ESG 2022: the changing climate – by Asda’a BCW’s Stephen Worsley

Research from Asda’a BCW’s Arab Youth Survey and the agency’s new OnePoint5 advisory shows a groundswell of concern and action among Arab youth, writes Stephen Worsley, senior vice-president, growth and innovation at Asda’a BCW

Imagine having one of the biggest days of your career ruined by two environmental activists shouting slogans and waving a homemade banner.

Such was the fate of Liz Truss, whose maiden speech as British prime minister to the Conservative party conference in Birmingham in October was sabotaged by two members of Greenpeace UK, protesting what they saw as government backsliding on everything from environmental protection to workers’ rights.

In their own way, Ami McCarthy and Rebecca Newsom were emulating the rebelliousness of 19-year-old Swedish activist and global climate icon Greta Thunberg, who famously lambasted the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, aka COP26, as an exercise in ‘blah, blah, blah’.

But, as our research at Asda’a BCW shows, social and environmental activism is no longer confined to society’s margins and rowdy post-Millennials, or Gen Y-ers, to be more precise, in the case of Mses McCarthy and Newsom. Awareness of the need for more urgent action on climate change is now a mainstream phenomenon, and an area of common ground between young people and older generations.

The Middle East is no exception to this trend.

Every year since 2008 we have been asking Arab youth across the Middle East and North Africa what they think about the most pressing issues of the day. This May and June we spoke to 3,400 young Arab men and women aged 18 to 24 in 50 cities and 17 Arab states, collating their insights under six main themes: identity, livelihood, politics, lifestyle, citizenship and aspirations.

While unemployment and rising living costs remain their primary concerns, nearly three-quarters of Arab youth across the region say that climate change is now affecting their everyday lives, up from about two-thirds who said this in 2021. And half say they are now likely to boycott a brand that damages the environment, rising to a staggering two-thirds of young GCC nationals.

Arab youth cite inflation, unemployment, the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territories, government corruption and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic as the main obstacles facing the region. This is to be expected in a region that has lived through the Arab Spring, the rise and fall of Islamist extremism and the massive disruption to the tourism sector, an economic lifeline for many Arab nations, caused by the pandemic.

However, unlike their peers a decade ago, who were relatively indifferent to environmental issues, today’s Arab youth are no longer prepared to sit on the sidelines of the climate debate. This year, more than eight in 10 across the Arab world, and more than 90 per cent of GCC youth, say their government should be doing more to promote sustainable development. A third say the region should be doing even more than
other countries.

Contrary to the prevailing narrative that developed nations should accept most of the burden of climate action, less than a fifth say that Middle East nations should be doing less than other countries.

Arab youth also have a clear idea of what constitutes a modern successful company, according to our study. Nearly two-thirds of those polled said that a model business today prioritises its social and environmental impact above making money. Less than a third of GCC youth, and 40 per cent of youth in North Africa and the Levant, said that it should put profits first.

Significantly, these sentiments appear to be finding their way into the boardroom. In a separate study of 200 opinion elites in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, conducted by our dedicated ESG advisory OnePoint5 in May, more than a third of decision-makers in the UAE and 43 per cent in Saudi Arabia said their business already had a policy in place for environmental, social and governance (ESG) matters. And more than a third of respondents overall said their company was developing one.

About half of opinion elites in the two countries say that their company consistently acts against employees guilty of unethical behaviour, while 46 per cent of decision makers in the UAE and 43 per cent in Saudi Arabia say they have a whistle-blower policy in place to encourage ESG compliance.

While it would be wrong to conclude that businesses must now pursue a sustainability agenda at the expense of shareholders, our research further reinforces the long-held view of communicators that successful companies are those that clearly articulate their purpose over and above financial returns.

It also shows that there is both an operational and an awareness gap to fill. Companies need help designing sustainability frameworks, as well as support communicating internally and externally how these policies complement their long-term operational objectives. Hence the establishment of OnePoint5 earlier this year.

Two-thirds of opinion elites in Saudi Arabia and the UAE say their company currently lacks an ESG framework. More than half of those who say their company has already adopted one confess they don’t fully understand it.

This finding chimes with our latest Arab Youth Survey, which found an overwhelming majority (87 per cent across the GCC, North Africa and Levant) in favour of government-mandated national net zero targets, yet relatively low youth awareness of such targets in those Arab countries to have so far introduced them.

For example, while 57 per cent of the Bahraini youth we polled said they knew their country had pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2060, 40 per cent said they weren’t aware of the target. A full 61 per cent of Emirati youth said they knew their leadership had announced the Net Zero by 2050 strategic initiative, but nearly a third said they weren’t sure their country had set an emissions-free goal.

Notwithstanding the bold pledges of today’s government and business leaders, it will ultimately fall to young people to chart a course towards a more sustainable future. Proactive, meaningful engagement on this issue by all stakeholders will therefore be essential to maintain trust, a quantity in short supply in some countries on the evidence of the Greenpeace UK protest at the Conservative party conference.

COP27 in Egypt and next year’s climate change conference in the UAE will seek to further integrate young people in climate action dialogues. The Environment Agency Abu Dhabi will shortly survey 10,000 young people aged 15 to 29 across all seven UAE emirates on the most pressing environmental issues and the implications of climate change, an initiative to be applauded.

The outcome of such engagement is that young people become part of the solution to our environmental and social challenges, not the gatecrashers at the party. According to the Asda’a BCW Arab Youth Survey, a full 81 per cent of GCC youth say they are confident in their government’s ability to tackle climate change, compared with 51 per cent across the entire region who say they are not confident.

When the UAE takes the baton from Egypt in preparation for COP28 next November, it will be hoping to build on the high level of trust on climate action it has hitherto enjoyed among its youth. And it will rightfully expect all stakeholders to play their part.