The 'Year of Sustainability’ is an opportunity to reconnect with nature

As announced this week, 2023 will reinforce the UAE's national commitment to building a cleaner and greener future

Neatly planted trees on the Sir Bani Yas Island on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011. The island, one of the largest in the Abu Dhabi Emirate, is a wildlife preserve set up by the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan al Nahyan founding father of the UAE, and it is the home to thousands of free-roaming animals, including the Arabian Orynx. (Silvia Razgova/The National)
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One afternoon, my mother handed me the branches of a beautiful plant and said: “This is Yas. It is a local plant and it smells beautiful.”

It had been a busy week and I was thinking about how we, as a human race, are so caught up with our meetings, errands and obligations that we have lost touch with a core element of life – nature. That simple gesture by my mother allowed me a moment of reconnection.

It also made me realise how integrated nature truly is in our society, and in many ways, our identity. In fact, that Yas plant is etymologically linked to the very tribe that I belong to – Bani Yas. The Bani Yas tribe dates back many centuries, and its people were known to have been deeply connected to the desert environment in which they lived.

ABU DHABI, UAE. March 17, 2010. Ghaf trees provide shade on avenues with pedestrian traffic.

Many people in the UAE, both men and women, are named after animals, pearls, weather, or even geographical terrains. For example, my name, "Shamma", comes from the root word, "Shamam", which means the summit of a mountain. A more easily recognisable name might be "Saqr", which means falcon, or perhaps you know a "Dhiyab", the Arabic word wolf. "Ghaith" means rain, "Hessa" and "Dana" are both types of pearls; and "Alyazia" and "Maha", mean gazelle and oryx, respectively.

Similarly, the names given to creatures in our natural world were reflective of our relationship with them. Take the mighty dragonfly, for instance – this small but significant insect is known in the Emirati dialect as "bo bisheer", which loosely translates to "bearer of good news". This is no coincidence, as our ancestors would travel long distances across the desert seeking sources of water, and it was the dragonfly that would signify that an oasis was close.

Arabian oryx in the UAE desert. Biosphere Expeditions

On a more personal level, my great-grandmother, Sheikha Hessa bint Mohammed Al Nahyan, was so in tune with nature that she could predict from the direction of the wind, whether it would be followed by rain or a sandstorm. She built these skills over time by closely observing and listening to the language of weather cycles.

However, we have experienced a disconnect as a result of urbanisation and industrialisation. Now, as the effects of climate change become more evident through extreme flooding and uncontrollable forest fires, we are being confronted by the forces of nature, which we have neglected and yet, still offer us great insight on the state of the planet.

This week, the UAE announced that 2023 will officially be the "Year of Sustainability", reinforcing the national commitment to building a cleaner and greener future. As we prepare to host Cop28, the world’s largest climate conference in November, we have a prime opportunity to truly reconnect with our planet and reignite our relationship with the natural world.

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As members of civil society, we have an equal responsibility to take action

On a government level, it is essential that alignment with the Net Zero Strategic Initiative by 2050 remains our North Star. The regulatory framework that we develop today, will have a positive impact for decades to come. Take, for example, the ambitions of the US as espoused in their Inflation Reduction Act, which remains the most significant climate legislation in the history of the country. This, alone, has provided over $369 billion for climate and clean energy programmes.

Corporate entities must start building an organisational approach that looks beyond generating enterprise value through business acquisition, but rather at the value each action can bring to the ecosystem. To date, the commercial mindset has only considered what our planet can do for us, such as the provision of raw materials to produce goods, without thinking about the repercussions of our actions on the environment. It is now time for us to ask what we can do for our planet.

As members of civil society, we have an equal responsibility to take action. This could be embedding sustainable practices into our daily routine, from eliminating single-use plastics in our homes to waste reduction and recycling. It may even be as simple as reducing your carbon footprint by switching to a plant-based diet, or cycling to work instead of taking your car. In fact, research has shown that behavioural changes can result in a reduction of up to 70 per cent in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

We must also consider how our actions as individuals can have a ripple effect across communities. One conversation can inspire a family, a school, an office, a neighbourhood, or even an entire city to take forward an initiative that will positively impact the collective. My hope is that, by speaking up and sharing our ideas, we can encourage others to do the same and, together, we can find ways to bring those ideas to life.

Most importantly, let us remember the experiences of our ancestors in taming the harsh desert environment in ways that not only allowed them to survive, but to thrive. Let us revisit the landscapes we call home and get to know the biodiversity that has been a life source for centuries. This could be the key to securing a sustainable future.

Published: January 23, 2023, 5:00 AM
Updated: January 24, 2023, 10:09 AM