Sustainability – is the ME lagging behind or leading the way?


We live in an area of the world where we have harnessed the geography, landscape and weather conditions to enjoy the best possible lifestyle.

The harsh landscapes – and lifestyles – endured by our recent ancestors have now been transformed into a world-class urban environment and a lifestyle level that is the envy of the world.

But at what cost? And as desert dwellers, we perhaps understand more than most the need to use water – and other forms of finite energy – wisely.

The UAE is challenged by three main environmental issues: loss of wildlife habitat through urbanisation and industrialisation, limited agricultural land caused by UAE’s arid landscape and low precipitation, and the intensifying effects of climate change like sea level rising and the increasing frequency of dust storms.

There’s also a need to monitor the impact of rapid development and the effects of climate change and global warming.

Our growing population contributes to even worsening the dependency on desalination plants and increasing huge food imports from the main importer, India.

Those desalination plants run on fossil fuels.

As one Arab News article states: “Although the Arab region contributes only about 5% of the total global carbon dioxide emissions, it is one of the regions most affected by climate change.” (From Arab News, link below)

According to a 2010 ‘Living Planet’ report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the biggest ecological footprint in the world was generated right here in the UAE. Ecological footprint is a measure of a country’s sustainability that compares the use of natural resources per person per capita.

Basically, it enables us to compare the effects of our current consumption upon available resources.

But times are definitely changing, and there’s now far greater individual and corporate awareness of ESG – that’s Environment, Social and Governance – Goals.

There is a strong local and regional ESG agenda forming, driven by numerous government initiatives, efforts to diversify away from oil and gas, and increasing requirements for disclosure on sustainable activities and reporting.

Recent sustainable financing firsts in the region signal the success of – and opportunities available to – companies committed to integrating ESG goals into their corporate and investment strategies.

Of course, encouragement comes from above, and the UAE is a signatory to the Paris Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, overseen by the UAE’s very own Minister for Climate Change and Environment, His Excellency Dr Abdullah Belhaif Al Nuaimi.

There has also been a push for UAE-based companies to disclose their ESG performance. The KPMG UAE Survey of Sustainability Reporting 2020, released in December 2020, said corporate sustainability reporting among the top 100 UAE companies increased from 44% in 2017 to 51% in 2020, with multiple industries, including construction and materials, financial services and oil and gas, showing an uptick in reporting rates.

Analyst PWC, in its annual 2021 Middle East CEO survey, reveals that just 11% of those business executives questioned said they planned to *significantly* increase Sustainability and ESG initiatives. Some 35% said they’d like to increase these initiatives moderately.

With these figures as a backdrop – revealing almost half of the respondents were planning more sustainability-based activity – it seems the future of sustainable accountability, especially in business, is positive.

The UAE government has always had sustainability at its heart. The UAE has a body of legislation to ensure we live in a safe, protected, sustainable environment.

Also, renaming the Ministry of Environment and Water to the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment officially brings management of climate change within the Ministry’s scope.

Recently, there have been a raft of initiatives, driven in part by increasing awareness and the government visionary strategy documents – including UAE Vision 2021, the UAE Centennial 2071, and the UAE Energy Strategy 2050, which sets a 50% target for clean energy in the country, among others.

Admitting we have a way to go is the first step. Encouraging more sustainability awareness and activity is next…but how can that be achieved?

I believe a three-pronged approach is best, comprising:

  • Education
  • Laws and Regulations
  • Funding and development finance

We need to move from mitigation strategies into a future-looking era of adaptation; rather than trying to fix issues, we need to create new solutions. And this links back perfectly into the entrepreneur culture prevalent in the region.

Future entrepreneurs must have sustainability at the heart of their business.

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