The issue of air quality is important for the UAE as it supports the country's rapid growth and makes it attractive and liveable.
Curbing pollution in the UAE makes economic and environmental sense
During the recent Eid holiday, with the roads quiet, Dubai’s impressive skyline stood out against a clear blue sky. But often even Burj Al Arab is barely visible from its sibling, Burj Khalifa. Much of the haze is natural, unavoidable desert dust and humidity. But almost half is air pollution.
The UAE’s air quality is relatively good – it does not suffer from the infamous smog that blankets major cities such as Mexico City, Tehran or Beijing. Electricity is generated with clean-burning natural gas, not the sulphurous fuel oil widely used in Kuwait or the coal that causes China’s extraordinarily dirty air.
But busier roads, expanding airports, new construction, aspirations to host global events and the growth of tourism as part of the national economy make air quality an ever more important issue. And we cannot just blame desert conditions: in Abu Dhabi, 30 to 40 per cent of particulate pollutants come from human activities.
Measuring the problem is crucial to tackling it, especially in alerting residents with existing health problems that air pollution may exacerbate. Unfortunately Dubai Municipality’s air quality monitoring system was offline at the time of writing, but Abu Dhabi’s Environment Agency offers an excellent service with hourly read-outs of air quality and noise pollution at monitoring sites throughout the emirate. The agency is rolling out an air pollution strategy.
Air-quality problems can be severe around quarries and cement plants, particularly in Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah. Particles smaller than the width of a human hair can penetrate deeply into the lungs. Since 2008, regulation of quarries has steadily been tightened. Biodegradable, environmentally-friendly chemicals can help to keep down dust while consuming less water.
A large part of urban pollution comes from a few offenders. Badly maintained lorries and buses cough out dark fumes. The chimney of a prominent Dubai hotel frequently belches dirty smoke.
Portable diesel generators are common on building sites. Noisy, dirty and expensive to run, they could be replaced with hybrid systems that combine solar panels with diesel or battery back-up.
In the built-up areas of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, road traffic is one of the biggest polluters. Strong summer sunlight acts on vapour from fuels and fumes from exhausts to produce ozone, which irritates eyes and causes asthma and bronchitis. And it may be transport where an integrated strategy is most needed: tighter enforcement on the worst vehicles, cleaner engines and more public transport.
Cleaner-burning compressed natural gas is being introduced as a fuel for taxis, trucks and buses. Removing fuel subsidies would discourage idling engines unnecessarily, cut congestion and reward more efficient vehicles – hence reducing pollution automatically. At the moment, it makes no financial sense for a UAE driver to buy a hybrid or electric car, saddling the country with a fleet of outdated fuel-guzzlers.
One possibility is to sharply increase registration fees on more polluting vehicles, and use the revenues to offer rebates on low-emission vehicles – such as Toyota’s iconic hybrid Prius or Tesla’s electric Model S, now the best-selling car in Norway.
Transport pollution in dense urban areas needs, literally, a two-track approach, the second track being public transport. The Etihad Rail network, expansion of the Dubai Metro, the Al Sufouh Tramway, and Abu Dhabi’s Metro (due in 2016-17) are all positive steps. A metro connection to Sharjah would be a dramatic improvement. Air-conditioned bridges and building interconnections make downtown areas more walkable.
So attention to air pollution is part of a wider strategy with multiple benefits: smoother-flowing traffic, better infrastructure, lower greenhouse gases and greater economic resilience. Clean air supports the UAE’s rapid growth, keeping it attractive, liveable and convenient – and showing the best face of the splendid new buildings.
Robin Mills is the head of consulting at Manaar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis and Capturing Carbon