Reforms in the Arab region should focus on transitioning to a green economy, argues award-winning environmental advocate Najib Saab.
Uprisings in Arab countries have been at the centre of global news coverage for more than a year. Although it is still too early to speculate on the final outcome, the hope is that the Arab Spring will eventually steer a new direction for economic and environmental sustainability.
At the moment the prospects are not good. But if reforms can be made to clamp down on administrative corruption and the mismanagement of natural resources, Arab states could make huge economic gains.
Better governance will have spillover effects on environmental governance as people whose lives are most impacted by environmental concerns have more say in political decisions.
This article is part of our coverage of preparations for Rio+20 — the UN Conference on Sustainable Development — which takes place on 20-22 June 2012. For other articles, go to Science at Rio+20
To move towards a truly sustainable future, the green economy — a focus of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in June 2012 — should be at the centre of reforms.
Desperate for change
Arab economies remain undiversified. They largely rely on oil and products such as alumina, cement, fertilisers and phosphates that generate growth in GDP but fail to create enough jobs.
Unemployment in the Arab region is 10 per cent. But for young people it is 25 per cent, double the world average, and reaches 40 per cent in some countries. Young people account for more than 70 per cent of the unemployed in Egypt, Jordan and Yemen.
Demographic transitions add to the challenge of securing jobs and protecting the environment. The region's population increased from 100 million in 1962 to about 400 million in 2012.
One major demand that drove people to the streets was the need for decent jobs. Some 60 million new jobs need to be created by 2020 while protecting natural resources.
A main finding of a report published last year by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED)  is that transitioning to a green economy will help generate decent and lasting job opportunities.
It estimates that Arab countries will need to invest an additional 1.5 per cent of their GDP every year in infrastructure for water systems, efficiency and recycling technologies.
Shifting to sustainable agricultural practices could, collectively, save Arab countries up to 6 per cent of GDP through more efficient use of water while protecting environmental resources. The savings could reach US$114 billion annually and create millions of jobs in rural areas where three quarters of the poor live.
The report also estimates that reducing each person's consumption of electricity through energy efficiency measures would save up to US$73 billion per year. All Arab countries currently subsidise the cost of fuel and electricity at different levels, for all sectors; cutting the subsidy by a quarter would release more than US$100 billion over a three year period, which could then be invested in green energy technologies.
Spending US$100 billion in greening just one fifth of the existing building stock in Arab states over the next 10 years is expected to create 4 million jobs. And if Arab governments commit to greening the construction sector, additional investments will create ten per cent more jobs, according to AFED estimates.
Forging a future
But building a green economy requires transforming the prevailing 'virtual economy' — primarily based on sales of raw extractive products and speculation in real estate — to a 'real economy' that focuses on sustainable production, protecting natural capital and generating long-term employment opportunities.
It is crucial that science and education form the basis of a successful transition to the green economy; both are currently lacking in Arab countries. Although higher education institutions are proliferating, the quality of education they offer is below average.
And the rate of expenditure on scientific research as a percentage of GDP is around 0.2 per cent, compared to a world average of 1.2 per cent. The Arab world's contribution to research (measured in published papers) is low, and negligible in patents. These disparities should be addressed as part of the path to the green economy.
While in Nairobi, Kenya, in February 2012 as a panelist for the Global Ministerial Environment Forum at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) headquarters, I was surprised to discover resentment among some developing countries to the idea of transitioning to the green economy.
Some countries have legitimate fears that the green economy could be used to impose trade barriers — for example by enforcing standards that require a large initial investment, especially in green technologies.
But Arab ministers participating in the meeting endorsed the transition to a green economy after they were persuaded it would bring net profits to the region. Rather than resorting to isolationism, they accepted the need to establish a strong knowledge platform for green growth, advanced by UNEP, and support technology transfer to allow fair competition and market access.
Let's not repeat the mistakes made in climate negotiations by using a host of pretexts to delay real action. By building a strong base of scientific knowledge and skilled workers, together Arab countries can make a smooth transition to a sustainable future.
Najib Saab is secretary general of AFED and editor-in-chief of Al-Bia Wal-Tanmia (Environment & Development) magazine. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is part of our coverage on Science at Rio+20.