ABU DHABI // The UAE was flagged as the third most resource-hungry country in the world in a UN report released yesterday.
The study was commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) and prepared by an international team of scholars that examined the average resident's use of resources including minerals, metals, fossil fuels, wood and food.
Using the most recent comprehensive data available, which are from the year 2000, Decoupling: Natural Resource Use and Environmental Impacts from Economic Growth highlights large inequalities among nations.
Residents in the UAE consume just under 40 tons of resources per year, while the average person in India consumes just four tons of resources per year. The average developed country citizen uses four times as much - 16 tons.
At the top end of the ranking of 175 countries are Qatar, Australia and the UAE, followed closely by Chile. Qatar tops the chart with an average rate of more than 40 tons per person per year. Consumption in the other three states is slightly below the 40-ton mark.
One reason behind the hunger for resources is the drive for economic growth in Qatar and the UAE, said Nick Nuttall, Unep spokesperson.
"You have had spectacular growth in some of the countries here," he said. An increase in construction activity is another contributing factor, accompanied by a "a sharp increase in the use of fossil fuels", he said.
Najib Saab, secretary general of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development, agreed. "Because of the high income of oil, these countries have plans of modernisation and economic expansion," he said. "This can be understood."
Considering the advances both Gulf countries have already achieved, Mr Saab said, it is time for their governments to consider a more sustainable lifestyle. The data, he said, also show that the UAE and Qatar waste a great deal.
"It is not the first report which finds this," he said.
He was referring to the Living Planet report, produced last year by the World Wide Fund for Nature in conjunction with the Global Footprint Network and the Zoological Society of London. That document named the UAE as the country with the largest environmental footprint, a measure of the territory needed to produce all the resources a country consumes and to absorb all the waste it produces.
A useful first step to curb the country's resource hunger would be for the Government to remove subsidies for water and electricity, Mr Saab said.
"The UAE and other Gulf countries have one of the highest consumption rates in the world," he said. "People should deter from using water and electricity freely. The only good policy is to preserve natural resources and use them in a sustainable way."
Razan al Mubarak, secretary general of the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi, said the report contained valuable information for decision makers in Abu Dhabi and the UAE.
"We welcome this report as it scopes the challenges we are facing and presents basic facts and figures on natural resource flows worldwide," she said.
"The publication of this report is very timely. At the federal level and an Abu Dhabi emirate level we are currently developing long-term plans and strategies to reduce and limit the environmental impact of our economic growth," said Ms al Mubarak.
Last year, the federal Government formed a new department, the Department for Energy and Climate Change, to lead the development of a UAE climate change policy and to represent the country in international climate negotiations. To address water use, the Ministry of Environment and Water is in the final stages of developing a Federal Water Strategy and Federal Agricultural strategy, said Ms al Mubarak.
Mr Nuttall said that while the report looks at the performance of individual countries, it aims to explore a problem that is much broader.
"Wherever you look around the world, whether in the UAE, the United States, Europe, or even poorer countries, as incomes go up, we are seeing only a small decrease in the equivalent resource use," he said.
"This is not sustainable on a planet of seven billion people, going up to nine billion in 2050."
Total material extraction at the end of the 20th century was eight times greater than at the start. According to the report, in 2005 the world's residents consumed more than 47 billion tons of resources. At that rate, it could reach 140 billion tons by 2050.
"On the current economic path ... we will use far more resources than the planet is capable of supplying," Mr Nuttall said. "We have to get smarter about recycling, reusing and changing the energy mix."
UAE is "still developing"
Although it enjoys income levels similar to those in industrial countries, the UAE is still considered a developing nation under the United Nations system. The system has no established convention for the designation of “developed” and “developing” countries. Japan, Canada and the United States, as well as Australia, New Zealand and western Europe, are considered developed. Countries emerging from the former Yugoslavia are treated as developing countries, while Eastern European nations and those of the Commonwealth of Independent States, commonly referred to as economies in transition, are not included under either developed or developing regions.
* The National