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UAE's Environmental Centennial

UAE's Environmental Centennial

Sunday, 24 April, 2022 - 05:45
Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment & Development magazine

Abu Dhabi recently pledged Environmental targets for the coming fifty years, in conjunction with the UAE Centennial in 2071, which was announced earlier to mark the creation of the state. This triggered memories of how the ultimate aspiration of Arab environmental activists less than twenty years ago was just to trace the word "environment" mentioned in any government plan. But the UAE went much further than this, as it developed a fifty-year environmental plan, leading up to the 100th anniversary of the Union. Saudi Arabia had also launched decades-long environmental policies and goals, starting with Vision 2030, all the way to the Saudi Green Initiative, to contribute to achieving climate goals by the middle of this century. Other Arab countries, including Egypt, Morocco and Jordan, also committed, to varying extents, to long-term environmental policies and goals.

The most important indication that this bears, regardless of the details, is the emergence of a new perception of the environment that considers it an integral part of development policies, rather than a ceremonial addition without substance.

The Environmental Centennial 2071, announced by the Environment Agency in Abu Dhabi, aspires to place the UAE among the world's leading countries in environmental standards within fifty years, that is, 100 years after the founding of the state in 1971. The plan links efforts to preserve the environment with the economy and investment opportunities in technology and scientific research, in a manner that enables all vital sectors of society to participate in achieving common environmental goals. The plan envisages achieving this through the transition to a green economy, which is the shortest approach to realizing sustainable development goals.

The Environmental Centennial 2071 lays out three pathways, beginning with the preservation of biodiversity and natural resources, to realize the best sustainable natural systems, according to the highest standards. The second pathway commits the country to become a green force which is resilient to climate change, based on a proactive vision, by adopting renewable and clean energies, reducing waste by adopting circular economy, and investing in green infrastructure, by taking into account natural capital and ensuring the ability to successfully compete with the most advanced economies of the world. The third pathway aims to develop human capabilities as leading force of the future, in a manner that preserves the environment and the right to sustainable development, by accelerating green policies and legislation, developing non-traditional approaches to environmental awareness and education, and innovation in the field of environmentally- friendly science and technology. The plan calls for integrating all these principles into future government work at all levels, so that environmental considerations will be at the heart of development policies and programs.

Here it must be recognized that these developments do not come from vacuum, but rather represent restoration of a heritage that respects the limited resources of nature. It is certain that the hardships of living in a dry desert environment is behind its inhabitants adherence to a noble culture based on preserving the scarce water available, and safeguarding plants and animals. It is true though that decades of rapid development, which witnessed extreme harnessing of natural resources to the extent of near-depletion, and a legendary expansion in cities, transportation networks, and industry, brought along with modernization huge damages to the environment and natural systems. But the ambitious plans announced by governments today reveal first of all an acknowledgment of the problem, which is the first step to solving it through the new principles being adopted, based on sustainability. Solving the complex environmental challenges of this challenging era requires modern plans that go beyond noble sentiments and wishes.

I remembered, while reading the details of the Environment Centennial 2071, my conversation with the late President of the UAE and founder of its modern renaissance, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, a quarter of a century ago, which was the subject of the cover story of Environment & Development magazine in November 1997. This man was an environmental fighter by nature, whose ideas are based on the principles of sustainable development, compatible with the limitations of nature. In that interview, he called for "nature and man to be in balance again. If man's livelihood prospered while the livelihood of animals and the safety of nature were not secured, there would be a lack of fairness, which would eventually derail human development. A capable man must do what he can to preserve the rights of both." When I asked him why he was planting forests in the desert, he replied that his goal was to achieve "the sublimity of man and nature," in addition to the fact that the green cover contributes to the moderation of the climate and the cessation of desertification. Sheikh Zayed explained that "the land becomes precious to a person when it produces useful yields and when the sight of it makes him happy, so he relaxes and feels at home. In the beginning we focused on developing human dignity, knowledge, culture and livelihood; then we began to pay attention to other matters, such as preserving nature and wildlife and re-introducing endangered species to their natural habitat, because integrated life lies in all of God's creatures."

Sheikh Zayed's words ascertain that for every plan aimed at caring for the environment and achieving sustainable development to succeed must be rooted in the heritage of this region, which was based on careful use of scarce resources and the protection of nature, which is the source of life. Therefore, every new initiative in this field is actually a return to the roots, while using modern methods that take advantage of scientific discoveries and technological progress.

While long-term plans are required and useful, their success depends on basic principles, the first of which is setting clear goals and linking them to a specific timetable. This prevents the use of grand schemes, which are planned for twenty or fifty years, as an excuse for failing to achieve immediate and close goals. It is necessary to conduct periodic reviews to determine the extent of progress in achieving set goals, and set mechanisms to discover errors at an early stage, allowing for amending the course before it is too late. This is true of the UAE Environmental Centennial 2071, and it is true of international plans to achieve climate goals by 2050.

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