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Air pollution costs Middle East and North Africa $141bn, says World Bank

Nearly 270,000 people in the region die each year as a result of air pollution, the new report says
A view of an industrial plant at the Jubail Industrial City, about 95 kilometres north of Dammam in Saudi Arabia's eastern province overlooking the Gulf.
A view of an industrial plant at Jubail Industrial City, about 95 kilometres north of Dammam in Saudi Arabia's eastern province (AFP/File photo)

Air pollution costs the Middle East and North Africa about $141bn a year, or two percent of the region's economic output, according to a new World Bank report that urged nations to enforce stricter emissions standards, improve waste management and provide cleaner transportation options.

The report, published on Monday, found that air pollution levels in the MENA region's biggest cities are second only to South Asia, and the average urban resident in the region breathes in air that is polluted more than 10 times the level considered safe by the World Health Organisation.

Air pollution leads to nearly 270,000 deaths per year, and the average resident in the region is ill for at least two months out of the year due to the air quality, according to the study.

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"Polluted skies and seas are costly to the health, social and economic wellbeing of millions of people in the Middle East and North Africa region," Ferid Belhaj, the World Bank's vice president for the region, said in a press release.

"As countries recover from Covid-19, there is an opportunity to change course and choose a greener, bluer and more sustainable growth path that has fewer emissions and less environmental degradation".

The report also found that an average resident in the region throws away more than six kilograms (13 pounds) of plastic that ends up in the sea every year, the highest level in the world. The pollution leads to an economic loss equivalent to a regional average of 0.8 percent of the combined gross domestic product (GDP).

The Middle East and North Africa are already experiencing some of the worst effects of the world's accelerating climate crisis. At the same time, large parts of the region are dependent on fossil fuel extraction and there is widespread resistance to transformative climate action in royal palaces, company boardrooms and government offices.

Extreme heat, drought, climate-driven migration, and widespread disruption to agricultural practices that often go back centuries are already a feature of daily life in the region.

Climate change has also helped fuel civil war and conflict across the Middle East, including in Syria, Libya and Yemen.

Ayat Soliman, World Bank director of sustainable development for the Middle East and North Africa, said that "healthy blue assets are at the epicenter of trade, tourism and industry in MENA", noting that while much more needs to be done, countries in the region are recognising the need to protect natural resources.

Some Middle East countries have begun to invest heavily in green technologies, such as solar energy and electric vehicles.

The region's biggest economies have also stated they want to align themselves with global environmental standards and prepare for life after fossil fuels.

Saudi Arabia, the largest oil-exporting country in the world, has committed to ending carbon emissions by 2060, while the United Arab Emirates has a stated goal of hitting net-zero emissions by 2050.

However, the Gulf states are also among the few countries continuing to spend billions of dollars on oil and gas production, with Riyadh in December agreeing to increase monthly oil outputs.

At the United Nations climate conference last year, also known as COP26, Saudi Arabia was accused of refusing to agree to transparently report emissions, saying that it would also disclose data about economic growth. Saudi emissions are strongly connected to Saudi Aramco, the country's biggest company and a global oil giant.

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