Environmental policy must be on the agenda

Abu Dhabi’s water reserves are  expected to run out in as little as 50 years. Ryan Carter / The National
Abu Dhabi’s water reserves are expected to run out in as little as 50 years. Ryan Carter / The National

We are only a few months past the Paris agreement, which was signed by more than 165 countries last December at the meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, with the pledge of limiting global warming to below 2°C.

The UAE is particularly vulnerable to climate change and, as part of the Arabian Peninsula, one of the most water-stressed regions in the world. Prospects for an acceleration of climate change – including more extreme summer temperatures and the faster withdrawal of scarce fresh water resources – are no distant possibility. We’re witnessing greater temperature extremes, and Abu Dhabi’s water reserves are now expected to run out in as little as 50 years at current consumption rates.

It is high-time for more coordinated climate governance internationally and nationally. Energy has long been at the core of climate-related policy, and rightly so: the power generation and energy-intensive industries together account for over 80 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The UAE’s total carbon dioxide emissions have nearly doubled since 1990, and its per capita emissions rate is among the highest in the world. Its power sector relies almost entirely on natural gas, a lower-emissions fuel than oil – which Saudi Arabia and Kuwait still burn in considerable amounts – but plans for coal-fired power generation should further increase the carbon footprint of the power sector considerably.

Frequently overlooked are other aspects, however, which will undoubtedly become more important as the UAE grows. They include urban planning, but also a long-term strategy for urban transportation along with building stricter energy efficiency standards. Important particularly in urban planning is the speed and rigidity of the application of such measures – buildings being built today will be part of the building stock for a long period of time, and standards missed today will be more expensive to retrofit. Similarly, urban as well as inter-emirate transport remains dependent on roads. This places pressure on existing infrastructure and implies private vehicle ownership remains a necessity rather than a luxury.

Perhaps even more overlooked in the public eye are two parallel challenges: water and wider environmental management. Sufficient water availability is not only a necessity for daily life, but it is also a critical element in ensuring long-term food security. The coastlines and mangrove forests are part of a unique heritage that many would consider the country’s real natural wealth. Looking after these resources is not only essential for the protection of economic activities such as traditional fishing businesses and modern tourism, but coastlines, along with the world’s oceans, are also critical to storing CO2, in addition to accommodating the UAE’s rich maritime and coastal biodiversity.

Part of protecting this natural heritage comes down to society. Reducing waste and recycling, as well as picking up rubbish should be a matter of course – though we all see plastic bottles, cigarette stubs and other waste routinely dumped in virtually every area of the country.

Part of the problem is not only lack of education and environmental awareness, but in many cases a lack of culture – brought about in many cases by the transient nature of our society – coupled with complacency.

The other side of environmental protection is clearly a corporate one. Waste management and recycling is down to the capacity of companies charged with carrying out public services such as litter collection. In countries such as Germany, France and the UK, waste recycling is a lucrative business, particularly when paper, metal and plastics are involved. An established culture of recycling has reduced the amount of landfill and littering in many European cities, but that culture, too, is a relatively recent one, fostered and enforced by law and a functioning recycling waste collection service.

Finally, there’s an opportunity to reinforce environmental protection and the management of natural resources through policy incentives. Not all policies require large-scale fiscal resources. Ensuring top-range building standards, for instance, is a regulatory matter, costs for which can be recovered by builders within a few years through reduced costs for energy. Water and waste management requires regulations but can rely on private companies. The past rounds of electricity and water tariff reforms can also contribute positively, although it’s clear much more can be done. It is still too cheap to waste water and electricity, something that each of us who is regularly freezing inside offices and shopping malls knows too well.

On the other hand, waste reduction and recycling could be much more feasible if waste collection incentivised positive behaviour, for instance by applying the same refundable charge as many other countries place on glass and water bottles and sugary drinks; while rubbish dumping in public areas could, and indeed should, attract fines.

Ensuring the environment – land, water and waste – is part of the overall government’s agenda is key to sustainable long-term growth, and to guaranteeing future generations of Emiratis a share in their country’s vast natural heritage beyond oil.

Laura El-Katiri is consultant in Abu Dhabi specialising in Gulf economic, energy and environmental policy

On Twitter: @lauraelkatiri

Published: May 21, 2016 04:00 AM

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