Vulnerable Arab Region Slow to Prepare for Climate Change

[Editor's note: This article was authored by BSR, a global business network and consultancy focused on sustainability.]

Recent uprisings across the Arab world, from Tunisia to Egypt and Libya, reveal how politically fragile many of these states are.

In the last few months, hundreds of thousands of citizens have taken to the streets to protest decades of autocratic rule, high rates of unemployment and corruption. But the grievances are in part fueled by the rising price of food, which World Bank President Robert Zoellick called an "aggravating factor" for unrest in the region. That has made the link between climate change, food security and civil unrest harder to ignore.

Multiple complex factors are contributing to the rising price of food, including increased demand from China and India, rising oil prices, and a devaluation of the U.S. dollar, the currency in which prices for commodities are quoted.

However, numerous studies from institutions such as the Arab Forum for Environment and Development and the United Nations have shown that climate change exacerbates food shortages by decreasing precipitation in already arid and water-scarce areas, increasing the severity and variability of weather-related disasters, and increasing the duration and intensity of droughts such as those seen in Syria in recent years. The decrease in overall agricultural productivity could further increase the politicization of food security and directly impact stability in the Arab region.

This has serious implications for companies with business interests in the region, yet very few are taking meaningful measures to mitigate or adapt to climate change.

Existing Climate Change Vulnerabilities in the Arab Region

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines climate change vulnerability as "the degree to which geophysical, biological, and socioeconomic systems are susceptible to, and unable to cope with, adverse impacts of climate change."

The Arab region is particularly susceptible to these impacts because of existing vulnerabilities that are exacerbated by a rise in global temperatures. Already the region is the most water-scarce in the world. The World Bank estimates (PDF) that water availability is only 1,200 cubic meters per person per year in the Middle East and North Africa, compared to a global average of 7,000 cubic meters per person per year. Half of the region's population lives under water-stressed conditions, with demand exceeding supply. Persistent droughts and floods have already been observed in recent years in several countries, including Syria and Morocco. Climate change is expected to intensify such extremes.

Not only do these risks threaten the livelihoods of millions of people, but also the long-term sustainability of businesses operating in the region. Despite this, companies in the area have not begun developing mitigation and adaptation strategies. Of the more than 100 companies in the Middle East queried by the Climate Disclosure Project in 2010, only a handful responded to the questionnaire with their climate data and strategies. The vast majority of the companies that did respond were in Israel or Turkey. Among the GCC countries, only DP World, a marine port operator based in the United Arab Emirates, responded to the questionnaire and set a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at its terminals by 27 percent by 2013.

Elsewhere in the region, Jordan-based transportation and logistics company Aramex set a goal in 2009 to become carbon neutral. Fadi Ghandour, the company's founder and CEO, said it became a commercial necessity because many companies in Europe wouldn't accept a bid for a contract without information on the bidder's environmental impact. In its most recent sustainability report, Aramex tracks its share of revenue from carbon-neutral services offered to clients, although no specifics are provided on what these services are. The company acknowledges that carbon neutrality is a long-term goal and that it is "still exploring" the potential carbon-neutral services it could provide.

National Commercial Bank (NCB) of Saudi Arabia, one of the few Saudi companies to publish an annual sustainability report, acknowledges the "increasing local and national strains, such as availability of water and energy." Emissions data in the report reflects total energy consumption, but the company has plans to include additional emissions data from its vehicle fleet and air travel. NCB also writes that the company will explore product and service innovation as it relates to climate change.