Climate change and global warming, coupled with population growth and increasing urbanisation, are just some of the environmental factors depleting the natural resources of countries across the world and affecting the earth’s natural balance. In Abu Dhabi, where average temperatures run from 22.9°C to 35°C, reaching as high as 50°C in summer months, and where average rainfall is just 81.4mm per year, environmental protection and sustainability are particularly vital to future growth, and have become key pillars in the authorities’ development agenda.
Some 80% of the UAE’s landmass is classified as desert, while a further 2.6% is mountainous, thereby affecting the emirate’s ability to develop agriculture and protect and maintain the water resources necessary to support economic development. Population growth is expected to put additional strain on food and water supplies in the future as well as increase demand for jobs and housing. In Abu Dhabi, which occupies 87% of the UAE’s total landmass – an area of 67,340 sq km – and has an additional 37,000 sq km of marine area, the population grew by an average of 5.6% per year between 2010 and 2016 to 2.9m, according to Statistics Centre - Abu Dhabi (SCAD). This is much higher than in other developed countries. By 2030 the population is expected to reach 4m.
Rising consumption on the back of economic expansion and growing individual wealth also presents an environmental challenge. The UAE’s ecological footprint, which is a measure of per capita use of natural resources, is among the largest worldwide, at 9.8 global ha, according to 2018 data from international non-profit organisation Global Footprint Network.
At a federal level, the UAE has made strong statements regarding its commitment to dealing with the effects of climate change. The country has been an official party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the main structure for intergovernmental efforts to tackle issues related to global warming since 1996. It also played an active role at the 2015 COP21 UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris, where leaders from more than 150 countries gathered to create a wide-ranging international agreement to combat man’s impact on the environment.
In 2016 the Ministry of Environment and Water was expanded to manage international and domestic climate change affairs, and its name changed to the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment. One of its first acts was to establish the Emirates Committee for Sustainable Environment Research, which brought together representatives from different organisations, entities and universities across the public and private sectors to help create a comprehensive environmental research strategy.
In Abu Dhabi the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD), established in 1996, is the emirate’s lead organisation for coordinating and pursuing environmental policy. The EAD is tasked with raising conservation awareness, facilitating sustainable development and ensuring that environmental issues remain a top priority. The EAD has also developed and implements compulsory Environmental Impact Assessments through which it assesses development and industrial projects before they are constructed.
Another primary responsibility of the EAD is to support the emirate in environmental data collection and analysis, as in the past a shortfall of quality, quantifiable data was one of the most significant barriers to achieving sustainable development. “Over the last 20 years, the EAD has collected, aggregated and analysed data to expand the emirate’s collective knowledge on the state of the environment and anthropological impacts. Understanding the environment has enabled Abu Dhabi to conserve its biodiversity, protect public health and contribute to a better quality of life for everyone,” Eva Ramos, director of environmental analysis and economics at the EAD, told OBG.
The Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative, launched in 2002 and supported by the EAD and the UN Environment Programme, is tasked with facilitating access to quality environmental data and maximising information exchange to improve decision-making at the local, national, regional and global level.
The EAD also contains within it the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Group (ADSG), founded in 2008 as a membership organisation with the mission of promoting sustainability management in Abu Dhabi. The ADSG, which provides learning and knowledge sharing opportunities for government, private companies and non-profit organisations, looks for ways to drive the adoption of environmentally sustainable practices. It also helps to train industry professionals.
Key policy initiatives recognise the need to balance social and economic development with environmental sustainability. Indeed, Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 prioritises five environmental missions: protecting the emirate’s heritage and limiting the effects of environmental change; guaranteeing clean air and constraining noise pollution; ensuring the proficient administration and protection of water assets such as Liwa Water Reservoir; conserving living habitats, biodiversity and social heritage; and enhancing materials and waste management.
In 2017 two landmark federal strategies were unveiled: the UAE Energy Strategy 2050, which aims to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 70%, increase energy generated by renewables to 44% and improve energy efficiency by 40% by the middle of the century; and the National Climate Change Plan of the UAE 2017-50, which is expected to more effectively coordinate efforts to manage greenhouse emissions, while also sustaining economic growth.
In the shorter term, the EAD Strategic Plan 2016-20, launched in February 2017, maps out a five-year strategy for tackling more immediate environmental challenges in Abu Dhabi, such as conserving and managing groundwater (see analysis), ensuring air quality, dealing with waste management more effectively, and protecting marine and land species.
Given its arid climate, Abu Dhabi generally has poor soil conditions, which are not helped by overgrazing. According to the EAD, more than 26% of the emirate’s land is overgrazed, and livestock populations exceed the carrying capacity by over six times. In addition, more than 30% of irrigated agriculture occurs in areas unsuitable for that purpose, further degrading the land and soil. The impact of land degradation is already being felt: according to the 2017 “Abu Dhabi State of Environment” report, approximately 8000 farms in the emirate have been abandoned or nearly abandoned due to the impact of salinisation on both soil and water resources.
Over the next few years the EAD will focus on improving soil information services to support sustainable land-use planning and work to develop local standards. Comprehensive soil surveys will continue, with many already having been conducted and made available as part of the emirate’s Environmental Atlas.
Poor air quality and, more specifically, the presence of particulate matter (PM) poses a significant threat to public health. Globally, 3.7m deaths are attributable to outdoor air pollution every year. The UAE has high ambient levels of PM , which partially stems from man-made pollution, as well as ground level ozone and nitrogen dioxide, according to the UAE National Strategy and Action Plan for Environmental Health. PM is also present in high levels, but this is considered less dangerous as it occurs naturally and is mainly caused by the arid climate.
Abu Dhabi is currently working to improve its air quality through the framework of UAE Vision 2021 as well as the Abu Dhabi Plan. In 2012 the EAD began expanding its network of air quality monitoring stations so that as of 2017 it had 20 fixed stations and two mobile stations, measuring up to 17 pollutants and select meteorological parameters on an hourly basis. In 2014 it also undertook efforts to electronically link a number of its air quality monitoring networks, with the aim of creating a more efficient and comprehensive understanding of air quality. At the federal level the UAE has also been working to reduce air pollution linked to automobiles, the use of which has expanded in line with population growth. In July 2014, for example, it introduced ultra-low sulphur diesel, which has a reduced sulphur content of 10 parts per million compared to 500 parts in regular diesel. In 2010 the Abu Dhabi Executive Council adopted a decision to shift 25% of the emirate’s vehicles in the government’s fleet to compressed natural gas. Additionally, by 2015 approximately 88% of buses in the emirate had achieved Euro 4 standards, the European measurement for efficient use of diesel fuel.
Abu Dhabi generated around 9.5m tonnes of waste in 2016, according to SCAD, a notable improvement on the almost 12m tonnes it generated in 2013, but still a major environmental concern. Non-hazardous waste constituted 99% of the total. Of this 47% comprised of construction and demolition waste, 28% industrial and commercial waste, and 25% municipal, agricultural and other types of waste, including sludge and oil and gas sector waste.
The development of waste disposal infrastructure in Abu Dhabi continues to lag behind overall need. In 2015 facilities consisted of one small sanitary landfill, ten legal dump sites, four recycling facilities, two incineration plants and four composting facilities, according to the EAD Strategic Plan 2016-20. There were also an estimated 23,000 illegal dump sites. Approximately 28% of solid waste produced in the emirate that year was recycled.
With the help of the Centre of Waste Management in Abu Dhabi (Tadweer), Abu Dhabi is developing an Integrated Waste Management Master Plan to achieve sustainable waste management over a period of 25 years. In January 2018 it signed five contracts with firms operating in the sector to develop waste management infrastructure. Worth a combined Dh165m ($44.9m), the projects include a gas to energy development at Al Dhafra landfill – the first in the Middle East – construction of medical and hazardous waste incinerators in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, and a used cooking oil processing plant, according to local press reports. Tadweer and EAD also published a guide in 2017 titled “Sustainable Construction and Demolition Waste Management in Abu Dhabi,” which contains advice for construction companies on reducing the amount of waste they produce on site.
According to the EAD, at the end of 2017 Abu Dhabi had reduced waste generated per capita per day to 1.46 kg, down from 1.9 kg in 2015, already surpassing the target of 1.5 kg laid out in its 2016-20 plan. In addition, the Abu Dhabi Plan calls for 60% of total waste generated in the emirate to be treated using environmentally and economically sustainable methods by 2020. In July 2018 Salem Al Kaabi, acting general manager of Tadweer, told journalists during the inauguration of Abu Dhabi’s first recyclable collection station that the emirate will divert 70% of waste from landfills to recycling plants by 2030.
Clean Energy Policy
At the federal level the UAE Energy Strategy 2050 aims to boost the share of renewables in the energy mix to 44% by 2050.
Abu Dhabi’s own push into renewable energy technology has been driven in large part by Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (Masdar), which since its inception in 2006 has invested more than $8.5bn in local and global projects. In November 2016 the first commercial-scale carbon capture, utilisation and storage facility in the MENA region became operational in Abu Dhabi. Developed by local carbon capture company Al Reyadah, the facility – which was a joint venture between Masdar and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, and is now fully owned by the latter – aims to sequester up to 800,000 tonnes of CO₂ per year emitted by Abu Dhabi-based steel producer Emirates Steel Industries, before injecting it as a substitute for rich gas into the emirate’s oil reservoirs to enhance overall output. In early 2017 Arafat Al Yafei, CEO of the facility, said he believed the project can act as a springboard for the technology’s adoption globally.
While some significant solar projects already exist in the emirate, Abu Dhabi is also looking to expand its use of solar energy. In May 2017 it secured financing for the 1177-MW Noor Abu Dhabi solar power plant, with the government-owned utility company Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority raising $650m in debt and $222m through equity. Built by a consortium of Japan’s Marubeni Corp and China’s JinkoSolar Holding, the project is the world’s largest in solar power to date and is set to be finished in the second quarter of 2019.
Abu Dhabi is rich in biodiversity, with 3787 species of plants, invertebrates, higher vertebrates and fish having so far been documented. Abu Dhabi has been actively trying to minimise any habitat degradation or loss of biological diversity. As of 2016 a total of 10.5% of land and 13.2% of marine areas – one of the highest percentages in the world – had been declared protected, with plans to increase that to 15.4% and 13.5%, respectively, by 2020. According to the EAD, the body has monitoring programmes in place for 24 important species, of which 18 are terrestrial and six marine, as well as nine habitats, six terrestrial and three marine, and is developing a new environmental monitoring framework. This will include 16 habitat types and 50 subtypes, as well as consistent methods for long-term monitoring.
Abu Dhabi is home to 51 indigenous species of mammal, six of which are on the “threatened” list. Part of the EAD’s responsibilities include supporting efforts to reintroduce species to habitats from which they have recently vanished, and the body has had notable success with the Arabian Oryx. These efforts extend internationally as well. In August 2016, 25 Sahara Oryx bred in captivity in the UAE were released by the EAD into the wild in Chad, with their progress monitored by the Sahara Conservation Fund.
Conservation of biodiversity ranks increasingly high on the UAE National Agenda, and is a key element of policy-making within the Abu Dhabi government, particularly as beyond environmental reasons it can also offer a livelihood for local communities and have strong socio-economic benefits through ecotourism.
Over 70% of Abu Dhabi’s marine area is shallow water less than 20 metres deep. Some 60 islands lie off the coast, ranging from low-lying sand shoals to volcanic salt domes. These provide a habitat for many of the 500 marine fish species in the emirate’s waters, and function as a nesting area for birds and turtles. Abu Dhabi’s fisheries are severely overexploited, however. More than 90% of fish stocks are being caught unsustainably, according to the EAD, with four key species – the hamour, shaari, farsh and kanaad – being fished at five times the sustainable limit. In 2016 the EAD and the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment launched the UAE Sustainable Fisheries Programme, which included a two-year survey of fish resources, including the stocks and health of certain species. The data collected is expected to help provide a baseline for future legislation. Limitations have also been placed on licensing for commercial fishing and a network of protected marine areas established.
At the same time, reports of commercial ships dumping waste into the sea is also a significant cause for concern. In just one dive off the coast of Abu Dhabi in April 2018, 50 divers collected over 1490 kg of marine debris and rubbish, including plastic bottles, aluminium cans, food wrappers, abandoned fishing lines and construction materials. Other issues include microbial contamination caused by the discharge of inadequately treated waste, as well as brine discharges from desalination plants.
In order to raise awareness of the importance of protecting the environment, as well as empower young people to take action, in 2009 the EAD launched the Sustainable Schools initiative in Abu Dhabi. In partnership with BP, this programme allows participating schools to assess their environmental impact and find creative ways to address it. It provides training and resource material for teachers, while giving students hands-on experiences related to environmental education. This was followed in 2013 by the Sustainable Campus initiative, which continued and expanded on the efforts across universities.
Even so, of the 24 universities accredited by the UAE’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, only four offer degrees in environmental sciences, and only two of these are located in Abu Dhabi, according to Ramos. “The data available from the environmental awareness surveys conducted by the EAD showed an improvement in the level of awareness of the local population,” she told OBG. “However, there is no data on how this improvement is linked to education levels or how it affects behavioural changes. Further improving education attainment levels will not be enough to reduce environmental pressures if environmental protection is not placed at the core of the education system.” The degrees offered by the universities also focus primarily on socio-economic issues related to the environment rather than approaching environmental science from an empirical perspective, Ramos told OBG. “As it is critical that decision-making is based on rigorous empirical environmental data, this deficit leaves a gap in training opportunities for the next generation of potential environmental managers,” she said.
Notwithstanding its challenging natural environment and rapidly expanding population, in recent years Abu Dhabi has taken various important steps to address environmental concerns. The focus on gathering data, as well as on using new, cleaner technologies and educating the population are all positive indications for the future. Of equal importance is the engagement and role Abu Dhabi and the UAE as a whole are playing outside their own borders, as the region and the world endeavour to tackle the challenges associated with man-made climate change.
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