x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Infrastructure push could increase ecological debt

The UAE is urged to make sure its infrastructure investments do not further contribute to ecological harm.

The Government needs to make sure its infrastructure investments do not further contribute to the UAE's status as an ecological debtor, a sustainability advocate said yesterday. It would be tempting to embark on large-scale projects to boost economic growth in the face of the worldwide slowdown, said Dr Mathis Wackernagel, executive director of the Global Footprint Network.

"The way most governments will try to dampen the crisis is through huge infrastructure investments," he said. "It could easily go in this direction... because many of the advisers are still stuck in the 20th century." Dr Wackernagel helped create the concept of an ecological footprint, a method of measuring the land required to produce all the resources a country consumes, in addition to the area needed to absorb what it wastes. When compared with the total amount of productive land available, this measure is used as an indication of how quickly people are using up the planet's resources. It has been applied in more than 150 countries.

The Global Footprint Network collaborates with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to produce the Living Planet Report. The latest issue of the report, released last month, found that three-quarters of humanity live in nations that are ecological debtors. The UAE topped the list. The results meant that countries not only have to adopt adjustments in their development strategies, but also must rethink development altogether, Dr Wackernagel said.

"Those nations that are not prepared for the future resource constraints will suffer," he said. "We want ministers sweating about environmental deficit the same way they sweat about unemployment." Infrastructure investments that promote sustainability include the construction of wind parks, restoring natural infrastructure, making houses more energy-efficient and condensing cities so they are better suited to public transport, Dr Wackernagel said.

Increasing urban sprawl and nuclear energy would be poor choices, he said. While nuclear energy has been advocated as a substitute for fossil fuels because nuclear power plants do not release greenhouse gases, and the UAE is embarking on a nuclear programme to produce more electricity, Dr Wackernagel is not convinced it is an appropriate alternative to petrol or coal. "With nuclear energy, there is a long list of things you need to consider," he said. "Because of the risks involved, there is a very untransparent way of costing it. There are also military proliferation issues."

The Living Planet Report estimated that the biologically productive surface on the planet in 2005 was 2.1 global hectares per person. However, the average demand, or ecological footprint, was 2.7 global hectares per person. The UAE tops the chart with 9.5 global hectares - a function of the large amount of energy required to cool homes and desalinate water, as well as a lack of public transport and high resource-consumption rates.

Although the UAE has been successful so far, Dr Wackernagel said "changing course" could be required for continued prosperity. "It becomes an increasing risk to have an environmental deficit," he said. The Global Footprint Network and WWF have been collaborating with the UAE government on a study, now in its second year, to determine the country's environmental footprint. Dr Wackernagel was also visiting to gather support for Ten-in-Ten, a project aimed at establishing offices in 10 countries to measure their ecological footprint and make sure it is considered during policy decisions. vtodorova@thenational.ae