What if we merged conservation with finance?

How nice it would be if we could pool efforts and link bodies like the MBZ Fund and the Houbara Fund

TOPSHOT - Arabian sand gazelles, known as "Reem", are pictured at the Telal Resort on the outskirts of the city of al-Ain at the far east of the Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi on January 26, 2021. / AFP / Karim SAHIB
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As the world becomes more aware of the challenges posed by climate change and subsequent losses in global biodiversity, it is ever more important for an alignment to emerge between the objectives of global conservation and those of the ever-expanding financial industry.

By now it is widely accepted that the UAE excels in a variety of ways. As we look forward to the country’s 50th anniversary at the end of this year and further ahead, there will be a deeper emphasis on nation building. But of all the areas on which the UAE focuses, I am particularly interested in conservation and finance.

Through our own local bodies, such as the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD) and the Sharjah Environment and Protected Areas Authority EPAA, we have an impressive record. Internationally, through organisations such as the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund and the International Fund for Houbara Conservation, as well as through various EAD-supported programmes, the country participates in several global conservation initiatives.

Conservation was once looked at as separate from economic development and the alleviation of poverty

Conservation was once looked at as entirely separate from economic development and the alleviation of poverty. While that distinction might have been acceptable in highly-developed countries, it does not apply to areas where development is lacking and where poverty is a big concern.

Some of the most endangered animals in the world are to be found in areas of economic underdevelopment. If local human populations continue to exploit them, as they may have done for generations, it is no good telling perpetrators that they should stop. They need to be offered concrete, realistic alternatives. That is where my second area of interest comes in: the UAE’s role as a centre of financial expertise and excellence.

Our two international finance centres, Abu Dhabi Global Market and the Dubai International Finance Centre, are the homes for a number of rapidly-growing companies that provide financial services. An important aspect of the work of such firms is in the sphere of ‘sustainable finance’, which can be defined as “any form of financial service integrating environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria into the business or investment decisions for the lasting benefit of both clients and society at large.”

The leviathans of the global corporate world, like the major oil and gas companies, are already turning their attention to ESG issues. For firms operating through ADGM and DIFC, issues related to ESG are likely to become more important, in terms of raising money and in how that money is invested.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 27: Paul Casey of England in action during the pro-am event prior to the Omega Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club on January 27, 2021 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
The UAE has a burgeoning and flexible financial sector. Getty Images

Some projects with an ESG and sustainable finance perspective may be focused in areas where environmental criteria are relevant. Others may not directly have an effect on areas with key conservation issues, but may seek opportunities for mitigating activities that take place elsewhere.

There may, therefore, be emerging opportunities where the UAE's excellence and concern about global conservation issues can interrelate with the burgeoning finance industry. If the latter can contribute to the former, a direct benefit in terms of ESG may follow.

As Carolyn Labey, Minister for International Development in my other home of the British Channel Island of Jersey, puts it: “Doing well financially and doing good are not mutually exclusive.”

Jersey, I am pleased to say, has already launched an interesting initiative, called the Jersey Fund for a Wilder World, a joint project between the local financial services industry, government, Jersey Finance, Jersey Overseas Aid and the world-renowned Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.

Under that initiative, local finance industry firms can contribute, on a voluntary basis, to help bring about positive change in terms of conservation, while providing opportunities for investors who want to make a difference with their money.

There may be no direct parallels here, in terms of an appropriate structure. How nice it would be, however, if something similar could be created to link our finance industry and conservation bodies like the MBZ Fund and the Houbara Fund, to pool our efforts for global development. From that, we would all benefit.

Peter Hellyer is a UAE cultural historian and columnist for The National