ABU DHABI // The UAE has finally lost the world title it never wanted – the most environmentally wasteful country on the planet.
Every two years since 1998 the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has produced a global ecological footprint chart, and the UAE has topped every chart since 2000.
But in the latest Living Planet Report published today the unenviable top spot went to Qatar, with Kuwait second and the UAE dropping to third.
The UAE is becoming more aware of the need to conserve resources, said Tanzeed Alam, policy director at the Emirates Wildlife Society – World Wide Fund for Nature (EWS-WWF).
Recent measures such as the introduction of efficiency standards for some air-conditioning units, green building codes in Abu Dhabi and renewable-energy targets in the capital and in Dubai are all moves in the right direction.
"The UAE has already started some domestic actions," he said. "We still feel there is more that needs to happen."
The biannual report measures humanity's need for natural resources such as land for crops and grazing, fishing grounds, forests and others, against the planet's ability to produce these resources.
Overall, demand for natural resources has doubled since 1966. Humanity needs 1.5 planets to sustain itself, meaning that people are degrading natural resources at an alarming rate.
Although the UAE's total environmental footprint is well below 1 per cent of the global total, its per-capita footprint of 8.4 global hectares (gha) per person is several times higher than the global average.
Kuwait's per-capita footprint is just under 10 gha per person. Qatar, the world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, reaches nearly 12 gha per person.
With harsh desert climates and scarce fresh water supplies, the three Gulf countries "share a common challenge", said Mr Alam.
"We all need a lot of electricity to desalinate water and to keep buildings cool in summer. There is also wasteful consumption of resources."
The latest report uses data from 2008. Its previous edition, published in 2010, used data assembled in 2007. Then, the UAE's footprint was 10.68 gha per person.
"There have been methodological adjustments to the way the country's footprint is calculated and it may be partly to do with the economic slowdown the UAE has faced," said Razan Al Mubarak, secretary general of the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi.
"This could also be an indication that resources are being consumed more efficiently."
Besides the global territory necessary to produce the food, timber and other resources for sustaining a population, the footprint concept also examines the land necessary to build houses and infrastructure, and absorb produced wastes.
One important type of waste is carbon dioxide. This and other greenhouse gases are released when fossil fuel is burned to power vehicles and produce energy. About 80 per cent of the UAE's environmental footprint comes from the consumption of energy and other carbon-intensive goods and services.
Mr Alam said saving energy and water offered the greatest opportunities to reduce the UAE's high carbon and environmental footprints. One area for policy-makers to consider is drafting a comprehensive federal strategy to combat climate change.
Another important step is to draft implementation plans for Abu Dhabi and Dubai's renewable energy targets.
Developing green buildings codes for existing buildings also offers opportunities, he said.
While a significant portion of a country's environmental footprint has to do with decisions made by its institutions or resource usage by its companies, individuals also play a role. The report found that individuals in high-income countries have a footprint five times greater than those in low-income countries.
If everyone lived as the average resident of Indonesia does, only two-thirds of the planet's bio-capacity would be used, the report said. If we all lived as the average American does, humanity would need four Earths to sustain its annual demand for resources.