Ignorance is bliss but not good.
Why is landscaping for streets, public utilities and private developments in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) being done by modestly paid labor, but when it comes to the planting of mangroves and other environmentally marketable trees, corporate conscience kicks in?
If the urge to address carbon emissions is the reason why, then mangroves, which can tolerate the UAE soil’s salinity and can absorb up to 10 times more carbon than green carbon forests, are not the answer.
In the past few months, the number of articles in UAE newspapers about planting mangroves has been on the rise; this can be due to the announcement made by Mariam Al Mheiri, UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment (MOCCAE), at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (Cop26) in November. Al Mheiri stated that the UAE will increase its mangrove-planting target to 100 million trees [from 30 million] by 2030.
In the same press release reporting Al Mheiri’s announcement, MOCCAE explained that the UAE is already home to 60 million mangroves that form forests spanning 183 square km and capture 43,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year; and that planting 100 million mangroves will increase the coverage to 483 square km or 48,300 hectares, allowing the forests to capture about 115,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.
How many mangroves did the UAE originally have along its coastline? And how much was already lost to development?
Here’s a little bit of history
In August 2012, every UAE English language newspaper reported that destruction of mangroves on Al Reem Island in Abu Dhabi by an unnamed developer had been stopped during a “routine visit” by inspectors from the Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi (EAD).
It was reported that the Island had lost more than half of its mangrove cover since building began in 2005 “without clearance from EAD.” Mangrove habitats are easily disrupted by human activities such as development and boating, yet prove difficult to restore once harmed, according to Faisal Al Hammadi, Deputy Executive Director of EAD’s environment quality sector at the time.
None of the newspapers mentioned why it took EAD so long to do something about the infraction, nor do the newspapers name the developer.
According to Wikipedia, there are only three master developers independently developing parts of Al Reem Island: Sorouh Real Estate — now merged with Aldar Properties PJSC — Tamouh, and Reem Investments.
In April 2019, a UAE newspaper ran a report stating that Jubail Island in Abu Dhabi is home to gazelle, flamingos, sea turtles and mangrove forests, and that developers have insisted that their plans for a “major building project on the currently undeveloped natural island will enhance, rather than threaten, its rich wildlife.”
The Jubail Island development is headed by Chairman Hamad Rashid Al Nuaimi, Executive Director of the UAE Ministry of Presidential Affairs, who holds other prominent positions in the UAE, as well as serving as a board member at a number of prominent investment, finance, real estate and trading institutions across the region, including Reem Developers.
Why is a AED 5 billion private development soliciting outside investment to provide greenery for Spanish-inspired Mediterranean style living villas expected to house 5,000 to 6,000 well-to-do residents?
How much of the pre-development mangrove cover of Jubail Island was removed to build the villas?
How much embodied carbon does the development carry?
Let’s do the math
To put numbers into perspective, the annual reported carbon emissions of the UAE in 2020, the year of the pandemic, are 150.27 million tonnes (1304 times the carbon to be captured by the 100 million mangroves, based on the estimates of carbon sequestration in the MOCCAE press release), i.e. to capture the sum of its annual carbon emissions, the UAE would need to plant more than 130,435 million mangroves.
In 2020, again the year of the pandemic, the UAE’s annual CO2 emissions per capita (a number which continues to be among the highest in the world) was 15.19 tonnes, and based again on MOCCAE’s estimates, the 100 million mangroves would roughly offset the annual emissions of only 7,571 UAE residents, or less than 0.1% of a UAE population of 10 million (or 1,571 residents in addition to Jubail Island’s 6000 future residents).
In Arabic there is an expression we use to mean “moreover” but it works more on an imagery related to mud and water, very fitting with the subject of mangroves: “لنزيد الطين بلة”, or “to add more water to mud,” the reported annual carbon emission numbers do not account for emissions from international flights.
In the UAE, the emissions related to international flights are estimated to be 2 tonnes or 1950kg per capita (per person) annually, 200 times the global average, and yet equivalent to only two round trips from the UAE to London and back per person. So, in order to offset emissions related to annual international flights alone, 1739 mangroves would be needed per person, or roughly 17,390 million mangroves.
In January, Emirates, the Dubai based UAE airline, put out an Expo 2020 advertisement with a stunt person propped on top of the tallest building in the world, to date. In the “making of” video for the ad, an Airbus A380, the only full-length double decker passenger aircraft ever built, reportedly “flew 11 times” around Burj Khalifa, then it “took a spin around Dubai.” The ad ran while the Global Goals Week (United Nations Sustainability Development Goals) was being celebrated at Expo 2020.
According to Airbus, the A380 superjumbo used in the ad is one of the most environmentally friendly planes ever built, with carbon emissions of just 75g per passenger per km, 17% less than what is emitted by the Boeing 747. The 525 seater A380, however, flew without passengers for the making of the Emirates ad.
Would the domestic flight emissions resulting from this publicity stunt be accounted for in the reported UAE annual carbon emissions?
Would the emissions from the ad or those related to visits made to Expo2020 be attributed to the event’s carbon footprint?
Would it make a difference if the resulting emissions were actually offset?
Etihad, the Abu Dhabi based UAE airline, in a recent social media post stated that through its collaboration with Jubail Mangrove Park, it “adopted a mangrove for every seat sold on [their] Sustainable Flight.” Sustainable Flight is reported by them to be powered by almost 40% sustainable fuels, and to reduce primary carbon emissions by 72% in comparison with a 2019 Airbus A380 flight.
For a distance of 5523km between London Heathrow and Abu Dhabi airport, a one way Sustainable Flight would release roughly 100 tonnes of CO2 (0.018 tonnes x 5523km).
Using the carbon sequestration estimates reported by MOCCAE, if all 336 seats were sold on the Sustainable Flight, the mangroves planted on behalf of Etihad would technically offset 0.4 tonnes of CO2 over a year (336 seats x 0.00115 tonnes), or 0.4% of the emissions from that one way flight, not immediately, but over the period of a year.
So, using the carbon sequestration estimates of MOCCAE, it would take the one mangrove, planted by Etihad for each passenger, an estimated 260 years to offset the one way trip emissions from London to Abu Dhabi by the one passenger. Or 260 mangroves over a period of one year for one passenger.
Even, if a more generous carbon sequestration estimate of 12kg/year is used, it would still take 25 years for one mangrove tree to keep up with the emissions of one person’s one way Etihad Sustainable Flight between London and Abu Dhabi.
EAD, who has partnered with Etihad on the mangrove planting scheme, announced through a press release in January 2022 that it had completed Phase 2 of a mangrove rehabilitation “Environmental and Social Responsibility” project called Blue Carbon in partnership with ENGIE, the French multinational utility company. The project is being implemented in Mirfa Abu Dhabi, home to the ENGIE turn-key project Mirfa Independent Water [desalination] and Power Plant (IWPP).
42% of the UAE’s total water requirement comes from 70 major desalination plants. This accounts for around 14% of the world’s total production of desalinated water, according to the UAE’s government portal.
Because of its reliance on desalination, it is estimated that the UAE contributes more than 20% of brine released globally. Brine treatment is a challenging process that uses high levels of energy and capital, and emits high levels of greenhouse gases. But, left untreated, brine can negatively impact native biota, including mangroves.
In spite of the efforts being made toward achieving energy efficiency in desalination and to introducing renewable sources of energy to the process, the treatment of harmful desalination byproducts like brine, has yet to be effectively addressed.
The announcement made by EAD details that Phase 2 of Blue Carbon involved the use of drones to plant mangroves at loads of 2000 seeds, as well as to provide distant imagery to assess soil, elevation, tidal characteristics and success rate.
Was the existing fragile mangrove ecosystem better left alone?
An article titled “Mass Mangrove Restoration: Driven by Good Intentions But Offering Limited Results,” published in 2017 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), questions the sustainability of mass mangrove planting initiatives. A report by Wetlands International also notes that the majority of mangrove planting efforts “fail to effectively restore functional mangrove forests,” and lists some reasons for failure, among which are mono-species planting, and planting in places where mangroves are settling naturally thus “causing damage to the naturally regenerating mangroves.”
Mangrove seeds, of the grey species variety prevalent in the UAE, germinate while attached to the tree and are dispersed naturally with the rising of the tide. It is easy to trample on the protruding roots of this species while attempting to artificially plant a sapling.
No number of trees donated will equal what companies have destroyed in the process of making, selling or marketing their products, according to the tree planting company Gone West.
In 2021, the world’s largest consumer goods company, Procter & Gamble (P&G) and the Emirates Marine Environmental Group (EMEG) inaugurated the Dubai Mangrove Forest where P&G intends to adopt mangroves that are four or five years old “to maximize the carbon sequestration.”
P&G has been criticized by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in the United States (US), for its use of Canada’s “climate-critical boreal forest fiber” to make throwaway tissue, namely Charmin toilet paper, Bounty paper towels and Puffs facial tissues.
The boreal forest, also known as the world’s largest land biome, is home to threatened species such as the boreal woodland caribou.
In partnership with The Storey Group which launched a One Billion Trees initiative, and EcoMatcher, P&G plans to allow people to visit Dubai Mangrove Forest virtually through the use of “blockchain technology,” to view and keep tabs on individual trees online, and “chat” with them.
It would be worth employing the same technology, EcoMatcher, to track which boreal tree is being used by a P&G customer to wipe their buttocks or blow their nose, and maybe to engage in a conversation with the climate-critical forest trees awaiting their admission to the tissue market.
The Storey Group is also a partner in the Etihad mangrove planting scheme.
It is worth noting that carbon emissions sequestered by trees are released when the trees are cut.
An Immediate Drastic Cut
A briefing paper published by the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy (IATP) in November 2020, highlighted the Special Report on Land and Climate (2019) by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which showed how it was necessary to protect and restore degraded ecosystems if we are to meet our climate targets, but also articulated very clearly that “land can only support a small portion of our efforts, which means it cannot be used to compensate for our current emissions levels, let alone a continuous increase in greenhouse gas emissions,” and that climate action required an immediate drastic cut in emissions.
An article by Climate Council is in agreement that it is not effective to offset pollution from burning fossil fuels by storing carbon in forests because fossil fuels are pumping much more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than existing forests can absorb.
A Guardian investigation also found that carbon credits generated by accredited forest protection projects and used by major airlines for claims of carbon-neutrality, or by companies to fulfill net zero commitments, are based on a flawed system which made unsubstantiated predictions, and overstated emissions reductions.
The carbon sequestration capacity calculations will also differ based on many variables and there is no regulation or oversight to make sure claims are verifiable.
For example, whereas 1.15kg/tree is the estimated annual carbon sequestration capacity of one mangrove in the UAE based on the official figure reported by MOCCAE, EAD has reported via CNN a sequestration capacity of 3754 tonnes per hectare of mangroves without specifying the number of trees per hectare. If 100 million trees are planted in 48,300 hectares (or 2,070 trees per hectare), again as per MOCCAE’s estimates, then the calculated carbon sequestration capacity of “one tree” (not hectare) annually would be around 1800kg.
If not due to a reporting error, the discrepancy in the carbon sequestration capacity of one hectare of one species of mangroves can be due to different variables, including tree maturity, height, trunk diameter and soil composition or the number of trees accommodated by one hectare, but can also carry with it the unethical ramification of overselling the carbon offsetting capacity of “one mangrove tree,” especially when saplings, not mature trees, are being planted.
“Many tree planting efforts focus on the number of saplings planted or their initial rate of growth — both of which are poor indicators of the forest’s ultimate carbon storage capacity and even poorer metric of biodiversity,” according to Bonnie Waring, Postdoctorial Associate Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at Imperial College London.
A scientific paper co-authored by researchers in institutions in the Philippines and Australia, published in 2015, maintains that “since the primary intention with any rehabilitation intervention works is for improved protection of existing seedlings and forests from degradation or destruction, then planting should be undertaken only if absolutely necessary.”
The outcome of two decades of immense efforts to restore mangrove forests in the Philippines resulted in only 10–20% long-term survival rates at a cost of millions of dollars.
In spite of all of this evidence, the popularity of tree planting is being capitalized on.
Viewing natural ecosystems as “climate solutions” gives the misleading impression that forests can function like an infinitely absorbent mop to clean up the ever increasing flood of human caused CO₂ emissions.” — Bonnie Waring
A report titled “Confronting Carbon Inequality,” published by Oxfam in September 2020, maintains that “the richest 1% of the world’s population are responsible for more than twice as much carbon pollution as the 3.1 billion people who made up the poorest half of humanity during a critical 25-year period of unprecedented emissions growth.”
The assertion is based on research conducted with the Stockholm Environment Institute, to assess the consumption emissions of different income groups between 1990 and 2015. “The richest 1% were responsible for 15% of emissions during this time — more than all the citizens of the EU.”
Confronting Carbon Inequality estimates that the per capita emissions of the richest 10% will need to be around 10 times lower by 2030 to keep the world on track for just 1.5 degree Celcius of warming — this is equivalent to cutting global annual emissions by a third.
Even reducing the per capita emissions of the richest 10% to the EU average would cut annual emissions by over a quarter.
It does not help that the UAE, and particularly Dubai, is identified as a playground of the rich.
Last month, on the day of the opening ceremony of the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW) Summit, there was an attack on three oil refueling vehicles in an oil refinery for the UAE’s Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC). The attack which left deaths and injuries, was a reminder that the UAE was at war, a war about the supply and delivery of fossil fuels. ADSW was hosted by Masdar, a UAE-government owned renewable energy company founded in 2006.
A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report in 2003, highlighted that the UAE’s carbon emissions amounted to 33.6 tonnes per capita, second only to nearby Qatar and over 9 times the world average of 3.7 tonnes. A 2008 WWF Living Planet Report gave the UAE the worst ecological footprint per person in the world.
MOCCAE’s Almheiri maintains that the UAE’s energy transition started 15 years ago. “In the region we were the first one that has an industrial scale, carbon capture, utilisation and storage network currently at the capacity of 800,000 tonnes per annum and expanding.”
The UAE, which will be hosting COP28, has a plan to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. 800,000 tonnes of carbon capture capacity is roughly 0.53% of the country’s current 150 million tonnes of carbon emissions per year. 2050 is 28 years to go.
Which resources are going to be mined unsustainably on an industrial scale, using technology, in order to facilitate the transition to renewable energy at the current rate of energy consumption?
“As long as the world needs hydrocarbons, we will be supplying hydrocarbons,” Almheiri said in an interview with Bloomberg. “We can’t just switch off the tap. This is an energy transition,” she said.
The sentiment was echoed by Sultan Aljaber, UAE Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology, the Managing Director and Group CEO of ADNOC, UAE’s Special Envoy for Climate Change, and Chairman of Masdar, who, during an Atlantic Council virtual event said: “We can’t simply unplug from the energy system of today and we can’t do this with a flip of a switch.”
Fueling The Addiction
Progress, as it is commonly perceived in the world today, has been built upon the exploitation of resources and an imperial and colonial past.
In his introduction to “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” American historian Dee Brown discusses the importance of recognizing how history contributed to “the poverty, the hopelessness, and the squalor of a modern [Native American] reservation.”
Currently, the largest importer of UAE’s crude oil exports is Japan. Japan, is reliant on the Middle East for almost 90% of its oil imports, and meets an estimated 87% of its energy needs through fossil fuels, and therefore “needs hydrocarbons.”
Japan’s “progress in automation, use of robots, and integration of artificial intelligence with daily living” has been fueled primarily by fossil fuels. Japan has also long struggled with one of the highest suicide rates in the world.
Planting trees is far from an innocent activity when what has been destroyed or being destroyed globally can never be recovered. We can make believe that we are doing the world a favor in order to feel good, but at what cost?