Changing mindsets on climate action in MENA

04 Sep 2020
Ibrahim Al-Zu’bi, Chief Sustainability Officer, Majid Al Futtaim;
Hands holding a plant
It’s time to up our game when it comes to sustainable living in the Middle East.

Of the world’s top environmental performers, 20 out of 25 hail from Europe, with Australia, New Zealand, Japan, United States and Canada making up the rest, according to the Environmental Performance Index 2020. Out of 180 economies surveyed, these countries have been most successful in addressing the vast range of environmental challenges they face.

But the story is much less positive in the Middle East, North Africa and Pakistan region (MENAP): the UAE ranks the highest, at 42, Egypt sits in the middle at 94, while Pakistan is at 142. 
Our diverse region of 600 million inhabitants has huge sustainability challenges to overcome, not least the harsh desert climate and a low level of awareness about climate change. And attitudes around sustainability need to change: only 28% of Generation Z in the UAE believe “green” products are as good as regular alternatives, compared to 72% in South Korea. And just 20% of young UAE residents repair items instead of replacing them, compared to a global average of 39%. The public and private sector need to work together to help consumers make the switch to a more sustainable way of life and accelerate climate action.

Here are four initiatives I believe could incentivize more sustainable consumer behaviour.


1. Encouraging water savings

Our region is the most water scarce in the world. Home to more than 6% of the global population, it can only avail of 1.4% of renewable fresh water. On average, a person in MENAP has about a fifth less water available to them compared to their peers in the rest of the world. In addition to businesses subscribing to sustainable water management in their properties, the challenge is to put water “front of mind” among the wider population, actively encouraging them to temper their water usage. An initiative in our UAE shopping malls, for example, encouraged shoppers to consider their water use by raising awareness of the amount used for activities such as household cleaning and car washing. Interactive campaigns like this can educate consumers in a compelling way. The campaign had a salutary effect, with customers pledging to save 190,200 litres of water overall. This is a great start, and goes to show what can be achieved through a simple education programme. We now need to raise awareness much more broadly across the region, in a way that will resonate with all industries and individuals.


2. Incentivise the recycling and reusing of plastic products

Cracking down on single-use plastic is vital for every country on the planet as we all collectively work to protect our oceans and marine life. Unfortunately, some of the countries in our region have an especially high rate of plastic waste generation per person, with Kuwait being the worst offender, and the UAE and Jordan also worryingly high.

Source:Our World in Data

But this chart doesn’t tell the whole story – as it is showing plastic waste generated rather than how much is recycled. Our region needs more recycling facilities and strong policies not only to ensure that we generate less plastic waste, but that we also recycle more of it. Companies can also directly influence behaviour. In the case of Majid Al Futtaim, we have millions of customers across the MENA region and can use that relationship as a powerful catalyst for change. We have committed to phasing out the distribution of single-use plastic by 2025. We are starting with Carrefour supermarkets, gradually removing single-use plastic bags, disposable cutlery and polystyrene containers. Companies can also create incentives by offering discounts for reusable cups, awarding loyalty points for recycling or allowing  shoppers” to skip the queue. Meanwhile, EcoSouk is the Middle East’s first “zero-waste” shop. The store in Beirut features a refill bar for liquid products such as shampoo, cleaning products and detergent. Other products also reflect the store’s packaging-free approach. These are all steps in the right direction, but such initiatives need to be adopted much more widely, so that shopping habits change for the better once and for all.


3. Provide healthier, green food choices

Food production  is another major source of greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for one-quarter of CO2 generated. New technologies such as hydroponic farming, which uses 90% less water  and space, could reduce the carbon footprint of food production and “food miles”. Abu Dhabi has recently invested in a large indoor facility to pioneer vertical farming to diversify food sources, while our Carrefour supermarket chain has launched  in-store hydroponic farms  in a number of stores across the UAE, offering shoppers freshly grown vegetables on site. Eating less meat and more vegetable-based foods will also help: producing 1 kilogramme of beef emits 60kg of greenhouse gases, while the same amount of peas generates just 1kg. Again, our region needs to both develop and promote such practices through commercial and policy initiatives. By investing in innovation, and partnering with firms at the cutting-edge of the latest tech, we can offer greener, more sustainable food choices to customers.


4. Promote healthier, more sustainable lifestyles

At the same time, healthier eating and positive  food choices can also help ensure greater sustainability. There is a need to prioritize less processed foodstuffs in order to tackle rising obesity and related problems. For example, there are more than 1 million people living with diabetes in the UAE alone, catapulting it into the global top 10 of countries with the highest occurrence of diabetes. This number could more than double by 2040. Dubai’s new Healthy Consumption Index combines food retail data with government information so the local health authority can map lifestyle-related diseases like type-2 diabetes and target intervention programmes at people who need a little extra help making better choices and getting more active. At the same time, we need to reduce food waste and encourage more exercise. Simple changes – such as walking or cycling to work instead of driving - also have obvious benefits in terms of lowering energy use and emissions. The work ahead of us is significant. But by focusing on these four areas, and acting now to shift mindsets, the MENAP region could create a model that boosts our eco-credentials substantially.


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