From carbon credits to retrofits: ways to make the UAE greener

Setting net-zero targets is imperative, writes Sheikha Shamma Al Nahyan

This picture shows a view of the Dubai Marina at sunset, in the Gulf Emirate, on April 17, 2021. 

After watching the achievements that the UAE has made with its Mars Mission led by a female minister, we know that nothing is impossible, particularly when it comes to changing things down here on Planet Earth.

Over the past few months, we have seen many commitments made by countries to reduce their carbon emissions but, sadly, they are not ambitious enough to limit global warming to a 1.5 °C rise. Thus far, the plans submitted by 75 countries to the UN “barely create a dent”. Based on the science, global inaction would be devastating to both our communities and our environment. Our current plans will only slow climate change down, but we need to change tack for the survival of our civilisation.

Our Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed, declared the importance of sustainability when he said: “On land and in the sea, our forefathers lived and survived in this environment. They were able to do so because they recognised the need to conserve it, to take from it only what they needed to live, and to preserve it for succeeding generations.” Sheikh Zayed’s ethos offers us wise guidance on how to best manage our resources today. This should be part of our local culture and shared with our children.

Green hydrogen will drive our economy

To realise these words, setting net-zero targets is imperative to drive different industries to start planning and achieving their individual net-zero journeys. “Net-zero” is a term used by companies and countries that have committed to move away from fossil fuels. Amazingly, as of December 10, 2020, Bhutan and Suriname are already net-zero. Finland has set a 2035 target and a number of countries have enshrined their targets into law: Sweden (2045), and the UK, France, Denmark, New Zealand and Hungary (2050). Many others have proposed legislation or policy documents targeting net-zero at various points between 2040 and 2060.

Moving away from fossil fuels may be daunting for a country that has built its foundation on them, but I am proud that our nation has put education at the forefront. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, reaffirmed this in a speech during the Government Summit in 2015. “The question is, 50 years from now after we have loaded this last barrel of oil, are we going to feel sad? If our investment today is right, I think, dear brothers and sisters, we will celebrate that moment,” he said.

In this interdependent world that we live in, we must collaborate closely and form alliances, as they are key to tackling the world’s biggest sustainability and climate crisis challenges. We have seen these put into action during this pandemic, and I hope it will continue. However, to expedite the work that needs to be done, only cross-industry and cross-sector alliances can put these wheels in motion.

I believe the UAE will be a pioneer in the region in many key areas.

Take the circular economy, for example. By recycling and upcycling materials, we can stimulate the economy, create new jobs and save our finite resources. This year, the Cabinet approved a 10-year circular economy policy. I hope a National Extended Producer Responsibility scheme is created to the bolster this sector. By this, I mean having a policy in place whereby producers are made to take responsibility for managing the disposal of products they produce once those products are designated as no longer useful by consumers. Without such a scheme, it will be harder to attract investment.

A helicopter battles to contain a bushfire  that broke out on the slopes of Table Mountain above the memorial to Cecil John Rhodes  in Cape Town, South Africa, April 18, 2021. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

The country is investing in alternative sustainable fuels that emit no carbon and are made using renewable energy. Without a doubt, hydrogen will be the next big energy product. Abu Dhabi Qabida, Mubadala and Adnoc have created an alliance to become an exporter of blue and green hydrogen in the near future. Green hydrogen will drive our economy in the areas of industry and mobility. It will also provide a waste management solution, as it can be produced from rubbish.

But we also need to establish a trusted carbon system that would allow the trading of credits among organisations and neighbouring countries. We need to create positive and valuable uses for carbon until economies can survive and thrive without it.

It is important to include the environment and society on our balance sheets through clear indices. We need, for instance, to incorporate environmental, social and corporate governance not only in investments but also in the way the public and private sectors procure materials. Businesses should be created to better society, communities and the environment and to preserve all of the above for future generations. Multi-sectoral funds and financing need to be allocated to incubate new technologies and to accelerate the transition to a low, or zero-carbon economy.

Green buildings are increasingly essential today. The construction sector accounts for 30 per cent of total energy used globally, and is responsible for approximately 25 per cent of carbon emissions. While the UAE is building greener buildings, we need to retrofit older buildings to make them less energy-intensive. Moreover, there is always a behavioural element when it comes to adopting new technologies. This leads me to support raising awareness and more education. Without it, we cannot change our norms and make the transition to positively impacting our planet.

Another area of improvement is the production of solar power. Over the years, it has become price competitive, and we are seeing more solar farms in the UAE. My hope is that we see a more decentralised system where people can opt to use solar panels on their houses as well as more efficient panels, so that they no longer require as much space.

While we focus on new energy sources and technologies, it is also crucial that we protect our environment. We need to use nature-based solutions to tackle desertification and support a carbon sequestration strategy. In 2020, the UAE committed to planting mangrove trees globally and has been protecting important ecosystems, such as wetlands. Moreover, the social enterprise that I co-founded, Mangroves for Mankind, aims to plant 150,000 trees this year.

A new economy is emerging – a green economy that will be circular – and it is set to create new 24 million new jobs. We need to expedite financing solutions that replace the carbon industry for the health of the planet and generate new forms of GDP. The world has changed considerably during the pandemic. There is no better time to rethink our current models, which have failed us and green our economy.

As the UAE approaches its 50th anniversary at the end of this year, let us pave the way for the green economy and honour the Founding Father’s vision.

Sheikha Shamma bint Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan is chief executive officer of Alliances for Global Sustainability