His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE, announced that 2023 is the Year of Sustainability, encouraging community members and institutions to come together in collective efforts that lead the nation towards a more sustainable future.
In response, ten Fellows of the National Experts Program collaborated to identify the ten most important trends to help the UAE become more sustainable over the next 12 months.
Developed under the direction of His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE, the National Experts Program (NEP) is a launchpad for sector specialists who strive to play a leading role in the transformation of future-growth sectors.
As the UAE prepares to host the 28th UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) at the end of the year, it matters to bring attention to the urgent issues facing the UAE regarding climate action.
Ten Sustainability Trends
- The need for sustainable finance
Access to finance is key to driving innovation and adapting existing systems.
One example of this is the agreement between the UAE and the US to mobilize US$100bn of investment funds in order to accelerate the transition towards clean energy. This includes reducing dependence on fossil fuels and the decarbonization of transport systems.
Such sustainable investments can also reap financial as well as environmental rewards. A Standard Chartered report estimates that climate adaptation investment of Dh10 billion to withstand projected climate damage could contribute more than Dh100 billion to the UAE’s gross domestic product by 2030.
- Using food tech to feed the world
Harnessing the power of technology is essential to providing food to people in a more sustainable way.
Technology can help with everything from reducing water use, more accurate monitoring of the weather, optimizing crop cultivation and developing alternative sources of protein.
There are already multiple examples of this in practice in the UAE. For example, Dubai-based Emirates Crop One (ECO 1) is the world’s largest vertical hydroponic farm. It aims to produce over one million kilograms of premium quality leafy greens annually, while using 95% less water than conventional agriculture methods. Elsewhere, the Mleiha farm in the desert sands of Sharjah uses AI to analyze weather and soil data, and also employs thermal imaging to regulate irrigation rates and monitor growth across its 1,400 hectares.
- The importance of clean air
Air pollution is one of the greatest environmental risks to health, according to the World Health Organization. In the UAE, traffic fumes, particles from industry, and dust storms are a contributory factor in illnesses such as stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and respiratory diseases.
Effectively monitoring the quality of air is the first step to tackling the problem. In 2022, the UAE launched an upgraded version of the National Air Quality Platform which provides a real-time overview of the current status of air quality in the UAE, monitored by a network of state-of-the-art stations located in residential, industrial and rural areas.
It has also launched the UAE National Air Quality Agenda 2031 to bring federal and local government entities together with the private sector. Alongside monitoring air quality, it will also take action to reduce the levels of pollutants and exposure to them, as well as tracking interventions to ensure the overall goal of improving air quality is met.
Read more: UAE’s sustainability agenda drives rise in technology rankings
- Tapping into the power of the private sector
The private sector plays a critical role in financing research and development efforts, as well as providing cutting-edge technologies.
Prominent companies such as Majid Al Futtaim, ADNOC, and Etihad Airways have already taken concrete steps to mitigate emissions, promote renewable energy, and scale up emerging low-carbon technologies like green hydrogen and sustainable aviation fuel. Majid Al Futtaim, for instance, will use solar energy in 18 of its shopping malls, has banned single-use plastic from its Carrefour stores and has integrated sustainable design into its lifestyle developments.
To achieve swift progress, the private sector and government must work together, as exemplified by the Regulations Lab – launched in 2019 in partnership with the Dubai Future Foundation – which helps regulators and business leaders to co-create legislation for emerging technologies.
- People power
In addition to sustainable finance and the private sector, the green economy also relies on having a skilled workforce with advanced problem-solving capabilities.
The UAE continues to be a global talent magnet, ranking fifth in the world for total talent inﬂow after the US, the UK, Canada, and France, according to a report by LinkedIn in partnership with the Ministry of Economy.
The UAE also ranks first regionally in disruptive digital skills such as artificial intelligence, robotics and data science – highly sought-after skills in the green economy.
The report also highlights that roles such as sustainability managers and environmental coordinators have recorded a steady increase in the UAE over the past five years.
Partnerships are another way of helping reskill and empower people. For example, Dubai Cares has partnered with the Ban Ki-moon Centre for Global Citizens to launch “Green Jobs for Youth – Online Training and Mentoring”. The program will focus on equipping youth with the knowledge, skills and training needed to lead the transition towards a green economy.
- Reimagining transport systems
Almost a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions stem from the transport sector.
The UAE’s Ministry of Economy says that companies that enable switching from fossil fuels to biofuels in air and water transportation can help reduce CO2 emissions by up to 90%.
It also says that railroads are the most environmentally friendly means of transport for longer distances. The UAE Railways Program was launched during Dubai Expo 2020. This is a new integrated strategy for the railway sector in the UAE that is expected to reduce carbon emissions by 70-80% over the coming decades.
The first phase of the program is for freight rail, the second phase is high-speed rail passenger services to connect 11 cities within the UAE, and the third phase is the development of light railways inside cities.
Other projects already underway include the expansion of bike lanes, and a plan to transform Dubai’s taxis to be 100% environmentally friendly by 2027. This means that all taxis will be hybrid, electric or hydrogen-powered.
- Reducing waste and creating a circular economy
The world’s resources are finite, and ensuring proper stewardship of natural resources is key to a sustainable future.
This includes looking at ways to make the economy more circular, so that resources are re-used and recycled. It also means ensuring that consumption is responsible and overall waste is reduced.
Approved in January 2021, the UAE Circular Economy Policy identifies the optimal approach to the country’s transition to a circular economy. It has several objectives, such as promoting the efficient use of natural resources, encouraging the private sector to shift to cleaner industrial production methods, and adopting sustainable consumption and production patterns.
- Harnessing the potential of technology
The rapidly expanding capabilities of artificial intelligence and machine learning are transforming almost every industry.
The UAE Government is applying AI to its sustainability goals and has introduced the “Big Data for Sustainable Development” platform in partnership with the UN.
Spending on digital technology in the UAE over the next three years is expected to reach US$20 billion, according to a new report by the Boston Consulting Group, while the contribution of digital tech to the country’s GDP is likely to double within the next decade.
The work of the UAE Space Agency is one example of how big data can be applied to help tackle climate change. It has launched the Space Data Centre to collate and analyze environmental data gathered from space satellites in order to help find solutions.
- Diversifying energy sources
The energy transition is a key pillar of the UAE’s ambition to become Net Zero by 2050.
In 2021, the UAE unveiled its Net Zero 2050 Strategic Initiative, a Dh600 billion plan to invest in clean and renewable energy sources over the next three decades.
The UAE is already home to three of the largest and lowest-cost solar plants in the world. And it operates three nuclear power reactors to provide energy to the national grid.
It is also lowering the climate impact of hydrocarbons by capturing CO2 emissions rather than releasing them into the atmosphere, and is the first country in the region to deploy industrial-scale carbon capture technology.
Private companies such as Masdar, headquartered in Abu Dhabi, are advancing clean-tech innovation across a range of renewable energy solutions, including utility-scale power plants, community grid projects and individual solar home systems. It is also working on the creation of green hydrogen, and looking at innovations such as solar power plants that generate electricity for air-conditioning at the hottest times of the day.
- Building for the future
The built environment accounts for 39% of gross annual carbon emissions worldwide, according to the United Nations Environment Program.
This means that greener construction techniques – and new standards for green buildings – will have a significant impact on sustainability goals. These include the use of eco-friendly building materials and the latest technologies to ensure energy efficiency.
In 2022, the UAE cabinet approved the National Building Regulations and Standards, which includes sustainability guides for buildings, roads and housing, as well as a National Guide for Building Sustainability in operation and maintenance. The National Building Regulations and Standards will aim to reduce the use of materials and natural resources by 15%, reduce energy in buildings and housing by 25%, and reduce water consumption by 16%.
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