Millions of placards, banners, slogan t-shirts and megaphones gave a voice to a multitude of languages and accents from the world’s many different countries, yet the four million people that turned up to 6,000 events in more than 1,000 cities, across 185 countries, all had just one message: ‘climate change is here and we need to take action’. Children and adults joined last weekend’s #ClimateStrike marches that kicked off in New Zealand and Australia and spread across the globe’s time zones, with students and environmentalists in Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Tunisia amongst those in the Middle East demanding a safe future for the planet, others used silence through digital strikes and business closures to convey their message.
The weekend also saw over 18 million volunteers come together for World Cleanup Day, a mass litter collection of waste including plastic and marine debris. More than 150 countries, including Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, took part. In Abu Dhabi students from Aldar Academies helped collect up more than 40 bags of litter at Reem Central Park and 50 bags at Al Muneera Beach Plaza, while eco-friendly cosmetics brand Lush helped organize a cleanup at Umm Suqeim Beach in Dubai. Is the world finally ready to make changes?
“There is definitely movement being made in Arab countries but not enough,” says Nouhad Awwad, who as the national coordinator of the Arab Youth Climate Movement in Lebanon attended the cleanup in Beirut while colleagues took part in the city’s #ClimateStrike. “There are some great youth empowerment projects in the UAE and Jordan, and in Morocco there are some strong NGOs working on climate change, but we need more. Our countries are facing rises in sea levels leading to climate migration, we need to move to renewable energy quicker, and we need to ensure the Paris Agreement is implemented.”
And it’s this non binding contract that was at the top of the agenda at Monday’s Climate Action Summit, which formed part of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The summit reviewed the progress and efforts of member states towards keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees celsius and requested firm updates on their goals to reduce the use of fossil fuels and increase support for developing and vulnerable countries. The pledges from most countries fell short of what environmentalists, including teenage activist Greta Thunberg, had hoped for.
The UAE plans to commit to 50% clean energy (44% from renewables and 6% from nuclear) by 2050
The UAE, who is a leader in sustainability in the region and hosted the United Nations Abu Dhabi Climate Meeting earlier this summer, revealed plans at the summit to commit to 50% clean energy (44% from renewables and 6% from nuclear) by 2050, an ambitious intention as clean energy currently accounts for less than 1% for the Emirates, one of the world’s largest oil exporters. But experts are confident. “It’s very likely that the UAE will meet this target,” says Thomas Bosse, Head of Programs at Dubai Carbon. “There have been great strides in efforts to produce electricity from renewable sources, in particular from solar energy. The UAE is currently constructing the Noor Energy 1, which will be the largest Concentrated Solar Panel plant on Earth when it begins operation in 2020.”
But the work isn’t just being done on home soil. Since 2013, the UAE has contributed US$1 billion to more than 35 countries (mostly small islands) to develop renewable energy. Most notably, the UAE-Caribbean Renewable Energy Fund was given a boost this September to help rebuild and green the power system on Barbuda following the devastation caused by hurricane Irma in 2017.
“Climate is an economic opportunity and we believe that we have a special role to play in making that argument as a hydrocarbon exporter,” states Lana Nusseibeh, the UAE’s ambassador to he United Nations. “Transitioning to renewable energy is financially smart and even lucrative. The UAE invested very heavily in the early days of solar, and now solar power is the cheapest power source in the UAE. We promote this fact as a centerpiece of the commercial rationale for climate change, and it also gives us confidence that we can meet our ambitious new energy targets.”
And what about the UAE’s general public? Are they on board? “Awareness is increasing in expats as well as Emiratis,” says Amruta Kshemkalyani, one of the UAE’s first sustainability consultants and founder of Sustainability Tribe. “It is still a small part of society that wants to do something, but the picture is more positive than a few years ago.”
There’s one group in particular that is showing interest and initiative. Nusseibeh explains,“Greta Thornberg was pretty scorching at the Climate Action Summit, and her leadership underscores how much young people care about climate change. The approach we have taken in the UAE is to establish youth councils that review our federal climate policy and to appoint youth to our climate negotiation teams. The voice of youth not only matters but it has the power to motivate the world and create the momentum for real action.”
“There’s a lot to be done on an individual basis,’ says Kshemkalyani, to those interested in making a difference. “Reduce your red meat intake, reduce food waste, recycle, compost, and buy consciously as we need to increase demand of products which are more sustainable and stop using single use products.”
Bosse adds: “Reduce your energy consumption by switching off lights, turning off electrical devices from the mains and increase your thermostat settings. Reduce your water usage by turning off taps while brushing your teeth, take shorter showers and don’t run washing machines and dishwashers half full.” Of course, also, reduce your petrol consumption. “Burning of petrol in your car directly contributes to the UAE’s carbon emissions,” adds Bosse. “Share rides to work with colleagues, take public transport, walk or ride a bike, or invest in an electric vehicle.”