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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

Earth Hour is just the start, we must change our ways forever

Laura El-Katiri suggests strategies for all of us to be kind to our environment
It is essential that we stop polluting our environment. Paul Crock / AFP
It is essential that we stop polluting our environment. Paul Crock / AFP

The recent Earth Hour encouraged people throughout the world to turn off non-essential lighting for 60 minutes in an effort to demonstrate their commitment to our planet. This global movement found a good response in the UAE, where many public, commercial and residential buildings duly dimmed their lights.

But Earth Hour is much more than simply an hour’s worth of effort towards protecting our climate and our environment – or it could be. Making the most of Earth Hour means rethinking our own patterns of energy use, a theme that has particular relevance here. Our country’s final energy consumption has more than tripled since the early 1990s, and we use around four times more energy per person than the world average.

Reducing our energy use is a necessity rather than a luxury, because energy is a precious good whose wasteful use imposes considerable costs on our economy and our society, including affecting the quality of our air and our environment, and adding to long-term effects of uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. As our economies keep growing, so will our energy consumption, unless we change the way we consume it.

Earth Hour demonstrates the effect individuals can have on transforming our energy usage patterns throughout our economy. Individuals make decisions about when to switch on or off lights, which air conditioning system to use, how low to turn the air conditioning system on and how well to insulate their houses. Individuals decide whether they prefer to buy a more fuel-efficient car, or whether to use public transport. Individual adults also teach their children how to use energy and our many other precious natural resources.

Of course, government policy plays a pivotal role in reducing energy waste and increasing how much we can do with our current energy resources. Regulating in favour of a more efficient use of energy – for instance, via tightened efficiency standards for new buildings and electrical appliances – is critical to ensuring our economy can learn to do more with less. The recent increases in electricity prices may be unpopular with some, but they are important signalling factors to customers that electricity is not free, and that its consumption should be rationalised rather than wasted.

The same lessons apply to other natural resources such as water. The UAE and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula are among the most water-stressed regions in the world, yet we consume about twice as much water per person and per day than the international average. Desalination helps the UAE generate much of its fresh water, but that comes with its own environmental footprint. The process of desalination consumes energy and results in the production of brine, a byproduct that later adds to the salinity of our coastal waters.

The UAE’s biosphere – its unique wildlife – is another natural asset that requires protection from our rapidly expanding urban settlements. About 18.6 per cent of our land area and 21 per cent of our territorial waters are protected – more than in most other countries in the Middle East. Yet, our environment is not safe from human interference, and it is up to us to determine how high a priority we make the protection, and how we enforce prevailing laws in the area of environmental protection.

This includes relatively simple issues such as stopping people from littering our cities, greeneries, parks, beaches, deserts and environmentally protected areas, as well as those larger problems many countries across the world face: illegal fishing and overfishing, the dumping of fishery equipment in our coastal areas with detrimental effects on marine life such as turtles, dolphins and dugongs, or large-scale waste dumping of tankers such as what recently happened offshore Fujairah.

It is easy to fall back into the trap of thinking our own consumption and behaviour does not matter. We are already witnessing the effects of the other man-made disaster of climate change, which will yet affect the livability of our cities in the coming years and decades. Our future generations will carry the cost of our current consumption habits of our precious natural resources, as if there was no tomorrow. Let us use Earth Hour to remind ourselves of the importance of taking the simple measure of an hour’s worth of electricity consumption one step further: can we do with less lighting? With slightly higher temperatures in office buildings, malls and homes? Can we think about ways to reduce our consumption of substances that are toxic to our natural environment and our coastal waters? And how can we ensure our environment is safe from individuals who disregard our environmental values?

Laura El-Katiri is a consultant in Abu Dhabi specialising in economic, energy and environmental policy

On Twitter: @lauraelkatiri