Sitting in the UAE, it’s hard to visualise the terrain of Greenland, which is home to the world’s second-largest ice sheet, endless icebergs, pristine natural landscapes and many more boats than cars. Photos and videos couldn’t prepare me for what I was about to experience during my five-day climate change expedition in September to one of the northernmost parts of the world.
Along with my colleague Manal, who leads operations at Emirates Nature-WWF, and a group of vibrant, inspiring female climate leaders from around the world, I made my way to the village of Ilulissat, 250 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, for an update on the latest status of climate change and to explore high-impact solutions with scientists, experts and the local Inuit community of Greenland.
Why go all the way to Greenland for this? Let me answer with a question: what is the one thing that Greenland and the UAE have in common? Both are experiencing climate change faster than other parts of the world.
While average global surface temperatures have risen to 1.2°C since pre-industrial times, temperatures have risen to 1.5°C in Greenland and 1.8°C in the Emirates. As the planet’s surface temperatures continue to rise, both countries will experience temperatures inching even higher, disproportionate to the global average.
Greenland’s ice sheet is melting four times faster than in 2003 and is losing 270 billion tonnes of ice mass a year, making it one of the largest contributors to rising sea levels. Scientists say that the ice sheet is close to tipping point, beyond which melting would become inevitable, regardless of global temperatures. This would trigger numerous knock-on effects such as rising sea levels and coastal inundation. It would also involve thawing permafrost releasing greenhouse gases; increasing amounts of water vapour that could evolve into destructive typhoons and cold glacial melt that would interact with warmer oceans and slow down ocean currents. A diminished ice sheet would also reduce the reflection of incoming solar energy and radiation. These are just some of the innumerable consequences that scientists in the Arctic Circle are still deciphering.
The Greenland ice sheet is a treasure trove for scientists. It has existed for more than 100,000 years – some portions have existed for even longer – there is much to learn. Scientists have been able to drill out cylinders of ice – “ice cores” – and measure the atmospheric composition of the air pockets trapped within. This data holds insights about historic temperature levels and atmospheric composition of carbon dioxide, methane and other heat-trapping gasses. Scientists have been able to corelate these to different eras such as pre-historic times, the last Ice Age and the Industrial Revolution. Most importantly, they verify that atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing at a much faster rate than ever before.
However, although carbon emissions have increased greatly, temperatures have not caught up yet. This points to a narrow window of opportunity in which we can act to prevent irreversible change – seven years, according to climate scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
But the most shocking thing I experienced during the expedition wasn’t the data, charts or timelines – it was something else. One of the most striking things about Ilulissat is the abundance of icebergs. Everywhere we looked, we saw mountains of ice that blended into the clouds – and were quickly informed that these towers of ice were quite tiny compared to how large they used to be.
During our travels by land and boat, we found ourselves surrounded by smaller chunks of ephemeral ice that floated around, relatively briefly, before they dissolved into the sea for good. As we marvelled at the silence and immense beauty of Mother Nature, we were jarred by the realities of climate change – the crashing sound of chunks of ice calving off the glaciers and falling into the sea, time and time again. Every few minutes, we felt sound vibrations run through our nervous systems, as nature reminded us of the raw power, the sheer scale and unimaginable speed of climate change.
As the day ended, we were each left with profound thoughts about the lasting physical impact of our every choice and action. The next morning, we woke up with renewed conviction and commitment to tackle the climate-nature crisis once and for all.
A moment that I will forever cherish is our walk through Ilulissat Icefjord to visit an old settlement where the indigenous Inuit first settled 4,500 years ago. They passed down their traditions and knowledge for generations, teaching younger Inuit how to survive off the land by hunting for whales, seals and reindeer, as well as foraging for berries. The community would use sled dogs as their main mode of transportation.
I found comfort in the familiarity of tradition; it reminded me of how our Emirati ancestors taught us how to survive in the harsh desert, hunt for pearls and fully utilise the limited natural resources we had access to before industrialisation and modernisation. I also found solace in the spirit of the Greenlandic people, who have turned to entrepreneurship, renewable energy and innovation to ensure food, transport and livelihoods. They have been forced by climate change to learn how to adapt within a generation and have so much progress to show for it.
As we get closer to the critical Cop28 climate change conference in Dubai, it is of paramount importance that we – residents of the UAE – and around the world, stay focussed on achieving a credible pathway for a 1.5°C world, in line with the Paris Agreement. The journey will be challenging, but I can say with experience and confidence that collective action can shape a better, sustainable future. The journey entails several things.
First, we need to have broader awareness about the urgency of climate change. This crisis will not resolve itself. Authentic storytelling will be critical to mobilise society to act. This includes government and non-state actors such as businesses and organisations, as well as civil society, young people and local communities.
We need to see greater collaboration across sectors and industries on climate mitigation and adaptation, and especially the transition towards renewable energy. The science is clear on the pathway to net zero: we need to work together to halve emissions, triple renewable energy and double energy efficiency by 2030 to secure a 1.5°C future.
There needs to be a recognition of nature and nature-based solutions as some of our greatest allies against climate change, with the potential to absorb emissions from the atmosphere, build adaptive capacity to protect us against the impacts of climate change, and improve biodiversity and human well-being through innovative projects around food security and ecotourism. Nature has already played a pivotal role in slowing down warming by absorbing 54 per cent of human-related carbon emissions over the past 10 years.
Also necessary is a holistic approach that prioritises technology that removes carbon and methane from our atmosphere. We must also realise this is not a standalone solution – it must be part of a larger pool of solutions. Collaboration with local communities and the inherent knowledge they have of their land is also a must.
Increased willingness and action to transform our approach to food, agriculture and land use is important because it is responsible for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, including the highly potent methane that is fuelling near-term temperature rises.
Last and certainly not least, we need to swiftly mobilise financing for impactful investments that can lead to co-benefits for society, the environment and the economy.
Everyone has a role to play in tackling the greatest challenge to people and planet. I urge you to find your role within the system and be part of the global movement to act faster and smarter, so that we can restore nature and get ahead of climate change once and for all.
A great way to start is by looking at platforms that are readily available, such as Leaders of Change in the UAE, which provides people with the opportunity to participate in conservation field work and projects that are linked to national and global climate and nature targets.