The Lungs of Abu Dhabi: A billion-dollar ecosystem

Abu Dhabi’s mangroves do not actively generate income, but they are estimated to add nine figures’ worth of value to the local economy. A project is under way to put a final number on how beneficial they are to the emirate.

The UAE has done a great deal to preserve its coastal habitats, which provide benefits to the emirates beyond water sports and fishing. Lee Hoagland / The National
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If the environment and its resources were a quantifiable commodity, the “Lungs of Abu Dhabi” — its marine life including mangroves — could help contribute as much as US$2.63 billion to the emirate’s economy as a result of carbon financing mechanisms and other ecosystem services, according to experts.

“The mangroves are incredibly undervalued, but so important,” says Arabella Willing, the Park Hyatt’s resident marine biologist.

Globally, mangroves are being cleared three to five times faster than terrestrial forests, and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that the destruction costs $42bn in economic damages annually.

The mangroves in Abu Dhabi span 77 square kilometres — about the area of the Palm Islands in Dubai — covering 547 kilometres of the emirate’s coastline. The tropical shrub is ecologically important for fisheries, which is the Arabian Gulf’s second-most important natural resource after oil and contributes Dh1bn annually to the UAE’s economy. Ms Willing adds that 30 per cent of the commercially important fish species use mangroves as a nursery.

The NYU Abu Dhabi marine biologist John Burt says mangroves are incredibly important from the carbon angle. “Mangroves are important carbon sinks. [They] are particularly important as one of the most diverse habitats in the Gulf.”

Mangroves absorb an average of 3,754 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare. Mr Burt explains that mangroves set down roots to stabilise the soil, slowing the flow of water. This stoppage means that there are less waves, so pollutants in the area can be contained. The mangrove ecosystem’s salt beds, or sabkhas, contain microbes that can biodegrade oils and absorb pollution.

Mangroves have been widely acknowledged as a coastal defence system, protecting against storm surges and mitigating damages caused by tsunamis. Waves lose energy as they pass through the tangled roots and branches of mangroves, decreasing wave height between 13 per cent and 66 per cent over 100 metres of mangroves, according to a joint study conducted by Wetlands International and The Nature Conservancy. Mangrove belts spanning several hundred metres have been shown to reduce tsunami height by between 5 to 30 per cent.

The economic benefits from Abu Dhabi’s blue carbon ecosystem, or coastal vegetation that help capture carbon dioxide, are in isolation very negligible. However, a significant value is added when combined with other ecosystem facilities in the emirate.

While environmental schemes are not numerically quantifiable, studies are performed to add economic value to help promote policy and decision making. The evaluation revolves around what happens if one area is destroyed, and places a value on something that is not on the market.

The Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative (Agedi), created in 2002, conducted a financial feasibility assessment study on the monetary value of blue carbon and associated ecosystems in the emirate. Supported by the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD) on a local level, Agedi is working to compile environmental data and close the information gap between developed and developing countries.

Some of the financial services that could be used from the mangroves and surrounding habitat include payments for carbon sequestration and storage.

It would be similar to an energy company paying for the protection, conservation and sustainable management of mangrove forests and other similar surroundings to mitigate the effect of coastal development projects on blue carbon ecosystems. Other areas to accrue revenue would be green taxes or entrance fees for coastal protected areas.

The Agedi report concluded that combined with other services, carbon prices ranging from $2 to $10 per metric tonne of carbon dioxide over a 25-year period could have a net present value (NPV) in the billions of dollars. The bundled ecosystem services with a discount rate (the depreciated value of an asset) of 10 per cent would result in a NPV ranging from $1.66bn to $1.71bn. With a discount rate of 5 per cent, the NPV of these products would fall between $2.57bn to $2.63bn. These numbers are based on the value of services that take place on coastlines and shores, such as fishing and hotel activities. The agency added that further investigation — which it is carrying out now — was necessary to determine final figures.

Carbon credits were first introduced with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Kyoto Protocol. The permit allows the holder to emit one tonne of carbon dioxide. Credits are given to countries or groups that have reduced greenhouse gases below their emission quota and may be traded on the international market at their current price.

The Abu Dhabi Blue Carbon Demonstration Project advises research teams on how to account for ecosystems’ value in the carbon-credit economy and how to package the data in a carbon market feasibility study. The 2011 study said the project was developing ways to acquire credits for the mangroves’ contribution to carbon management.

The UN Environment Programme executive director, Achim Steiner, says more government initiatives are necessary to protect mangroves and obtain maximum gains. “What is needed now are the right carbon finance mechanisms and policy interventions in order to reap the true economic, climate and social gains from this critical ecosystem, which we cannot afford to lose,” he said.

The UAE has done a great deal to preserve its coastal habitats. More than 10 federal laws and 20 emirate-specific decrees relating to marine and coastal environments have been created since the country was founded. The environmental compensation policy requires twice the area of the mangroves removed by developers to be planted with mangrove seedlings. Studies in Abu Dhabi began in 2008 as EAD completed the first climate change vulnerability assessment for the emirate, which included the mangroves. Agedi launched a follow-up in 2011 to establish a climate change work programme.

One of the recommendations of the project was to develop a specialised fund to which developers pay a compensation fee that would allow the regulatory authority to prioritise marine and coastal conservation and restoration. Agedi said that the specialised fund could later include support for concepts including habitat banking, biodiversity offsets and system-benefits change models.

The group also conducted a four-month ecosystems services assessment project to identify and put a value on critical marine ecosystem services at risk. A further decrease in marine habitation could result in algal blooms, also known as red tide. Blue carbon ecosystems help quell the above-normal rates of algae that can be toxic to fish and shut down beaches. Questionnaires were prepared for hotel and real estate managers as well as beach visitors to determine how livelihoods would be affected from depleted ecosystems.

The hotel and real estate surveys were aimed at quantifying the value of the coastline to commercial operations that relied on beachfront activities in addition to their services. Companies completed more than 30 of the corporate questionnaires, and more than 100 beach visitors responded for four areas: Al Bateen, the Corniche, Saadiyat beach and Yas beach.

The surveys found that if trends in marine degradation continued at today’s levels, beachfront hotels anticipated a 30 to 35 per cent decline in turnover. Beach users anticipated a significant loss in well-being, reaching values up to 190 per cent of annual income for the poorer residents should beach amenity services be lost.

The project provided a partial estimate of the value of marine ecosystems and their services, saying the likely losses would “negatively affect Abu Dhabi’s global image and tourist economy”. Agedi acting director, Ahmed Abdul Muttaleb Baharoon, said that the Abu Dhabi Blue Carbon Demonstration Project was unprecedented in the region and has helped spearhead other similar efforts globally. Marine ecosystems “provide essential economic and social benefits, supporting fisheries, protecting shorelines, providing opportunities for tourism and are important for cultural heritage and identity”, he said.

“When we combine the value of the Blue Carbon sequestration with the other services these ecosystems provide, the estimated values were significant,” Mr Baharoon said.

The second phase of the programme will identify the total economic value of these services based on use of the environment. Agedi expects to release its findings early next year.

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