People look at the mangrove at the Eastern Corniche area in Abu Dhabi. Image Credit: Gulf News archives

Abu Dhabi: Abu Dhabi has high per capita carbon and water footprints.

Carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide or other carbon compounds released into the atmosphere as a result of the activities of a particular individual, organisation, or community. The amount of fresh water used in the production or supply of the goods and services used by a particular person, group or community is called water footprint.

The Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD) is taking several steps to address this issue, says Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, Secretary General of EAD.

She details the comprehensive measures being taken to tackle the threats to Abu Dhabi’s environment in an exclusive interview.

Excerpts :

Question: 1. Abu Dhabi’s high rate of per capita carbon and water footprints is a concern. What progress has been made in measures taken to control Abu Dhabi’s highest rate of carbon and water foot prints in the world?

Razan: Abu Dhabi does have a high per capita footprint and there are a number of reasons for this. Abu Dhabi’s is an emerging economy with a high pace of infrastructure developmental activities that are energy-intensive. Abu Dhabi also relies on desalination, an energy-intensive process, to produce fresh water, and as a hot country indoor spaces require cooling for most of the year. Cooling an indoor space is more energy- intensive than heating an equivalent space, and in Abu Dhabi cooling accounts for around 50 per cent of the electricity consumption of the residential sector. These factors, combined with the high standard of living in Abu Dhabi, result in a high footprint.

We are addressing this issue through both the supply and demand sides. Currently, we rely 100 per cent on fossil fuels to generate electricity and produce water. The Government has set a target to diversify the energy mix and by 2020 aim to have 30 per cent of electricity generated by low carbon and renewable energy sources such as solar and nuclear. Feasibility studies are being carried out on technologies for waste to energy and large scale solar desalination. There is progress in this direction

Shams 1, the largest concentrated solar power plant (CSP) in operation in the world, was inaugurated this year in the emirate. The 100-megawatt, grid connected power plant will generate clean energy to power 20,000 homes in the UAE. Work has already started on the nuclear power plants and phase one is planned to be operational in 2017. (See box story on projects to reduce energy consumption)


2. What are the major new insights and experience you have gained about the environmental problems faced by Abu Dhabi after two years in office now?


What is becoming increasingly clear is how interconnected different aspects of the environment are, and how environmental issues need to be addressed as an integral part of economic growth and development. We also need to keep everything in balance so when we address one environmental problem we don’t inadvertently cause another one. If we take water as an example, natural fresh water is a scarce resource, so to provide us with a potable source of fresh water we desalinate sea water. However, desalination is an energy-intensive process and makes a significant contribution to Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, and emissions of other air pollutants. Moreover, a by-product of the process is brine which is generated in large volumes and discharged back into the sea, impacting marine water quality. But we can all help by using water as efficiently as possible.

As an environmental regulator we cannot solve these complex issues alone. Our approach has been to bring relevant stakeholders together to develop joint solutions. Despite being more time-consuming, this collective process is more likely to be successful in the long-term.

This complexity is challenging but it is also part of what makes my job really interesting and very rewarding as we find solutions to these complex problems.


3. In a previous interview with Gulf News just after taking charge of this position you had mentioned that the pace of development is a major challenge to the environmental conservation. “With the population predicted to more than double between now and 2030, there will be increased demand for land to build on as well as energy, water, food and other products.” Have you developed any new tools or mechanisms to deal with these challenges? How successful are they?


We support the economic growth of the emirate and we see it as a positive sign of Abu Dhabi’s prosperity, but it is our job to advise the government on how to ensure that the growth is as “green” as possible and to put appropriate controls in place. So we are currently working on methods and standards to guide developers from all sectors on how to implement projects while minimising the impacts on the environment.

One area of specific concern is Abu Dhabi’s marine water quality which is under pressure from population growth and rapid economic development. This growth is leading to increased commercial shipping, dredging to deepen existing channels and create new channels, and effluent discharges from construction projects and industrial facilities with excess contaminants into marine waters. EAD is operating a robust marine water quality monitoring programme to detect, measure, and track marine pollutants which could threaten the marine ecosystem, and we are designing a comprehensive public health marine water quality monitoring programme to protect the public from health risks due to any bacterial contamination of recreational beach waters.


4. What about the latest status of measures against the plastic menace, including legal action and awareness campaigns?


EAD had designed and led major campaigns to curb the consumption of plastic bags in the emirate. In 2009, the Federal Government launched an initiative called “UAE free from plastic bags.” The federal policy has been implemented in Abu Dhabi, which ensures that only biodegradable plastic bags are produced in the emirate. The awareness campaigns involving major supermarket chains informed the public about the risks caused by the plastic bags.


However, this does not mean the problem has been solved. Biodegradable bags take time to disintegrate and can be eaten by camels and marine life, such as turtles, before they disappear. And they leave residue before degradation. We must all take personal responsibility to reduce the number of disposable plastic bags we use by switching to reusable bags and by taking care to dispose of any plastics we use in a responsible way.



5. Are you satisfied with the participation of people in environmental conservation activities? Any new initiatives to enhance their participation?


There is notable progress in focused awareness campaigns and people’s participation. The success of EAD’s Sustainable School Initiative is an example (see the box story).

EAD has newly established a Volunteer Network known as the Environmental Ambassadors. It was created to enrich individuals’ approach to the environment and help them recognise the difference between wise and careless consumption of nature’s resources. Through this network, EAD seeks to inspire individuals, especially youth, to work in partnership with EAD as active citizens and also teach them how to build sustainable communities and conserve the environment.

As part of the Network activities, EAD took more than 25 volunteers to visit Al Wathba Wetland Reserve, which recently achieved the accolade of being designated a Ramsar site as a wetland of international importance, designated under the Ramsar Convention. They were given the opportunity to learn more about EAD’s Terrestrial Baseline Survey project. The survey is being conducted with the endorsement and support of Shaikh Hamdan Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Ruler’s Representative in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi and Chairman of EAD. The survey aims to systematically collect information about the emirate of Abu Dhabi’s terrestrial biodiversity and ecosystems across all seasons.

EAD is also reaching out to NGOs such as the Emirates Natural History Group to involve members in the same project.


6. About conserving depleting fish stocks in the sea, what about the EAD’s initiative of developing well-managed fisheries and to create new economic incentives that will lead to a sustainable future for fish and other marine life? What are the updates?

Our wild fish stocks have been depleted over the past 40 years due to over-fishing. Stocks of certain species such as hamour are now down to 13 per cent of 1970 levels.

EAD has implemented a wide variety of measures including restrictions on fishing licences, gear regulations and the establishment of Marine Protected Areas with ‘no-take’ zones where fishing is completely banned.

A regulatory framework is developed to ensure the fishing industry develops in a sustainable manner.

A novel component - a decision support tool – helps us to assess and therefore better manage the social and economic effects of our management strategies and regulations.

Aquaculture is seen as a viable means of fish production for Abu Dhabi. EAD is developing a policy, standards and regulatory framework to promote aquiculture as a way to alleviate pressure on wild fish stocks and provide alternative employment and investment opportunities for fishermen, but in a way that protects the environment.