The failure of the environmental summit in Copenhagen was disappointing after so many hopes were pinned on its success. There were the usual scenes, with emotion-driven protesters outside the conference venue calling for tougher action than either western or eastern governments were willing to take.
For one country’s representative, however, it was a unique predicament. The Minister of Environment, Dr Rashid Ahmed Bin Fahad, faced a rather peculiar situation. The UAE is also a country in which there exists a huge divide between the environmental aspirations of the people and of their the government, and where the latter’s policies do not reflect the former’s wishes. It is a predicament that many countries face, except that in the UAE it is the other way round.
In this country of seven sheikhdoms, both federal and local governments have been, and remain, many leagues ahead of people’s aspirations with regards to protecting the environment (despite some ill-advised water projects). Sadly, though, the UAE remains one of the world’s largest polluters per capita; which means that the average UAE resident (you and I) pollutes more than most other countries’ inhabitants. The National highlighted this catastrophe recently when it reported that air pollution, both indoor and outdoor, is responsible for an estimated 850 deaths a year in the UAE, according to a study commissioned by the Environment Agency in Abu Dhabi.
I don’t subscribe to the notion that UAE nationals are solely to blame. In a country where expatriates constitute a vast majority it is not fair to exclude one segment or the other in society from this collective responsibility; we are all in this together.
About a decade or so ago I visited the Gulf island of Sir Bu Nair. I recall gathering recruits from our camp to help me to collect all the rubbish that was lying on the beach. The same used to happen on our visits to the desert. It was no longer fun for me to go there, as the most horrific sight was that of beer cans and plastic bags that used to be dumped in the desert for the unsuspecting camel or donkey to choke to death on. Thankfully there is much more awareness today, but we still have a long way to go.
One can get a feel for what’s at stake here by visiting the Arabian Wildlife Centre in Sharjah to learn how indigenous plant and wildlife in the UAE and the Arabian Peninsula has been affected by our “improved” lifestyle – which is threatening to destroy this delicate balance. I find this quite paradoxical, since the founder of the country, the late Sheikh Zayed, dedicated his life to the protection of the environment and oversaw the planting of 140 million trees in what was once a barren land.
But all is not lost. On environmental protection, the steps taken in Copenhagen by the UAE, one of the world’s principal suppliers of oil, are to be commended. As Muath al Wari, a young Emirati researcher who assisted in the UN Development Programme and the Mohammed Bin Rashid Foundation’s Arab Knowledge Report 2009, points out: “Here is a country that stands to lose financially should we seriously move to a low-carbon future but is nonetheless demanding serious action. It was remarkable.”
Abu Dhabi has already committed to generating at least 7 per cent of the emirate’s power capacity from renewable energy sources by 2020. This is in addition to the world-leading $22 billion Masdar City initiative and the $1 million Zayed International Prize for Environment, as well as countless other initiatives.
Here’s what I suggest. The UAE Government has set its eyes on turning back the clock with regard to environmental pollution, and if it is to do so successfully then it must employ a carrot and stick approach: rewarding those organisations and individuals who make progress on environmental issues and penalising those who don’t – by not renewing their trade licences, for instance.
Obviously the details need to be hammered out but there are practical steps that can be employed immediately throughout the country; for example, setting a deadline for replacing all light bulbs in the UAE with energy saving bulbs, and mandatory recycling of plastic and paper. We can rely on Emirati environmental champions such as Razan al Mubarak, who runs the Emirates Wildlife Society and World Wide Fund for Nature programmes in this country.
The protection of the environment can also translate into good business; think of the tourism appeal of protected areas such as Sir Bani Yas island in Abu Dhabi and Al Maha resort in Dubai, where indigenous plants and animals thrive.
Muath al Wari and others like him believe in a sustainable partnership approach between the private and public sectors. “While the Government is investing billions in combating climate change,” he says “people need to show that this commitment to the environment runs deep in our society.”
*This article first appeared in The National, Sunday 27th December 2009