the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine. “But if you take a quadrant large enough,” says Glemarec. “Let’s say from Dublin to Moscow, from Oslo to Cairo – from there in that quadrant, the sun always shines and the winds always blow.”

The necessary steps will obviously vary between countries, but a green economy transition calls for a host of big investments in infrastructure and renewable sources of energy and energy saving technologies and economic development which is job oriented. Then it’s the policy which will define environmental impact, shaped by an improved awareness of the issues – and a greater sense of urgency.