x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

UAE may be leaving an even bigger environmental footprint

The UAE's environmental footprint, already the largest per capita in the world, could be even greater than already acknowledged.

ABU DHABI// The UAE's environmental footprint, already the largest per capita in the world, could be even greater than already acknowledged, according to a leading scientist taking part in a study to evaluate ecological impact. The project, named Al Basma Al Beeiya, meaning environmental footprint, is a UAE initiative that aims to chart the country's ecological impact by collating data gathered from government departments and the energy sector.

Researchers were forced to abandon plans to use UAE data on carbon dioxide emissions after some emirates did not provide the figures, leaving scientists to use estimates from the International Energy Agency (IEA). As these figures are considered to be a modest estimate, the country's footprint could be much larger than had been generally believed. According to Al Basma Al Beeiya data, the UAE's ecological footprint is 9.5 global hectares per capita, around 23.3 acres - meaning each person in the country would need this quantity of land to support his or her resource needs. This is compared with a world average of 1.8 global hectares per person.

The UAE footprint size represents a fall from the figure of 11.5 global hectares quoted by the 2006 Living Planet Report from the World Wide Fund for Nature. The data confirms the findings of the 2008 Living Planet Report, which is also based on IEA estimates. The news comes ahead of the publication next month of the second phase of the Al Basma Al Beeiya study, which identifies the breakdown of energy use by sector.

A global hectare is the common unit used to measure any biologically productive areas on the planet. "We intended to use data collected from the different emirates but the information was incomplete," said Tanzeed Alam, a climate change and sustainability manager at the Emirates Wildlife Society-World Wildlife Fund, one of four organisations working on the study. "We did not receive data from all the emirates. In the absence of that data our recommendation was to use the IEA data."

He was able to confirm only that requested data was received from Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The UAE research shows that household consumption, including everything from energy usage to plastic bags, food and timber for newspapers, accounted for 57 per cent of the UAE's footprint. Business and industry made up 30 per cent with 12 per cent coming from the Government and the remaining one per cent from miscellaneous consumption.

Around 80 per cent of an environmental footprint is made up of carbon emissions. Habiba al Marashi, chairman of the Emirates Environmental Group, said using IEA estimates was a severe flaw in the study. "It fundamentally undermines the report if you are not using accurate figures from this country. "[The researchers] have not tried hard enough to get the information. They have not exhausted all the routes to get the data. If we cannot get new, accurate data, we should not publish the report."

She said if it was proving difficult to produce a national report, it would be better to compile data from each emirate individually and encourage the public to engage in climate issues. The UAE population used in the study was 4.5 million, a figure established by the 2005 census. However, the population has grown dramatically since 2005 and no increase was factored into the calculations. Mr Alam insisted that the project had highlighted the importance of collecting accurate statistical information on energy usage, which could be the foundation of policy to reduce environmental impact.

"In that sense it has been a great success. From previously being unwilling to admit it has a high footprint to now accepting it and becoming engaged in how to help reduce its footprint, this is good progress. "One of the key elements to emerge from this is the importance of having a designated federal contact for the United Nations to go to for reliable data. This is a recommendation we have made to the Government."

The last time complete figures were released by the UAE was in 1994 to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Since then all calculations of the nation's footprint have been estimations. Sven Teske, the renewable energy director at the lobby group Greenpeace, said using carbon footprint data from more than a decade ago undermined the results. "It is enormously important for the country to know what it is producing. The problem with using estimation data is that if there are any errors, they get repeated again and again and lead to other statistical problems further down the line."

Mr Alam said projects such as Al Basma Al Beeiya would help to persuade the Government to address the issue of reducing the current rate of use of resources in the UAE. "If everyone in the world lived like the UAE we would need five planet Earths to sustain that level of consumption. "Something has to be done and the first stage of this is to accurately assess the situation. That is what this [research] project aims to do."

chamilton@thenational.ae