How Genuine Is the Arab World About the Environment?

Arab world “green” announcements seem to fade in the sands. Can we believe new renewable energy goals?

Over the past three years, we have read about many ambitious renewable energy plans or projects coming from the Arab world. Most notably, Qatar’s announcement in Feb 2008 to launch 3,500 MW of solar capacity or the Saudi Minister’s declaration in September 2009 that Saudi Arabia will match solar with oil outputs, all of which have faded in the sands. Just how genuine are the intentions and motivations of Arab states to commit to renewable energy and deliver on set targets is now questionable.

The need for urgent government action is clear: the Human Development Report 2007/08 reported that the Arab States region is “the most vulnerable in the world to climatic changes, with predicted impacts ranging from increased droughts to land degradation and desertification.”

Meanwhile, expenditure on scientific research is 0.2% of GDP, the lowest in the world, and less than 1% of budget is allocated to environmental purposes.

Most of the governments that have come forward with environmental initiatives rely on oil to sustain their economies so supporting green initiatives may appear counter-intuitive. However, in a world where oil revenue is starting to shrink, any barrel saved can be exported, prolonging the country’s own natural reserves and generating new revenue streams.

Governments like Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, and Jordan have announced initiatives most likely driven by Abu Dhabi announcement of Masdar back in 2007. Sadly, most have lost steam or at best were scaled down from original targets.

Dubai is a case in point. A very public resolution was passed in 2007 requiring all new building to be green. What that meant took a while to understand but by 2010 Dubai Government finally unveiled the “green building code” with incentive plans for the construction industry. We have yet to see how this will roll out, but with its indoor artificial snow ski resort, man-made islands and tallest/rotating buildings in the world, it would be safe to say that Dubai has yet to establish serious green credentials.

Although these efforts are commendable, particularly coming from countries historically known as being world suppliers of oil, they are slow, fragmented and fall short of a comprehensive strategic plan to make a real difference.

For a while, Abu Dhabi’s Masdar initiative remained the exception and for many experts it is still regarded as the project that triggered interest in the sector across the region.

Abu Dhabi, which controls around 8% of the world’s oil reserves and is now home of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), approached environmental issues in a more holistic manner, carefully planning a multi-faceted project before making big announcements.

Although most media attention has focused on the zero-carbon Masdar city plans, the original project included investments in clean-tech funds, a university with a research and development programme, as well as carbon trading. Billions have already been spent on Masdar showing a real commitment of the leadership of Abu Dhabi in following through their vision.

However, even the mighty Masdar is beginning to show signs of stress and cut backs. Masdar City was originally scheduled to be completed by 2015, but the completion date has now been pushed back indefinitely. Zero-carbon is no longer seen as achievable and transport within the city will no longer be done solely with the PRT vehicles. In addition, it has been almost two years since any new significant investment has been announced. Like most of the other green Arab initiatives, it would be a real shame if such an innovative and inspiring project fails to deliver or takes short cuts.

In sum, although some Arab governments are set to gain significantly by adopting environmental initiatives and addressing the region’s vulnerability to the potential impact of climate change, most have not delivered on promises. Allocating big investments in the sector is one way to show commitment but there are many measures that governments can also take to demonstrate leadership. Adopting realistic renewable targets, leading by example, coordinating regional efforts and introducing new legislation that imminently reduce emissions are sure winners with minimal impact on government budgets.

More On Masdar City:
Reassessing Masdar City
Masdar City: Small Hiccups Or Total System Failure
NY Times: Masdar City Just A Futuristic Playground For The Rich

Image via manojvasanth

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2 thoughts on “How Genuine Is the Arab World About the Environment?”

  1. samir jaafar says:

    The fact that Arab countries have fallen behind in almost every Human Development Indicator is a fact and sad reality. Please download the UN Human development report. No spending on anything meaningful: IP, Publications, R&D spending etc.. Wake up people and smell the capuchino

  2. Craig says:

    As you know the Arab world is quite large and to say that 0.2% of GDP is spent on research is not telling the full story. Qatar is spending 2.8% of its considerable GDP on research and has done this for a large number of years. Qatar Foundation’s flagship project education city is a prime example of this expenditure. Education City is home to a number of top universities and the Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) and conducts research in a diverse range of areas including energy, medical, genomics, environmental sciences and IT. The Qatar National Research Fund since 2006 has awarded grants to over 465 different research projects both in Qatar and abroad. In 2010 alone it awarded research grants totaling US$113.8Mn to 126 proposals.

    For solar projects in Qatar there is the new Qatar National Convention Centre which is a LEED Gold rated building and has 15% of its power provided by solar panels on the roof, you have the new student housing project at Qatar Foundation the is LEED platinum rated and draws power from the sun and uses advanced environmental technologies. The World Cup 2022 Bid will be using solar technologies to power its air-conditioned stadiums, the Qatar National Food Securities Program is undertaking research on solar desalination, there is a solar testing facility under construction at QSTP and a number of international initiatives like the partnership with QSTP and the Franhoffer Institute to use solar technology in the natural gas distillation process and it is currently building a polysilicon production facility which will no doubt further develop solar research in the country and develop a solar industry in Qatar.

    The solar and environmental technology plans in the Gulf region were ambitious and like many other countries were scaled back in light of the world financial crisis, but they have not gone away.

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