Responsible development: The emirate is striving to protect the environment while making the most of its natural resources

Ensuring that Abu Dhabi’s rapid population growth and economic development is sustainable and balanced with its social and environmental goals is a priority for the emirate. Future quality of life for inhabitants will be evaluated by health and safety as much as by wealth and prosperity. The emirate faces difficult climatic conditions that predispose it to a high degree of environmental concerns. A low level of rainfall results in a scarcity of fresh water and a dependence on energy-intensive desalination for drinking water. Barren desert soil translates into a lack of natural plant life to offset carbon emissions, as well as poor air quality due to dust, while extremely hot temperatures lead to a heavy reliance on air conditioning in the summer months.

Where the emirate has a resource advantage, mainly an abundance of fossil fuels, it would be remiss not to exploit this asset. Although efforts are under way to diversify the economy into new growth sectors and away from a reliance on oil-and-gas-related earnings, the emirate will remain a major upstream and value-added producer and exporter of hydrocarbons for the foreseeable future. Overall, Abu Dhabi faces a confluence of environmental pressures that it is looking to address. This presents opportunities for investment and foreign partnerships in resource monitoring and management systems, green technology solutions, and best practice outreach and awareness campaigns.

Stakeholders

 The Environment Agency –Abu Dhabi (EAD) was established in 1996 as the main government entity tasked with regulating, promoting and setting policy for environmental protection and resource conservation. According to Mohamed Al Madfaei, the EAD’s executive director for integrated policy and planning, when it comes to the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, which aims to secure GDP expansion of 7% per annum until 2015 and 6% per annum for the following 15 years, the environmental agenda will make sure that the emirate achieves its economic aspirations and targets with the least impact on the environment. Accordingly, realising economic growth without harming the environment is the focus of the Abu Dhabi Environment Vision 2030 for the next two decades.

Indeed, for each of the priority areas in which the EAD is leading whole-of-government strategic planning (for example, climate change, air, water, biodiversity and waste), other government-linked entities hold key responsibilities and have a contribution to make.

The Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) and Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Company (ADWEC), for example, are tasked with improving efficiency in the generation and distribution of utilities. The Food Control Authority is working to institute improved agricultural practices that result in more productive use of water, while the city municipality is introducing and enforcing green codes for new projects.

The Centre of Waste Management, for its part, is rolling out more recycling programmes, improving its waste segregation and treatment processes, and exploring waste-to-energy options. The Department of Transport (DoT) is unveiling more public transportation options and introducing alternate fuel solutions to reduce carbon emissions, while the Quality and Conformity Council (QCC) is clamping down on environmentally unfriendly products entering the emirate. Finally, the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology upholds a research directive, exploring the commercialisation and deployment of sustainable technologies.

Inventory

 “It is important to quantify and assess the value of environmental resources, so that everyone senses the impact of their behaviour and appreciates the returns to be generated from investments in conservation,” said Al Madfaei. Collecting and sharing environmental data is considered a key imperative for the EAD, as it allows for evidence-based public policy formulation and decision-making. In late 2012 the agency launched Enviro-Portal, a website that uses geographic information system technology to display real-time information on the distribution of flora, fauna, marine habitats and protected areas. The information can then be used to inform land-use and zoning decisions.

The EAD also biannually releases the Greenhouse Gas Inventory Project (GGIP), which monitors and assesses the emissions of various sectors and is in accordance with the UAE’s commitments as a signatory to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UN Environment Programme, recognising the advances Abu Dhabi has made in environmental monitoring, has commissioned it to take the lead on an environmental website indicator for the MENA region, which is currently in the pilot phase.

Environmental data is also being leveraged to improve the effectiveness of public outreach programmes, as a means of tangibly conveying to businesses and households the impact that behavioural changes, such as recycling or reducing water consumption, can have on their environmental footprint. The EAD’s systems are also able to trigger early warning public advisories, such as cautions to stay indoors in advance of a forecast dust storm, or to avoid a particular public beach when water quality drops below an acceptable level.

Climate Change

 According to the 2010 GGIP, Abu Dhabi emits around 78m tonnes of carbon dioxide per year and 100m tonnes of greenhouse gases in total. This is equal to around 0.1% of total global discharge.

In terms of sectoral contributions to emissions, the report revealed that energy makes up the majority, at 72.6%, followed by industrial processes (18.1%), waste (6.9%) and agriculture (2.4%). Broken down by chemical compound, carbon dioxide accounts for 78.6% of all emissions, followed by methane (8.8%), perfluorocarbons (7.6%) and nitrous oxide (5%).

Recognising a need to diversify away from reliance on hydrocarbons, Abu Dhabi is attempting to increase the contribution of renewable and nuclear power to its energy mix by 2020, to 1500 MW and 5600 MW, respectively. The EAD is confident that when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas on the supply side of the equation, ADNOC and ADWEC will fulfil their mandates to cut the emissions associated with power generation. The agency’s efforts are focused on managing energy demand and advocating more efficient usage among industrial and household consumers.

According to a 2013 report published by the International Renewable Energy Agency, the government of the UAE spends an estimated Dh15,321 ($4170) per person on subsidies for oil, gas and electricity, and foots the bill for around 69% of all fossil fuel energy consumed, making the case for reducing consumption an economic, as well as environmental, imperative.

It is estimated that the average household spends 0.5% of its annual disposable income on electricity, meaning that their financial incentive to reduce usage is minimal. As the prospect of the government removing or reducing its subsidy regime is slim in the short to medium term, other means to discourage excessive consumption must be employed.

To raise awareness about the impact of over-consumption, the Abu Dhabi Distribution Company has introduced a smart billing system, whereby households are informed, through a red code, when their usage exceeds average consumption rates and itemises the “real” (i.e. subsidy included) costs of their utility usage. The EAD, meanwhile, is undertaking media awareness campaigns to try to influence the public’s behaviour, and is working in partnership with Abu Dhabi Education Council to encourage energy conservation and environmental awareness from a young age.

With projections that around half of all electricity goes towards air conditioning, the EAD, in partnership with the research community, is looking at ways of introducing more efficient industrial and residential cooling techniques. It is also working with the QCC to encourage households to replace older air conditioning units and limit the sale of inefficient, non-environmentally friendly appliances.

Desalination plants are another heavy user of electricity, with seawater desalination requiring, on average, around 10 times more energy than surface fresh water production. Masdar is developing desalination plants that are powered purely by renewable sources, mainly in the form of solar thermal, with the aim of building a commercial-scale plant by 2020.

Lastly, to encourage and enforce the construction of more energy-efficient buildings, Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council introduced the Estidama Pearl Rating System in September 2010. Now, any new building privately constructed for permanent use must meet a qualification of one Pearl credit (two for government buildings), with the qualifications based on the building meeting water, energy and waste provisions.

Air Quality

 Due to its desert climate, Abu Dhabi has considerable dust and particulate levels. This poses significant health risks, with asthma ranked as the fourth-most-life-threatening disease in the UAE, and respiratory infections the second-most-common non-life-threatening medical condition. The World Health Organisation prescribes particulate matter (PM) levels of under 10, a threshold that Abu Dhabi far exceeds, with PM levels hovering around 150 micrograms per cu metre. This is mainly due to extenuating factors that the emirate can do little to influence, such as frequent dust storms and winds carrying poor-quality air from neighbouring countries. The EAD has to manage and mitigate those contributors within its control, mainly anthropogenic pressures caused by population and industrial growth, such as eroding air quality.

As is typical elsewhere, Abu Dhabi’s air quality tends to be most at risk in industrial and congested urban areas. The EAD is continuously exploring ways to reduce the concentrated use of fossil fuels in industrial zones. “We offer a strict but stable and defined regime. If as an investor you understand the environmental impact assessment and permit procedures in Europe and the US that we have benchmarked against, you will find the procedure fair and streamlined,” Darryl Lew, the executive director for the environmental quality sector, whose department is tasked with providing permits to industrial projects, told OBG.

To improve air quality in urban areas, the EAD, in cooperation with the DoT, is working to reduce vehicular emissions by promoting cleaner transportation through more fuel-efficient vehicles and encouraging people to switch from driving to taking public transport. People are using public transport more frequently, and this is no longer a decision motivated just by affordability, but now also due to convenience, as the network has improved tremendously in reliability and connectivity in recent years. This is a trend that will be further enhanced when the planned $7bn, 131-km metro system becomes operational in coming years.

Waste Management

 The EAD considers waste management to be a priority. According to Razan Al Mubarak, the secretary-general of the EAD, “With a favourable regulatory environment, the private sector has an opportunity to play a significant role” in the task. Waste collection within the city is being handled sufficiently, according to the EAD, although there are shortcomings at dump sites, where the infrastructure for sorting, treatment and final disposal could be improved. “Lots of empty space in the desert has resulted in many improperly managed dump sites springing up over the years. These need to be cleaned up, especially as it relates to hazardous materials that impact on human health,” Simon Pearson, a senior advisor for integrated policy and planning at the EAD, told OBG.

Abu Dhabi currently produces around 12m tonnes of waste per year, and is projected to generate around 30m tonnes per year by 2030 based on current trends. This illustrates the need to not only develop further waste handling, treatment and disposal options, but also to minimise waste production and to optimise recycling and other technologies such as waste to energy.

In 2013 a federal law was passed decreeing that all plastic bags used in retail must be made from oxobiodegradable material. This type of legislation certainly has an impact, as – if littered – biodegradable bags degrade sooner than those made from normal plastic, reducing the chance of them, for example, finding their way into and calcifying a camel’s stomach, or being eaten by a turtle that mistakes the bag for a jellyfish. Yet the preferred outcome would be to prevent littering from happening in the first place, which is why education campaigns to discourage littering and encourage a culture of recycling are paramount.

A flourishing recycling industry also depends on ensuring an end market for the recycled materials. The EAD is advocating further legislation that requires government projects and entities to use a minimum proportion of recycled inputs in their operations, such as recycled aggregates in construction projects, recycled steel products in smelters and recycled paper in mills.

Plans are afoot for the construction of the emirate’s first waste-to-energy plant, which will be managed as a joint venture between Abu Dhabi National Energy Company (TAQA) and the Centre for Waste Management. TAQA has stated that the first engineering, procurement and construction contract will be awarded in the fourth quarter of 2013, with the plant – which is expected to have a capacity of 1m tonnes per annum, equivalent to 100 MW – becoming operational by 2017.

Water Resources

 Groundwater accounts for 63.6% of Abu Dhabi’s water supply, desalinated seawater 29.2% and treated sewage water supplies 7.2%. Of the three sources, groundwater is the main focal point in terms of resource management and conservation, as it is in finite supply and depleting rapidly, not to mention of better quality and less reliant on energy-intensive purification treatment.

The agricultural sector is the heaviest consumer, absorbing 57.98% of total water, and around 80% of all groundwater. Next comes gardens and parks (13.38%), followed by forestry (11.73%), the urban sector (9.75%), and industrial and commercial users (7.16%).

The high level of financial support and assistance offered by the government to Abu Dhabi’s agriculture sector is a topic of some debate. A domestic agricultural base contributes to food security and supports rural development and employment, making it politically important. Yet some critics argue that the emirate will never be fully self-sufficient in food and will always be reliant on imports, as at present around 84% of produce is supplied from abroad. There are questions as to the rationale for heavily subsidising a sector that generates little commercial return on investment and contributes less than 1% of GDP, while placing a major strain on extremely scarce water resources that could, arguably, be more effectively allocated.

The EAD is, however, working with farmers to promote more efficient overall use of water, introducing new technologies and irrigation techniques that result in water savings, and investing in hydroponic and greenhouse solutions that increase productivity and allow for growing certain types of produce year-round. Where feasible, the EAD is also looking to introduce technology that can enable treated sewage water to be substituted for groundwater.

Enforcement is also being ramped up, with a stricter permit regime for well drilling, and meters are being installed on farms to more closely monitor usage. In addition, the EAD is in consultation with farmers in the hope that they will switch to growing crops that are more conducive to lower water requirements.

Marine Water Quality

 Though much of the focus over the past decade has been on maximising output from groundwater, marine water quality has recently become a priority area itself. According to Pearson, “Government entities are working hard to ensure that sewage infrastructure growth keeps pace with real estate development to protect marine water quality. The EAD has proposed a strict policy of zero wastewater discharged into the sea. This water can often be used instead of groundwater for irrigation.”

Desalination

MENA countries account for 6.3% of the world’s population, yet possess only 1.4% of its fresh water, a discrepancy which contributes to the region’s heavy dependence on desalination for drinking water – in fact, it is home to over half of the world’s entire desalination capacity.

A 2010 report by Global Water Intelligence estimates that the UAE is spending $800m per year on building, operating and maintaining desalination plants, and is expecting this figure to increase to $3.22bn by 2016. Desalination also comes with an environmental price tag, as it results in increased carbon dioxide emissions. In addition, the process reduces the amount of natural gas that could otherwise be exported or allocated as a feedstock for downstream industry.

The EAD is currently in the trial phase of constructing 30 small-scale solar desalination plants, while Masdar plans to build three pilot plants over the next few years that will be run on carbon-neutral technologies, with the aim of having a commercial-scale facility up and running by 2020.

Biodiversity

“Data collection is a key tool for establishing conservation initiatives, particularly in the preservation of biodiversity. Collecting information about the emirate’s terrestrial biodiversity and ecosystems enhances efforts to monitor and protect a variety of species,” said Al Mubarak. Indeed, the aforementioned Enviro-Portal is being used by the Urban Planning Council to identify and designate protected areas. Terrestrially, 10.4% of Abu Dhabi’s total area has been declared as protected, while marine protected areas cover around 13.2% of the emirate’s geographic area if both official and proposed protected areas are included.

There will always be some overlap, with some areas both warranting ecological preservation and offering potential for commercial development. In situations where development gains are thought to supersede environmental protection, for instance in the case of lucrative oil and gas concessions that the emirate would be remiss not to exploit, the EAD imposes mitigation and compensation plans that can take various forms, such as the planting of new mangroves.

Outlook

 While Abu Dhabi faces a confluence of factors that impose environmental pressures, by placing the issue at the forefront of its long-term vision for development, the emirate’s authorities are demonstrating that environmental preservation, along with the economy and society, forms a central component of their overall policy agenda.

While adverse climatic conditions predispose the emirate to having an above-average carbon footprint, it also benefits from having a government that has the will and the financial clout to invest in projects to mitigate environmental damage and degradation. Abu Dhabi even has the potential to become a regional leader in the field and a model for others to follow.

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