How Will the UAE Cope With Growing Environmental Insecurity?

The UAE has the world’s highest per capita environmental footprint, a result of the unsustainable megaprojects that began amid the oil boom of the 1970s.

Dubai © oneinchpunch / Shutterstock

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is “living through an unrivalled drop in carbon output.” According to the International Energy Agency, global use of energy will drop 6% in 2020, an amount that equals India’s total energy demand. Worldwide demand for electricity has already fallen 5%, which is the largest amount since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The dramatic decline in pollution resulting from economic lockdowns was apparently visible and recorded by numerous satellites. However, it will take a decade of this kind of economic lockdown to make a significant impact on global warming and truly curb carbon emissions.


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Environmental pollutants are indifferent to national boundaries. Addressing climate change requires long-term international cooperation. All countries must make serious and collective efforts to stop irreversible damage caused by climate change.

The Environment-Security Nexus

The United Arab Emirates is among the world’s biggest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases. In fact, the World Wide Fund for Nature has ranked the UAE as having the world’s highest per capita environmental footprint, which largely has to do with the unsustainable megaprojects that began in the Emirates amid the oil boom of the 1970s.

Other factors such as the desert country’s climatic conditions are in the picture too. There are also the popular modes of transportation within the Emirates: According to a survey conducted by the Department of Transport in 2014, “60 per cent of Abu Dhabi and Dubai residents who owned a car said they never used public transport. Only two to three percent use public transport frequently.” This is in part due to the long-standing car culture in the Emirates and relatively cheap fuel as well as car prices, but also because of connectivity problems to certain destinations.

As outlined by Jon Barnett in his 2013 essay “Environmental Security,” environmental problems pose threats to the national well-being as well as the quality of life of the inhabitants of any state. Analysts and scholars refer to environmental security when discussing the threats and dangers emanating from the environment. The principal source that threatens ecological security is human activity. The environment is one of the seven sectors outlined in the United Nations Development Program’s early definition of human security, and environmental change has long been identified as a human security issue.

The Emiratis have been struggling with a number of environmental threats for decades. Today, numerous environmental issues — including pollution, waste, land degradation, desertification, biodiversity loss, etc. — all impact the UAE. Waste and air pollution constitute major challenges, in particular outdoor air pollution. The UAE ranks in the bottom fourth globally in exposure to particulate matter — tiny particles of sand, dust or chemicals registered at elevated levels that are highly dangerous and associated with risks of numerous diseases such as cancer, as well as respiratory and heart diseases. In 2017, the Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi considered poor air quality to be a “primary environmental threat to public health.”

In terms of water, the UAE continues to have highly unsustainable groundwater extraction rates. Being largely a desert country, the contamination of its fresh groundwater reserves and seawater endangers the UAE’s future. Some experts have warned of the imminent depletion of groundwater sources by 2030.

In the area of biodiversity conservation, the UAE boasts a number of protected areas both on land and in the sea. But its fish stocks are in a critical state. Overfishing and heavy commercial maritime shipping across the Persian Gulf have also contributed to a potentially irreversible decline in the health of fragile coral reefs off the coast. Silt from shoreline construction has had a negative impact on coral.

“Greening” the Emirati Economy

The UAE has long acknowledged climate change as a serious threat multiplier to the country and is ahead of the curve when compared to other countries that are still debating the seriousness of the issue or even outright denying its reality. Recognizing these environmental threats, the UAE has been in the process of “greening” its economy by developing a solar energy sector along with a nuclear energy sector and managing its scarce water resources with an emphasis on conservation and efficiency. It has been at the forefront of the renewables revolution with its solar farms while very slowly transforming its thermal desalination plants into reverse osmosis desalination facilities that produce far fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

The UAE Vision 2021 document contains as one of its wide-reaching goals a “well-preserved natural environment” and seeks to address various environmental threats to the country. The Emirate of Abu Dhabi has put in place its Environment Vision 2030 strategy, which lists five priority areas, namely climate change impacts, air and noise pollution, water resources, biodiversity and waste. The UAE government has set up various institutions and initiatives to address environmental issues in the previous decades such as the Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi, the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative and the Arab Water Academy, and has signed and ratified numerous international and regional environmental conventions. The government has launched a variety of awareness campaigns pertaining to environmental issues in order to educate different sectors of society.  

According to Dr. Taoufik Ksiksi, a plant biologist and climate change researcher at the United Arab Emirates University at Al Ain, these awareness campaigns were not quite sufficient: “More needs to be done to raise the awareness levels, especially at the lower levels, in schools with young people, and there have to be substantial changes to the curriculum to incorporate courses on environmental sciences, native ecology and conservation in general,” he said in a phone interview. In addition, Ksiksi suggests that “more robust climate modeling approaches that focus primarily on the region need to be developed with increased processing power that take into account regional circumstances and are not geared towards climate conditions prevalent in Europe.”

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Dr. Ksiksi thinks that UAE’s advantage is that it enjoys “the benefit of resources than can fund technology and new initiatives.” Yet the lack of synergy in terms of regional cooperation in the area of green economy building in the Arabian Peninsula somewhat hampers such efforts.    

The UAE has for some time now incorporated narratives of sustainable development into the country’s national policy aims. Masdar City, described as a city of the future, is perhaps the best known and most ambitious example of an avowedly green megaproject. Other projects such as Sustainable City and Desert Rose City are additional examples of green cities that emphasize technological innovation in Masdar City’s manner.

The greening of the Emirates takes on a central aspect of the modernization narrative. The main gist is that the existing ecological challenges can be measured, and existing institutions and policies find solutions to the problems. According to Dr. Gökçe Günel, the UAE is making a serious effort to maintain its status quo while offering up “technical adjustments” to environmental challenges. Sustainable development juxtaposes intense economic development along with high consumerism coexisting with an environmentally friendly and responsible society. This reveals a paradox in the greening process currently in place.

These projects are small in scale and only take on a tiny space in the overall urbanity of the country. They take place in a bounded environment and constitute living laboratories that pioneer green technology. But they cannot be replicated on a larger scale or implemented and applied across the whole territory.

Inevitably, rapid urban growth and transnational migration flows have massively enlarged the ecological footprints of countries such as the UAE. It will be very difficult to achieve sustainable development while Arab Gulf states subsidize massive energy consumption, continue to expand urban sprawl and expansion, and allow for traffic congestion while remaining careless about water and electricity consumption.

*[Gulf State Analytics is a partner organization of Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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