At a panel discussion on the occasion of World Environment Day (WED) in June 2012, Richard Perry, the executive director of environmental information, science and outreach at the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD), spoke of the emirate’s ambitious environmental development plans. “Due to the demands of an ever-increasing population, resource availability is diminishing,” he said. “We need to become more careful in our use of resources. But do we have sufficient time to make these changes?”

Protecting and conserving the natural environment in the coming years will require sustained commitment at government level as well as among the general population. Abu Dhabi’s reputation as a regional leader in sustainable best practices and green development bodes well in this regard. Indeed, its numerous ongoing environmental programmes have had a positive impact in several areas in recent years. While many challenges remain, Perry and other speakers at the 2012 WED discussion expressed cautious optimism about Abu Dhabi’s environmental policy going forward.

STRATEGIC UNDERPINNINGS: The government-operated EAD, created in 1996, has a mandate to develop and implement the emirate’s environmental policy, which includes protecting the natural habitat and promoting sustainable development practices. For the past five years most of the agency’s activities have fallen under the rubric of the Environment Vision 2030 strategy. The EAD has taken a two-pronged approach under the plan – on the one hand the agency has worked to carry out practical projects that have an impact on day-to-day life in the emirate, while on the other it has introduced long-term goals that run through to 2030. Provided everything goes according to plan, over the next two decades these two areas will increasingly line up.

Major environmental projects that are currently either under way or in the initial planning stages as part of Environment Vision 2030 include initiatives to reduce air and noise pollution, preserve biodiversity, conserve water resources and minimise the long-term impact of climate change, among others.

While these programmes are moving forward, environmental development in Abu Dhabi is still very much in the early stages. The UAE, like most countries in the Gulf, is water-poor, and is working to prepare for a series of water shortages in the coming decades. Similarly, low electricity costs have resulted in the UAE being ranked as one of the world’s top consumers of electricity. In particular, energy consumption jumps substantially during the hot summer months, when many buildings in the country run air-conditioning units on a full-time basis.

Over the past five years the UAE has consistently had one of the world’s largest environmental footprints on a per capita basis, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature, which draws up annual rankings based on resource consumption and the amount of land required to produce the goods – food, building materials and others – a country consumes.

REAL PROGRESS: In late 2011 the EAD released the results of an initial year-long study of around 2000 residents from a variety of national backgrounds, locations and age groups. By the end of 2010, 59% of those surveyed considered themselves environmentally aware, up from 49% at end-2008. The percentage of people who believe that individuals are partly responsible for protecting the environment jumped from 35% to 76% over the same period.

By the end of 2010 66% of survey participants thought that the government’s participation in protecting the environment was necessary, up from 54% in 2008. A substantial number of businesses have implemented environmental policies in recent years. By the end of 2010 some 90% of businesses surveyed turned off their computers at the end of the day to conserve energy, up from just 59% in 2008, and 63% of businesses had implemented some type of paper-saving initiative, up from around 18% previously.