Climate change, population growth and increasing rates of urbanisation have put a strain on the environment in complex and intertwined ways. Encouraging sustainable development and protecting the environment are key to ensuring future growth in Abu Dhabi. The need for solutions has created opportunities for investment and innovation, and pushed the market towards economic diversification.
Because of Abu Dhabi’s geographic location and climate, it experiences extreme weather patterns, with average temperatures running from 23°C to 34.8°C, reaching as high as 50°C in the summer, and in 2018 the emirate recorded rainfall of 80.2 mm. The low levels of rainfall and high temperatures have led to large increases in water and energy demand. Further adding to the strain are high rates of per capita resource consumption, rapid development and a sharp population increase. These factors have also led to greater volumes of waste and encroachment into natural habitats. As part of efforts to address these challenges, Abu Dhabi’s overarching policy initiatives seek to balance social and economic development with environmental sustainability, with the underlying understanding that environmental wealth and well-being is crucial to long-term prosperity.
At the federal level, environmental policy is led by the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment. Formerly the Ministry of Environment and Water, its portfolio was expanded in 2016 to incorporate a broader focus on climate change. One of its first acts was to establish the Emirates Committee for Sustainable Environment Research, bringing together representatives from organisations, entities and universities to help create a comprehensive environmental research strategy.
Within the emirate, the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD) is the environmental policymaker and regulator. The EAD – established in 1996 – works to protect and enhance air quality, groundwater sources and biodiversity. The agency supports environmental data collection and analysis to help improve decision-making, including by reviewing Environmental Impact Assessments for development and industrial projects. It is also tasked with raising awareness about the importance of conservation, facilitating sustainable development and maintaining focus on environmental issues. The EAD ensures that environmental considerations are integrated in sectoral policies issued by other government entities.
Both the UAE as a whole and Abu Dhabi specifically have made strong commitments to dealing with the effects of climate change. The country is an official party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the main structure for intergovernmental efforts to tackle global warming. It played an active role in the 2015 COP21 UN Conference on Climate Change and in September 2016 became the first country in the Gulf to sign the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, which aims to limit global average temperature increases to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to limit the temperature increase further to 1.5°C. In addition to the Paris Agreement, the UAE is a signatory to a number of international agreements that help shape national policy. These include the UN Sustainable Development Goals, comprising 17 comprehensive development targets, and the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international treaty that calls for the conservation of biodiversity, the sustainable use of natural resources and the equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources.
Oversight is guided by a number of interrelated federal and emirate-level strategies and plans. UAE Vision 2021 was launched in 2010 with the aim to create and maintain a sustainable environment and infrastructure. Specifically, the national agenda has a focus on improving air quality, preserving water resources, increasing the contribution of clean energy in the mix and implementing green growth plans.
The National Climate Change Plan of the UAE 2017-50 is a comprehensive framework to address the causes and impact of climate change and help transition to a climate-resilient, green economy. Its main objectives are to manage greenhouse gas emissions, build climate resistance, and enhance the UAE’s economic diversification agenda through innovation and the development of green businesses. The private sector plays a key role in the programme as a source of innovation to address sustainability challenges, and as such the plan aims to create an environment conducive to private sector growth through specialised regulations and incentives.
The UAE Energy Strategy 2050, also launched in 2017, was the first unified energy plan for the country. The strategy aims to increase the contribution of clean energy in the total energy mix from 25% to 50% by 2050 and reduce the carbon footprint of power generation by 70%. It also seeks to increase consumption efficiency of individuals and corporates by 40%. To achieve this, the strategy aims to diversify the energy mix to 6% nuclear, 12% clean coal, 38% gas and 44% clean energy sources. The programme outlines Dh600bn ($163.3bn) in investment but expects to generate Dh700bn ($190.5bn) in savings by reducing the carbon footprint of power generation. Meanwhile, the UAE Water Security Strategy 2036 was launched in September 2017 to lower water demand by 21%, reduce water scarcity, increase water productivity, enhance national water storage capacity to up to two days under normal circumstances and boost the reuse of treated water to 95%.
There are a number of environment-focused initiatives at the emirate level. Abu Dhabi’s Environment Vision 2030 and the following government-wide environment policy planning, which has been developed by the EAD since 2010, aims to preserve the emirate’s natural resources and create a better, more sustainable path for development. The focus has been placed on five priority areas: minimising the impact of climate change; encouraging clean air; reducing noise pollution; ensuring the efficient management and conservation of water resources; conserving biodiversity, habitats and cultural heritage for future generations; and optimising material flows and waste management.
In the shorter term, the EAD Strategic Plan 2016-20, launched in February 2017, lays out a five-year programme for tackling more immediate challenges, such as conserving and managing groundwater, improving air quality, effectively dealing with waste management, and protecting marine and land species for future generations.
In January 2020 the government announced the Abu Dhabi Climate Initiative, a programme that will accelerate research and development in water and climate technology. The initiative, in partnership with Abu Dhabi Global Market, the EAD and tech ecosystem Hub71, will see the creation of a Climate Lab incubator and a Sustain Think Tank to lead dialogue on issues such as sustainable finance and climate change technology. Under its auspices, a UAE Development Aid and Technical Assistance entity will be established to offer advice and technical support for emerging markets on renewable and clean energy, sustainability, and resource and waste management.
Abu Dhabi’s sustainability push is being driven by both international and domestic pressures. Abu Dhabi’s population has increased more than 14-fold since 1975. Coupled with rapid economic growth and changing lifestyles, this has placed significant pressure on the environment and natural resources such as water.
At the national level, UAE residents use among of the most natural resources per capita in the world. According to the Global Footprint Network’s 2019 “National Footprint Accounts”, the country’s ecological footprint per capita was 8.9 global ha per person, for a biocapacity deficit of 1480%, the eighth highest of over 200 countries. Gross electricity consumption is expected to hit 141 TWh in 2020, up nearly 40% from 103 TWh in 2014. Water consumption is also high, with the average resident using 740 cu metres of water a year in 2019, above the world average of 500 cu metres per person.
In October 2018 the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a special report that stated global CO emissions need to be halved by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 in order to avoid warming of 1.5°C, a secondary ambition set out in the 2015 Paris agreement.
Abu Dhabi is particularly vulnerable to a warming planet, and countries in the Gulf have already seen average temperature increases of more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, while global average temperature increases have surpassed the 1°C threshold.
Cognisant of the potential impact of climate change in the UAE, the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment launched the UAE National Climate Change Adaptation Programme in 2017. The plan identifies climate risks and proposes adaptation measures in four key sectors: health, energy, infrastructure and environment.
According to the latest data available from the World Bank, the UAE emitted 211.4m tonnes of CO in 2014, making it the 26th-largest emitter worldwide that year. According to Climate Action Tracker, a collaboration between the research organisations Climate Analytics and NewClimate Institute, the UAE’s emissions are projected to increase by 50% by 2030 under current policies due to a continued reliance on fossil fuel-based electricity.
Abu Dhabi has been at the forefront of adopting renewable and clean energies, with Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, commonly known as Masdar, playing a leading role in these efforts. Diversifying the energy mix is key to reducing emissions, and officials hope renewable and nuclear sources can reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Developing a diversified energy mix is also fundamental to long-term economic prosperity. Instead of using valuable oil and natural gas resources for power generation, renewable and nuclear power will make up for increases in energy demand and free up hydrocarbons for export or industrial applications.
In June 2019 the 1.17-GW Noor Abu Dhabi solar plant began commercial operations. With 3.2m panels across an 8-sq-km site, it is one of the world’s largest solar power plants and is expected to provide enough power to meet the demand of 90,000 people. In February 2020 Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the UAE and ruler of Abu Dhabi, told Emirates News Agency that the country had a capacity of 1.8 GW of solar energy, a figure that is expected to exceed 8.4 GW by 2030.
In addition to solar, Abu Dhabi will be home to the 5.6-GW Barakah Nuclear Power Plant located in Al Dhafra. The first of four 1.4-GW, South Korean-designed reactors is set to begin operations in 2020.
Efficiency & Carbon Capture
Efforts to diversify the energy mix are complemented by initiatives to increase energy efficiency and develop carbon capture technologies. At the national level, in 2011 green building standard were implemented. The standards are expected to save Dh10bn ($2.7bn) and cut carbon emissions by 30% by 2030. In 2012 Emirates Authority for Standardisation and Metrology launched an efficiency-labelling scheme for air-conditioning units, and in 2014 a department dedicated to energy conservation and efficiency was created within the Ministry of Energy and Industry. While the government in recent years had been working to lower subsidies, the economic headwinds triggered by Covid-19 resulted in short-term measures such as electricity and water subsidies announced by Abu Dhabi in March 2020 (see Economy chapter).
The Regulation and Supervision Bureau works to reduce energy and water consumption. Other organisations are pursuing greater energy efficiency, such as the Department of Municipalities and Transport, which oversees the initiative Estidama, the Arabic word for sustainability. Estidama introduced the Pearl Building Rating System in 2010 to rate buildings’ energy efficiency in terms of waste, water and energy consumption, and the use of local materials.
Carbon capture is being pioneered in the emirate as another means to reduce emissions released into the atmosphere. The technology works by capturing CO from large sources such as power plants, and either using it in manufacturing or storing it safely underground in depleted oil wells. The Abu Dhabi National Oil Company has a commercial-scale carbon capture, utilisation and storage facility that became operational in 2016. The plant – the first of its kind in the Middle East – captures 800,000 tonnes of CO a year, which is then used for injection into oil wells for enhanced oil recovery (see Energy chapter).
With a sizeable coastline and 216 islands, Abu Dhabi has prioritised protecting coastal areas. Around 68% of the emirate’s economy is dependent on activities located within these zones, and 42% of the population lives in these areas. However, a 2018 study conducted by scholars at the Abu Dhabi-based Petroleum Institute found that the emirate’s coastline is expected to recede by between 2.3 km and 3.8 km by 2100. The loss of the shoreline will far outpace the rise of the sea level, as the effect will be multiplied due to the effects of erosion.
Along with efforts to mitigate the causes of climate change, Abu Dhabi’s policies to adapt to sea level rise have included monitoring, urban planning and improving natural coastal defences. Tidal gauges have been installed at different locations to monitor sea level changes. Many built-up areas are situated on land that was elevated during the building process, and Plan Abu Dhabi 2030, an urban planning framework, stipulates that new waterfront developments should plan for higher water levels.
In addition to protecting coastlines, biodiversity and rescuing endangered species are a priority for Abu Dhabi. According to data from the EAD, as of March 2020 the emirate was home to 3977 species of plants, invertebrates, higher vertebrates and fish. As of August 2017, 16.96% of Abu Dhabi and 13.88% of its waters were protected areas.
The emirate has focused on the preservation of its mangroves in its bid to protect the environment. As a natural windbreak along the water’s edge, the mangroves serve as a coastline defence, protect against tidal surges and erosion, and support biodiversity. The emirate uses satellite mapping to monitor the mangroves’ health. Mapping released in 2018 indicated that 80% of the mangroves were healthy, 15% in moderate condition and 5% in deteriorating health.
Abu Dhabi’s Mangrove National Park represents approximately 75% of the UAE’s total mangrove area. The mangroves are the only evergreen forests that can survive in the Gulf, owning to the trees’ unique ability to thrive in harsh saltwater environments with high temperature variability.
The mangroves are set to grow, with Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the ruler’s representative in Al Dhafra Region and chairman of the EAD, announcing in February 2020 that 14m mangrove seedlings would be cultivated in Abu Dhabi. The programme – executed in partnership with the Department of Municipalities and Transport, the Al Dhafra Municipality and the EAD – will run through 2045 and help sequester some 200,000 tonnes of carbon emissions.
The EAD has also been reintroducing species to their natural habitats, with the notable success of the Arabian Oryx. In the 1970s the antelope was extinct in the wild due to over-hunting. In partnership with the World Wildlife Fund and zoos around the world, the authorities worked to boost reproduction rates and helped to reintroduce the animal into the wild. In 2011 the Arabian Oryx became the first species to improve by three full categories out of six on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, moving up from “extinct in the wild” to “vulnerable”. As of early 2019 there were 1220 wild oryx in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as between 6000 and 7000 in semi-captivity.
As part of its conservation efforts, the UAE has been expanding its push for ecotourism due to the segment’s potential to support sustainability, create new jobs and sources of income, and raise awareness of natural and cultural heritage conservation. In July 2018 the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment launched the National Ecotourism Project, focusing on the UAE’s natural wonders. The programme created an app and microsite highlighting destinations such as the Mangrove National Park, Al Marmoum Desert Conservation Reserve in Dubai, Wadi Wurayah National Park in Fujairah, Sir Bo Na’air Island in Sharjah’s Protected Area and Al Zorah Nature Reserve in Ajman.
The National Environmental Education and Awareness Strategy 2015-21 focuses on educating youth, securing involvement of businesses and industry, and engaging with government stakeholders about the importance of conservation efforts and the sustainable use of natural resources. The strategy aims to demonstrate how climate change and environmental developments affect individuals and the community, and improve commitments to sustainability and environmental protection.
Other schemes have included incorporating an environmental dimension into the academic curriculum, as well as the Eco-Schools initiative led by Emirates Nature-World Wildlife Fund, which encourages environmental action in local schools; and the Sustainable Schools Initiative, Enviro-Spellathon and the Sustainable Campus Initiative, all run by the EAD.
Over 70% of Abu Dhabi’s marine area is shallow water less than 20 metres deep, and islands off the coast provide a habitat for many of the 500 marine fish species in the emirate’s waters. Marine life is struggling with the over-exploitation of fish populations, with the EAD estimating that 90% of fish stocks are caught unsustainably. Key species – namely the hamour, shaari, farsh and kanaad – are fished at five times their replacement rate. In April 2019 the EAD announced it would carry out random inspections along the coast to lessen the harmful impacts of human activity on marine ecosystems.
Land and soil degradation continue to be a challenge. An estimated 26% of Abu Dhabi’s land is overgrazed, and the livestock population exceeds the land’s carrying capacity by a factor of six, according to data from the EAD. Irrigation has further degraded the land and soil, with 30% occurring in areas that are unsuitable for the water-intensive practice. Salinisation of soil and water is also a notable challenge. To address this, the EAD has been conducting comprehensive soil surveys and is supporting sustainable land-use planning.
Air quality is another priority, mainly due to high natural ambient levels of particulate matter (PM) rather than pollution. In 2018 annual average concentrations of PM , which occurs naturally, were between 122 and 145.5 micrograms per cu metre in the city of Abu Dhabi. Annual average concentrations of sulphur dioxide were 8-32% the national allowable limit of 60 micrograms per cu metre. However, ground-level ozone levels were above the limit, ranging from 72.1 to 114.8 micrograms per cu metre. As of 2017 the EAD had 20 fixed air-quality monitoring stations and two mobile stations that measure up to 17 pollutants and selected meterological parameters hourly. In early April 2020 the EAD recorded a 50% decrease in air pollutants compared to the past six weeks, directly attributing the improvement in air quality to Covid-19 preventive measures, which include restricting traffic movement.
As of early 2020 the emirate sent the majority of its waste to landfills and dump sites, and the authorities have an ambitious goal to reduce this figure by 25% by 2021 and by 15% by 2030. Abu Dhabi aims to do so through increased recycling and reuse, as well as waste reduction awareness campaigns and waste-to-energy power plants.
Of the solid waste produced in the emirate in 2018, 34% was recycled, up from 28% in 2017, while 56% was sent to dump sites, 9% to landfill, 1% composted and less than 0.1% incinerated, according to Statistics Centre - Abu Dhabi. Waste sent to landfill has increased noticeably in recent years, from 2% in 2015 to 9% in 2018, while waste sent to dump sites decreased from 66% to 56% over the same period.
The emirate generated 9.8m tonnes of non-hazardous waste in 2018, up from 9.5m tonnes in 2016 but down from the 12m tonnes generated in 2013. Around 36.1% of the total was industrial and commercial waste, 31.6% construction and demolition waste, 13.4% agricultural waste and 18.3% municipal waste.
The Centre of Waste Management in Abu Dhabi, also known as Tadweer, was established in 2008 and is the government entity responsible for the development of waste-management services. In January 2020 Tadweer reported a 3.1% reduction in waste collection in 2019, from 2.26m tonnes in 2018 to 2.20m tonnes. Waste levels are expected to fall further, after the emirate announced in November 2019 that it would ban single-use plastic bags by 2021 and that all government contracts would require a plastic-free policy. Policies are also targeting a reduction in the use of single-use bottles and cutlery.
Both national and emirate-level plans have been implemented to address environmental concerns by minimising the challenges associated with climate change, improving air quality, reducing noise pollution and waste, and increasing the contribution of clean energy to the mix. Over the coming years it will be important to maintain a focus on mitigating the impact of global warming and protecting biodiversity to create a sustainable future.
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