Climate summit: five ways the UAE leads the way on sustainability

The country's eco journey started with the Founding President, Sheikh Zayed

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Sustainability has always been more than a message for the UAE.

A searing desert climate and a fragile ecosystem underlines the importance of conservation, both of animals and plants, and essential natural resources like water.

And as the message of climate change grows ever stronger, the role fossil fuels have played in its economy, put the UAE at the forefront of solutions using alternative energy.

The US special envoy on climate, John Kerry, arrives in the UAE on Saturday for a key summit. And he comes to a country where this awareness of sustainability can be traced back to the country’s earliest days, when the Founding President, Sheikh Zayed, established Al Ain Zoo as a centre for conserving endangered species like the Arabian oryx.

It continues today, with cutting edge research at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, and clean energy investments in wind and solar power, and, most recently, nuclear power.

Here are some landmark moments in the UAE’s sustainability journey:

About 4,000 flamingos live in Abu Ahabi's Al Wathba Wetlands during autumn and spring. Courtesy: Environment Agency Abu Dhabi
About 4,000 flamingos live in Abu Ahabi's Al Wathba Wetlands during autumn and spring. Courtesy: Environment Agency Abu Dhabi

Arabian oryx reintroduction

By the early 1960s, hunting and the destruction of its natural habitat had pushed the majestic Arabian oryx to the verge of extinction all over the Middle East.

It was then that Sheikh Zayed gave instructions to begin a captive breeding programme at the new Al Ain Zoo.

In 2007, the first animals were released back into the wild at the Umm Al Zumul sanctuary.

Today the number of Arabian oryx living free in the wild is estimated at 10,000, half of which live in the UAE.

Other species supported by conservation programmes include the houbara bustard and the dugong, while the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi now lists nearly 20 protected areas, both on land and under the sea.

The Mohamed bin Zayed Species Fund, set up in 2008, supports conservation projects all over the world.

International Renewable Energy Agency

The idea of a UN agency devoted to the cause of renewable agency was first proposed in the 1980s, but it was not until 2008 when thee organisation met for the first time in Berlin.

With 75 members signing the Irena statute, Abu Dhabi was voted as the interim headquarters in 2009, and made the permanent seat in 2011.

This was the first time a UN agency had been based in the UAE, a significant moment, given the country’s desire to transition from an economy dominated by oil and gas to new sustainable forms of energy,

The Irena headquarters building opened in 2015 with an energy saving design by architects Woods Bagot, and with its first permanent representatives arriving the following year.

The tenth session of Irena was held in January last year, with more than 1,500 delegates attending in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 30 JANUARY 2020. The newly launched Mangrove Walk at Al Jubail Islandi. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Janice Rodrigues. Section: National.
Mangrove Walk at Al Jubail Island in Abu Dhabi. The UAE is planting more mangroves to tackle climate change. Antonie Robertson / The National

Gas flaring

Oil extraction is often accompanied by large quantities of natural gas. For many years, the only method of disposal was “flaring” or burning off the gas and producing thick clouds of smoke and flame highly damaging to the environment.

So offensive was the pollution from the oil production centre on Das Island that in 1973 it reached the nostrils of Sheikh Zayed as he visited the Western Region more than 160 kilometres away.

The President ordered a feasibility study that saw a proposal to end flaring and instead create a liquified natural gas industry that has since contributed more than $80 billion to the UAE economy.

Today natural gas from Abu Dhabi generates power all over the world, including 10 per cent of Tokyo's demands.

Flaring still takes place, with the worst offenders being Russia, the US, Iran and Iraq, who account for around half of global emissions. The UAE currently has one of the world’s lowest flaring rates, far below the top 30 oil and gas producing countries in the world as measured by the World Bank in 2020.

The UAE’s policy led to a 90 per cent reduction in burning, with a commitment to the World Bank’s Zero Routine Flaring by 2030.

Midfield Terminal in Abu Dhabi has a high sustainability rating. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Airports 
Midfield Terminal in Abu Dhabi has a high sustainability rating. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Airports 

Pearl Rating System

Introduced in 2010, the Pearl Rating System is part of Estidama, Arabic for sustainability, and created by Abu Dhabi’s Urban Planning Council.

Assessed using the design, construction and operation of new buildings, it requires new villas and residential communities to have at least a one pearl rating and new government offices and villas to reach two pearls.

Buildings must meet certain minimum criteria that includes water use and energy efficiency and in context of the expected life cycle.

The coveted three-pearl rating was awarded in 2013 to ten new government schools across the Emirate and to the new Midfield Terminal at Abu Dhabi International Airport.

Meanwhile, the headquarters of Irens in Masdar City has been awarded four pearls.

Dubai also has a system of green building regulations called Al Sa’fat introduced in 2016. The name is taken from the palm fronds used to cool tradition houses in the time before air conditioning.

Nuclear power

On August 19, 2020, Unit 1 at the Barakah Nuclear Power Station began supplying electricity to the UAE national grid for the first time.

It was a landmark moment in a move towards cleaner, greener energy supplies that also signalled the country was moving away from its historical role as a global supplier of fossil fuels.

Constriction of the first commercial nuclear power station in the Middle East began in 2011, in a partnership headed by the Korea Electricity Power Company.

As well as the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation, a separate Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation was established, to make sure the new plant met the highest safety standards and would only be used for peaceful purposes.

The Barakah plant is also important for the diversification of the UAE workforce, with over 60 per cent Emirati and nearly a quarter women, the highest of any nuclear power company in the world.

When all four reactions come on line, Barakah should supply around a quarter of the country’s energy needs and reduce the UAE’s carbon footprint by 21 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year.