Conservation Efforts Working in Harmony with Economic Growth

The Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi maintains its focus on conservation, species reintroduction, monitoring and protecting marine and air quality, climate change action, environmental education and outreach and youth empowerment

The capital of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi possesses a dramatic setting on an island in the Arabian Gulf. It is, in part, a picture of modernity with a stunning skyline. However, if we look closely at the island itself, it is also surrounded by beautiful natural landscapes.

Abu Dhabi’s leading environmental regulator, the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD), has for decades been ensuring the focus stays on the conservation of nature and protection of the emirate’s environment. The Agency — winner of CFI’s 2023 award for Best Regional Environmental Agency in the Middle East and Africa — is determined that its natural surroundings will be neither ignored nor forgotten.

There are majestic sand dunes, to be sure, but they are not the limit of the terrestrial and marine ecosystems on offer. From mountains and wadis to coastal and inland sabkhas to coral reefs and mangroves, Abu Dhabi is home to biologically rich ecosystems that support thousands of species, plants and animals.

Coral reef

Abu Dhabi is home to biologically rich ecosystems that support thousands of species, plants and animals

Founded in 1996 by scientists dedicated to protecting this rich biodiversity, and preserving quality of life, EAD is now the largest environmental regulator in the Middle East. The Agency focuses on the development and enforcement of environmental regulations and policies, employs data-backed research to track environmental progress, habitat and biodiversity conservation, as well as organising educational and outreach programmes.

The Agency leverages scientific findings to create policies that set a holistic environmental direction for Abu Dhabi’s government, businesses and communities — without compromising growth and development. It also monitors, analyses, and manages environmental data for biodiversity, climate change, air and water quality, and the sustainable management of waste and groundwater resources. The EAD uses modern tools and technologies for environmental and biodiversity monitoring and undertakes initiatives to boost the accessibility and assessment of innovations in environmental data collection.

And EAD always takes pro-active steps towards to the relatively recent, but rapidly growing, worldwide awareness of the need for planet-wide protection. The Agency sees terrestrial and marine ecosystems as two of the main precursors for human health and wellbeing.

The EAD team follows the conservation legacy of the UAE’s founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. He is credited with unifying the seven emirates into one nation, and was the UAE’s first president from its formation. Known as the First Environmentalist, he also pioneered conservation efforts in the UAE to restore endangered species numbers and protect their habitats. Rare, almost mythical creatures such as the Arabian and Scimitar-Horned Oryx (SHO) were recognised for their incalculable value to the world.

Thanks to this extremely successful international reintroduction programme in partnership with the government of the Republic of Chad, the number of the SHO roaming freely in the wild in the Republic of Chad has so far reached more than 550 heads. Furthermore, Abu Dhabi is home to the largest population of Arabian Oryx with more than 5,000 heads. Some have been fitted with satellite tracking collars to monitor their progress and wellbeing.

And that’s not all – Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi is the prime climate action authority in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. One of the Agency’s key initiatives to mitigate the effects of this threat, is a series of mangrove restoration programmes. The trees are the most efficient natural carbon capture and storage systems on the planet, currently storing carbon equivalent to over 21 billion tonnes of CO2 globally.

Over the past 10 years, 40 million mangrove trees were planted in Abu Dhabi, contributing to more than a 35 per cent increase in the emirate’s total mangroves area, which today exceeds 176 square kilometres, including natural and cultivated trees. This is in line with the UAE’s aim of planting 100 million mangroves by 2030 to help achieve Net Zero by 2050.

Studies conducted by the EAD team discovered that mangroves in Abu Dhabi have the capability to store carbon at a rate of 0.5 tonnes per hectare annually, which is equivalent to 8,750 tonnes at the emirate level, and to the energy consumption of 1,000 homes per year.

The Agency’s restoration efforts are not just limited to mangroves, but the entire coastal and marine ecosystems. Due to this colossal effort, last year EAD won recognition from the United Nations, which named an Abu Dhabi initiative as one of the top 10 global restoration flagship projects in the UN Decade on Restoration.

Furthermore, under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Ruler’s Representative in Al Dhafra Region and Chairman of EAD, and the leadership of Secretary General Her Excellency Dr Shaikha Salem Al Dhaheri, the Agency has built the Middle East’s most advanced research vessel.

The 50-metre state-of-the-art, multipurpose marine conservation and fisheries vessel will use environment-friendly technologies to conduct specialised research in the Arabian Gulf – the hottest sea in the world and a natural climate change laboratory – as part of the UAE’s scientific and innovative forward-looking initiatives.

Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi research vessel

The Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi has built the Middle East’s most advanced research vessel

The vessel is undertaking new marine and fisheries scientific research in the previously largely unstudied waters deeper than 10m, and in the longer term will also enable EAD to respond to the threats facing the marine environment including marine debris; climate change and invasive marine species.

The ship was built in Spain and on its maiden voyage to the UAE the vessel hosted the Atmospheric Research Expedition to Abu Dhabi (AREAD), in collaboration with Max Planck Society and The Cyprus Institute.

The expedition was a world first, conducting atmospheric monitoring through eight seas – the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, Gulf of Suez, Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea, Sea of Oman and Arabian Gulf – and covering three continents: Europe, Africa and Asia.

Other pioneering initiatives undertaken by EAD that attracted the attention of CFI judges was the launch of its comprehensive Single-Use Plastic Policy in 2020. The UAE was the first country in the region to make this bold move to reduce the dependence on single-use plastic items and to nurture and encourage a culture of sustainability and recycling in the emirate of Abu Dhabi.

Plastic bottles for recycling

The carbon footprint of the eliminated plastic is the equivalent to 272,000 tons of CO2 equivalent

As part of this policy, last year on June 1st, EAD announced the ban on single-use plastic bags and the Agency announced that after one year more than 172 million single-use plastic grocery bags have been prevented from harming the environment. This means that 450,000 single-use plastic bags have been stopped from entering the waste cycle every single day.

Retailers who helped implement the ban documented incredible results, such as reducing by 95 per cent the number of plastic bags provided at the cash counters of some of the major retailers. This reduction in the number of bags that despite the increase in demand for reusable bags resulted in an overall reduction of the weight of plastic consumed by 77 per cent. This is the equivalent to a reduction of over 1,000 tons of plastic eliminated in just 12 months. The carbon footprint of the eliminated plastic is the equivalent to 272,000 tons of CO2 equivalent, or emissions from 629,000 barrels of oil.

The Agency does not only think about emulating the past or focusing solely on the present, but always has a visionary eye peering into the future. As such, the Agency has a very strong focus on youth. Currently there are 222 youth volunteers who are part of a Green Youth Majlis who actively take part in environmental and sustainability actions that serve the local environment and community. EAD has always identified youth as future leaders and agents of change who prioritise the conservation of the environment in all aspects of their lives, leading to a more sustainable future for all.

The Agency has decades of experience in environmental education. In 2009, EAD launched the Sustainable Schools Initiative (SSI) and Sustainable Campus Initiative, (SCI) created to teach sustainability in schools and universities and to help young people commit themselves from an early age to conserving the environment and adopting eco-conscious habits in their daily lives.

Sustainable Campus Initiative

The Sustainable Campus Initiative has 25 colleges and universities from all over the UAE

The successes of SSI are remarkable, with 153 schools and 267,919 students reached since 2009. On another note, 21,3469 students experienced practical field trips and EAD provided training and resource material for 4,646 teachers. A total of 24,750 students assessed their own environmental footprint and 29,700 students were inspired to reach out to the community through the Eco-club – an SSI initiative. The programme has conducted a total number of 2,081 community outreach projects and SSI members have been responsible for a reduction of 97,200 kg of CO2.

In 2013, SSI won the Green Middle East Award for Best Environmental Awareness and Education Project and in 2015, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) acknowledged SSI as an innovative model for education in sustainable development and recommended that it be matched all around the world.

The SCI has 25 colleges and universities from all over the UAE, trained 1,276 student and faculty members through a series of workshops, and 104 action projects and audit reports on the sustainability of university campuses were submitted by the participant colleges and universities.

With all this in mind, and more, the CFI.co judging panel announced EAD as the worthy winner of the 2023 Best Regional Environmental Agency (Middle East and Africa) award. This year there is a specific focus on these efforts, and those of environmental guardians worldwide, at the Cop 28 conference to be hosted in Dubai in November. The Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi will be on the world stage, representing the UAE in its efforts to mitigate climate change and ensure a brighter future.

Development in Abu Dhabi is unavoidable, and even desirable, but Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi ensures that nature is never left behind in the rush.


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