One of the many consequences of the COVID-19 stay-at-home initiative is that air quality has greatly improved in recent weeks. Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/Gulf News

One of the many consequences of the COVID-19 stay-at-home initiative is that air quality has greatly improved in recent weeks. For the first time in decades, the Himalayas are visible from India; nitrogen dioxide levels in some UK cities have fallen by 60 per cent, and air pollution has plummeted in China, as shown by multiple satellite images.

In this region, data from the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) shows a significant decrease in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions in the GCC since the national disinfection programme began late in March. Obviously, we would all prefer that these improvements had not come as a result of the curbing the pandemic.

But this period of enforced isolation is giving us chance to consider how, in a post-COVID-19 world, we can pay more attention to what really matters - building a safe, sustainable, and cleaner future for our communities.

Stick with the focus

Sadly, poor air quality is a widespread global issue that has not been given enough attention in recent years. According to United Nations, it is the single greatest environmental threat to health in the world, with 6.5 million people dying every year from exposure to air pollution.

In the UAE we are not immune to this issue, with outdoor air pollution viewed as a very real threat to public health. The good news is that we have a government keen to improve the wellbeing of its citizens. The UAE has placed air quality as one of the key issues in its National Vision 2021 agenda, aiming to reach 90 per cent target of clean air by 2021.

To meet this goal, the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment launched a UAE Air Quality Index in 2018 to measure the problem, which is a helpful step toward addressing the issue.

Community-directed initiative

At Bee’ah, our mission is centred around the quality of life for communities, so it was a logical progression for us to include air quality monitoring as part of our remit. Our consultancy, research and innovation (CRI) division manages seven air quality monitoring stations (AQMs) that we began deploying in 2015 across Sharjah. Data notifications are sent every 15 minutes, with quarterly reports generated for analysis by our team.

Our results reveal a huge improvement in air quality due to the pandemic; NO2 levels have decreased in Sharjah by more than 60 per cent since the UAE National Disinfection Programme began, which required residents to avoid leaving their homes for non-essential reasons.

We believe these stations are one of the important steps that Sharjah is taking to improve air quality. We intend to use our data to compile emission inventories with different industries in the UAE; that is, what they release into the atmosphere, and when they do it. This will help identify pollutant hotspots and reveal issues within different industries.

Help on pre-emption

This information is extremely useful because we can then move from measuring pollutants in real-time to being able to forecast issues in problem areas, such as the nitrogen oxide levels from heavy traffic. This information can be used to formulate industry best practices on air quality controls.

In time, we would like to see an integrated system where hospitals, traffic departments, schools and industries are linked up and able to coordinate on managing air quality incidences before they even arise. For example, is there a time of day when traffic should be re-routed to avoid children leaving school? Can health officials plan for increased incidences of breathing-related admissions?

Think alternatives

There are also many steps we can all take as individuals to reduce energy use in the home or workplace. Using smart controls, turning off unused appliances and improving insulation will all help – and result in lower bills. With greater accessibility and awareness, we could reduce our use of private transport, by using public transit or joining a carpool. And we can switch to cleaner fuels and greener technologies such as electric cars, hybrids, or natural gas vehicles.

Many solutions

To combat the pollution from traditional vehicles, we launched ION, a “sustainable” transport company, which operates a fleet of electric vehicles for ride-hailing services, maintains and operates autonomous electric shuttles. For the waste collection operations, we have automated route optimisation that reduces unnecessary time vehicles spend on the road while lowering fuel usage, emissions and man hours.

We are already diverting 76 per cent of Sharjah’s waste away from landfills to our recycling facilities. And we will reach 100 percent by 2021, thanks to our partnership with Masdar to build the region’s first waste-to-energy plant in Sharjah. This will completely remove the gas pollution issues associated with landfills.

We must upgrade our cities’ buildings, seeing as according to the International Energy Agency, buildings were responsible for 28 per cent of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2018. Our new headquarters, opening in Sharjah this year, will be a fully AI-integrated office of the future and is expected to achieve a LEED Platinum rating, making it one of the smartest and greenest buildings in the world.

Cleaning up the future

Taken together, these initiatives will have a significant impact on air quality. But as with most environmental issues, we cannot just wait for someone else to fix the problem. It is up to individuals and businesses to rethink how they operate, and how to reduce the negative impact of operations on the environment.

I believe this is possible, because I have seen how the government, businesses, and communities have shown great resolve and collective action in tackling COVID-19. I believe that we can work together with a similar conviction to ensure that our most basic of necessities – the air we breathe – is of a standard that befits this wonderful country.

- Khaled al Huraimel is Group CEO of Bee’ah.