Cement, among the most essential of building materials, is also a particularly nasty source of pollution. Around the world, cement plants are unwelcome neighbours.
Now the UAE, like many other countries, is beginning the process of measuring and limiting the emissions from these plants, of which there are 11, most in the Northern Emirates. The start of this process is encouraging but also underscores much more remains to be done to control air and water pollution.
To make cement, you heat limestone and clay to 1,450¿C. Typically you get the heat by burning coal. Even if cleaner fuel is used, the process releases dust, gases and heavy metals, including toxic mercury, which can enter the air and water.
UAE cement plants will now be obliged to develop processes for measuring and identifying dust and gas emissions, report the figures regularly to the federal Minister of Environment and Water, and to take a range of measures to limit these emissions. As The National reports today, failure to comply could result in permanent closure.
These measures must be just a beginning for true controls on this industry. After four decades of headlong development, the UAE has some catching up to do on a number of environmental matters, from residential recycling to controls on heavy-industry emissions.
Actually reducing cement-factory emissions is not easy anywhere. China, which now produces about half of the world's cement, is notorious for poor pollution controls. Even in the US, the industry fought, in Congress and in court, for 12 years before the government could finally impose standards on cement plants. These rules, put in place in 2010, were expected to cut emissions of mercury by 92 per cent, of other particles by the same amount, and of sulphur dioxide by 78 per cent.
In addition, making plant-by-plant emission data public, preferably in real-time, would enable people who live near such factories to protect themselves. Those are all goals worth emulating here.
An estimated 50 per cent of the cement produced in the UAE is exported, largely to Africa and soon in quantity to Saudi Arabia as well. But companies should not take the money and leave the pollution.
It will take time to introduce full environmental stewardship, but this, no less than towering skyscrapers, is part of a truly modern society.