Neeshad holds a Master’s degree in Energy and Environmental Engineering and is based in Doha, Qatar. He has over 5 years of experience in analyzing Global Environmental Politics and Climate Policies with a special focus on the Middle East. An active member of several global environmental youth groups and contributed actively in international summits notably United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations at Conferences of Parties COP21, COP22, COP24, COP25, World Economic Forum (WEF) Davos 2019, World Economic Forum Middle East 2019, Global Landscapes Forum Bonn 2019 and UN Youth Climate Summit in 2019 in New York.
Neeshad Shafi is one of the most influential voices against climate change in the Middle East. Hailing from Qatar, Neeshad is part of one of the most unique youth movements in the world. As an environmentalist, educator and climate change advocate, Neeshad has spearheaded dozens of youth-oriented programs and is a regular attendee of the Conference of Parties, or COP — an annual climate change conference that’s considered the north star in climate policy.
We spoke to him recently, and here’s what he had to say.
When did you decide to join the sustainability movement?
So, my jump into the whole sustainability movement was before the Paris Agreement, and the 2015 event was my first COP. Well, I went to COP in 2015 as a young person who had just joined the sustainability sector and I did not know much about the role young people could play. I would also like to point out that our region never had a ‘youth movement’ supporting the government and policymakers. Even in the private sector, there wasn’t a clear, well-defined role for young people. The 2015 COP was an eye-opener for me —and paved the way for whatever I am today.
How did it define you as a professional?
I did my Master’s Degree in Energy and Environmental Engineering. It was the year 2015, and I was in an oil-and-gas-rich country. My sector was completely new. The announcement of new green jobs in the 2015 Paris Agreement was still fresh, but I had to struggle to find a job. I was lucky to find an opening in the water industry. I had to use technical solutions to come with sustainable ways to reuse and recycle water. Now, in the Middle East, water is more precious than diamonds. The desert ecosystem, melting summer temperatures and very low rainfall make water the most precious natural resource. Suddenly, I was providing solutions to help save water and, what I did help my people. I was finding natural, non-toxic ways of saving water. Suddenly, I was a sustainability professional.
If I were to compare the inclusivity of the youth in the climate change arena, what graph do you see? Do you see a change in perception?
Definitely, there’s quite a significant change in perspective. In 2014-15, the Arab climate movement wasn’t fascinating to anybody. And that’s despite the fact that in 2012, Qatar was the first Arab nation to host a COP. It was the COP18 in Doha, and it wasn’t a big deal for the Middle East. Even the Arab Youth Climate Movement Qatar was concerned. We had such a strong youth faction here; Yet, no one of the young people were aware of it. The fact is that it was a very government-oriented program back then. Now, you see everyone participating in climate movements, and back then in 2015, we had none of that. We pushed hard in 2015 for a seat at the table for young people — the kind we have now. We can now participate in UN talks, government talks, but this wasn’t there in 2015-16. That’s a big change because now I can ask the youth for solutions. Now, it’s critical because the youth have the chance and responsibility to do more. Now, I know that our ideas and solutions really matter to the government. The policies we’re recommending are critical. So, personally, I feel that in the Arab region, perspective has changed a lot.
If you were to look at policy contribution and acceptance, that has been a major change in the Middle East, right?
Of course, it changes from country to country in the ME. Of course, we can’t compare it with other democracies globally, but the fact that we’re being heard is a big step forward. They have realized that the youth have a crucial role. The policies we suggest aren’t just for today, they’re for days to come and we’re fortunate to have so many talented people who’re experts in the fields of bio-engineering, energy, finance, etc. Our policy recommendations have to be concrete and we have the right people for that. They should improve life and the future of people – not just in Qatar but all over the world.
What’s the single biggest ecological risk Qatar is facing right now? What’s the one thing you’re most concerned about climate-wise?
Our countries are small, densely populated (Qatar – 2.5 million). All the megacities like Doha, Dubai, Jeddah and others are all coastal areas. All the skyscrapers are near the shore. The Doha airport is on a man-made island. So, rising sea levels will eventually flood all our major cities. People believe in climate change, but they don’t realize that it’s happening in their own countries, too. We’re already in a tropical area, and with a temperature rise of the likes of 2 degrees every year as per the IPCC, we’re going to become extinct. Our summers cross 50 degrees Celsius, by the way. We discuss about flooding in Bangladesh and forest fires in California, but what is happening in our region is important too. We don’t want to live in a country where the ambient temperatures are 90 degrees Celsius and everyone lives in air-conditioned igloos.
Why do you think climate change should be taught in schools?
We need kids to know about climate change because, by the time they grow up, they will be well-positioned to do something about it. We have already outlined a plan to the government. We want a national education commission to do two things; One, make education mandatory, and two, set up a climate change team to educate kids about climate change. They need to realize that climate change isn’t just about polar bears dying – it's about us Arabs too. This is the kind of critical thinking we need and that’s why we’d like the government to include climate change as part of the curriculum. Our responsibility is that the youth identify problems in a way that when young people grow up, they can keep a track of the progress and make sure that the policies set to tackle the issues remain in operation to keep the country functioning smoothly.
What role do you envision for startups and corporates? How do you see Arab Youth Climate in such a situation?
Before the pandemic hit us in March 2019, we were working with the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), AYCM and the Qatar Chamber of Commerce. We wanted to train young graduates to start their own ventures with backing from the ICC. The graduates would be trained to move away from conventional ideas. We call this program Climate Action Through Youth Entrepreneurs. We’ll also work with the Qatar Development Bank to secure seed money for the startups and the Qatar Incubation Centre which is also very well known as a startup accelerator in Qatar. Our emphasis will be to nurture startups that provide climate change solutions like how to recycle food, reduce wastage, and engineer new materials that can serve as a replacement for plastic. We have ideas and we want young entrepreneurs to take them up. We’re also looking to bring in corporates in this sector. This program is nothing without the private sector. We’re going to integrate corporates and help them find solutions for their problems. So, the industry would present a problem, and the youth will work on the solution, with support from the Qatar Development Bank, training from the ICC, AYCM and industry consultants we’ll bring in. Our partners include the Ministry of Environment, individual municipalities, the QDB, and the Qatar Incubation Centre. This is a collective effort, and also helps AYCM work in climate change advocacy, and develop ideas that are relevant from a Qatari perspective. We want to develop entrepreneurs who belong to and understand our ecosystem. We don’t have a Silicon Valley in the Middle East, but Dubai has a lot of support from the government.
We have already signed an MOU and we’ll roll out the program once the Covid-19 problem subsides a bit. While there aren’t too many cases here, the social restrictions will hamper our training programs. Plus, inviting international experts will be a challenge.
Are you seeing a rise in corporate support?
From the corporate perspective, we have big players batting for us. Several companies are looking for solutions, and we are well-placed to support them. We specifically chose hypermarkets like Lulu because their issues are on a grand scale. They create a lot of plastic, a lot of food gets wasted, and a lot of items get damaged in transit. Another critical point – 99.99% of our food is imported and we depend on retailers to get by every day. So, our solutions will be towards securing local food sustainability. Food security is important to us, and the government is actively working towards lining up solutions. With our program, we can start businesses like home-grown hydroponics, and create a way to reap food grains in our inhospitable areas. There are a lot of ideas and that’s why we think the Qatar Chamber of Commerce will prove useful. The QCC is the apex body for industry in Qatar. Since they’re part of the International Chamber of Commerce, and part of Climate Change and Entrepreneur Support, they’re the best source for industry-wide activations.
Are you seeing a rise in corporate support?
From the corporate perspective, we have big players batting for us. Several companies are looking for solutions, and we are well-placed to support them. We specifically chose hypermarkets like Lulu because their issues are on a grand scale. They create a lot of plastic, a lot of food gets wasted, and a lot of items get damaged in transit. Another critical point – 99.99% of our food is imported and we depend on retailers to get by every day. So, our solutions will be towards securing local food sustainability. Food security is important to us, and the government is actively working towards lining up solutions. With our program, we can start businesses like home-grown hydroponics, and create a way to reap food grains in our inhospitable areas. There are a lot ideas and that’s why we think the Qatar Chamber of Commerce will prove useful. The QCC is the apex body for industry in Qatar. Since they’re part of the International Chamber of Commerce, and part of Climate Change and Entrepreneur Support, they’re the best source for industry-wide activations.
Do you think Middle-Eastern consumers will adjust to a shift towards sustainable products? Have you assessed an acceptance compared to the rest of the world?
I can say with assurance that things have changed. I have seen what it was like in the past. To give you an example – veganism. It’s unheard of in our part of the world. It’s customary to have meat. Now, I see so many young people move towards veganism. They’re going one step beyond vegetarianism to become a vegan. This has just happened in the past year or two. The number of vegan restaurants that have opened up in Qatar, Dubai, UAE and other countries shows that there’s a gradual change. Young people are seeing an opportunity in going green. They're vegan and liked it so much they decided to convert it into an actual, profitable green business. Some of them don’t even know what a good job we’re doing, so I am trying to highlight as many such green businesses as possible. It’s all because young people are open to change for good.
The government will only act when there’s evidence of change benefitting a community. And we should be mindful of how much time it takes to create change in a country. It’s not sudden, but takes years. 70% of the Middle East is below 35, so the demographics will support a strong, green youth movement.
Do you think the government should do more to support green businesses?
The government should subsidize more and create an ecosystem for startups like cafes, restaurants and upscale hypermarkets that utilize less plastic. The other day, there was a meeting with the Ministry of Environment where they said they’re going to use startups to recycle hypermarket-generated waste. Now, this is directly in line with our entrepreneurship development program. There’s change everywhere — in the community, individual and the government. Governments should adopt community-level changes to work at a national level because that’s truly how countries will succeed.
Do you plan on making the Arab Youth Climate Movement a global movement someday?
Of course. We’re one of the few youth organizations in the Middle East. And while we’re independent, we have a warm relationship with the government. This helps us understand their constraints. So, we can work together to connect, provide realistic solutions and play a much larger role.
What unique challenges does a sustainability movement in the Middle East face?
We are unique because we face issues like water scarcity, food security issues, desertification, irregular weather, and more. We’re an oil-rich country, but our solutions have to be different. Therefore, the way we build and run a sustainability movement is also different. Simply doing a social media activation or uploading videos won’t cut it in the Middle East. Here, change is directly proportional to the number of work hours we put in.
Describe one example of how you’re seeing progress in the sustainability movement led by the Middle East.
I remember in 2019 when at the COP in Madrid, the Minister of Environment invited me to accompany them as part of their delegation. The Qatari officials asked me to hold youth programs in their pavilion. I was given space, and they motivated me to showcase youth participation and inclusivity in the Middle East. One of the panels we hosted was about women in renewable energy. There were women from all across MENA. I remember there were speakers from Jordan, Morocco and Qatar. A country like ours—always assumed to be male-dominated, now hosting women at a global event. That was really big for us.
What’s your advice for young climate change activists and leaders for social change?
Activism is important, but working towards sustainability is the actual result of all our efforts. Shouting about the cause is needed, but you also have to prove your worth. Work in green businesses, train people to secure green jobs, create green jobs and you’re well on your way towards a bright future.
AYCM has been doing just this for five years now. We do advocacy, activations, social media posts, and more. But I think the time is to move one step further.
Five years ago, I had no idea if green jobs would become a reality. Today, I see people choosing sustainable jobs over corporate desk assignments. Sustainability has become so important that many companies require ESG reports to secure business loans.
We started a program called Eco literacy for Imams. We’re training them to use mosques as spaces to talk about the environment. This way, we can reach out to many more people. You won’t hear about all this in the mainstream media.
We have a program called Ambassadors of the Environment – Qatar where we’re training young people to be green ambassadors. Tell me about one NGO besides Arab Youth Climate doing something similar.