With Christmas fast approaching, homes and shopping malls around the UAE are getting into the festive spirit and putting up decorations. Some nurseries and primary schools have even set up miniature North Poles complete with fake snow and figures of Santa Claus.
At the heart of this ritual is the all-important Christmas tree. For many expatriates living here, the season would not be complete without a Christmas tree in the corner of the living room.
Whether to buy a fake Christmas tree or a real one, and which is better for the environment, is a question that many consumers have asked themselves over the past few weeks. The answer is not clear-cut and there is a frosty debate between the two sides.
Nothing beats the wonderful scent and lively colours of a freshly cut pine tree. Tradition also plays a factor in this preference. Many expatriates have grown up with a real tree throughout their childhood. Memories are often what make holidays meaningful, so it's hard for some to opt for a "fake" tree.
Re-creating this childhood experience in the UAE does not come cheap. In Canada, where I grew up, we would pay Dh100 for our tree. Here, prices range anywhere between Dh500 to over Dh1,000 for a "North Blue". The UAE is one of the most expensive places in the world to buy a Christmas tree.
On top of that, trees can also create a fire hazard and it can take a considerable time sweeping up the dead needles. This is made worse by the arid conditions prevalent in this region at this time of year.
From an environmental perspective, advocates of real trees point to the fact that they are promoting tree farms, which plant thousands of Christmas trees every year. Before they decorate homes during the festive season, these trees contribute to air quality by reducing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And would anyone grow these trees if no one bought them?
But advocates of fake trees can point to the CO2 emissions involved in having these trees shipped in refrigerated containers from places like Holland or Sweden to garden stores in Satwa or retailers like Spinneys.
A recent environmental study in the US on this topic came up with some interesting conclusions. One was that people who purchase an artificial Christmas tree have a significantly smaller carbon footprint than consumers using a real Christmas tree, the study found. The study, sponsored by the American Christmas Tree Association (yes, even Christmas trees have their own lobby in the US) analysed both real and artificial Christmas trees from "cradle to grave" over a 10-year use period. This included analysing each stage of the tree's life-cycle, from its time as a seedling to its transport to market, to someone's home, and to its ultimate disposal.
The study also examined the energy spent to manufacture an artificial tree, including resource harvesting, transport of raw materials, and its transport to stores and homes.
The report concluded that the positive effects of cultivating a fresh tree are outweighed by the pollution created in transporting the tree from the tree farm to the consumer's home. The further away the tree has to travel, the greater the carbon footprint.
The best way to reduce our carbon footprint, according to the report, is to choose an artificial Christmas tree and to use it for many years. Not only is this better for the environment, it's also better for the wallet.
The down side is that artificial Christmas trees don't have that same 'fresh' look. Indeed, when they first hit the market in the 1980s, tree farmers loved to point out that they resembled large green toilet bowl brushes.
Luckily, designs have come a long way since then. Today's artificial trees are made from durable plastic that won't fade in colour. Moreover, they tend to be cleaner than real Christmas trees since they don't shed needles, don't leak sap and don't require regular watering.
They also tend to be safer. They won't become a fire hazard as they dry out, and many artificial trees are made of fire-retardant plastic and are less likely to cause major damage if an electrical malfunction and spark does occur.
By investing in an artificial tree you are saving five to 10 live trees from being cut down in the process, depending on the number of years of use. And this also means you won't have that guilty feeling of seeing the dead tree in the dump or on the curb.
The bottom line is that the UAE has one of the largest carbon footprints in the world. That means that we contribute to global warming more than any other country on a per capita basis. One of the reasons for this is that we want to maintain the same lifestyle here as we did "back home". We keep forgetting that we live in the desert. Mother-nature never intended there to be Christmas trees growing here.
As long as we choose not to adapt to local conditions, by doing things like importing trees from half-way across the world each year, we will continue to accelerate global warming and the melting of the ice caps in the North Pole. By trying to bring Santa closer into our home, we are in effect contributing to the demise of Santa's home.
Vahid Fotuhi is an energy and environment specialist based in Dubai