Media coverage of COP26 over the last three weeks has been almost relentless and often confusing.
But what does it actually all mean for those of us who live in the Middle East, and particularly, in the UAE? How will the climate crisis affect our daily lives and how might the pledges made as part of the summit’s Glasgow Pact at the summit actually impact our future health and wellness?
First, we need to understand the impact that the climate crisis is having now, and how severe it could get.
“Climate change has been touted by the World Health Organisation as the biggest health threat facing humanity,” explains Natalie Hore, founder of UAE-based marine conservation organisation, Azraq. “This is because the climate crisis the world is facing impacts our very basic needs, such as access to clean, safe water supplies, food, air and shelter.”
According to WHO predictions, between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress. The organization explains: “Climate change is already impacting health in a myriad of ways, including by leading to death and illness from increasingly frequent extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, storms and floods, the disruption of food systems, increases in zoonoses and food-, water- and vector-borne diseases, and mental health issues.”
WHO also points out that “climate change is undermining many of the social determinants for good health, such as livelihoods, equality and access to health care and social support structures”.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that to prevent millions of climate change-related deaths and to “avert catastrophic health impacts”, we need to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C. However, even a rise of 1.5°C is not safe, with every extra tenth of a degree that temperature rises taking ‘a serious toll on people’s lives and health’.
And while those most at risk are disproportionately living in low-income and disadvantaged communities and countries, which are least responsible for climate change, the Emirates is in no way safe from the impact of the crisis. As the UAE government states: “The UAE is classified among the categories of countries with the highest rate of vulnerability to the potential impacts of climate change in the world. This will result in warmer weather, less precipitation, droughts, higher sea levels and more storms.”
The Emirates are particularly susceptible to rising sea levels, which could not only impact coastal habitats facing the Arabian Gulf or the Gulf of Oman but would likely impact critical infrastructures, such as desalination and power stations. A 2010 report commissioned by Abu Dhabi and carried out by Stockholm Environment Institute’s US Center found that “the UAE could lose up to six percent of its populated and developed coastline by the end of the century because of rising sea levels”.
Other concerns are around how climate change could affect the agriculture sector, due to changes in climatic conditions such as temperature and precipitation — in part scuppering the UAE’s attempts to lower carbon emissions by producing more food within the country.
UAE residents can also expect an increase in pollution, increased likelihood of both drought and flooding and higher temperatures in the summer due to global warming, which will mean increased use of air conditioning, and also a rise in the number of disease-carrying insects. All these will directly affect our everyday health and wellness, be it through access to food, water and clean air, skincare issues, increased risk of disease and stresses on mental health.
So, could what was agreed at COP26 that could delay, or even halt, this crisis from occurring? The good news is, we’re still on track to keep temperature rises to 1.5°C or less — with all countries agreeing on reducing carbon emissions even further to achieve this.
It’s something that is critical for the UAE, which currently produces some of the highest CO2 emissions per capita worldwide. This marks the third consecutive year, however, that emissions have dropped in the UAE. The country is implementing 14 projects to further reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases as part of its national initiative to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
Other COP26 progress (and disappointment) came in the form of:
• making up for shortfalls of financial funding owed to poorer countries most affected by climate change, in most cases as a direct result of the historical emissions of the world’s richest countries and worst polluters.
• an agreement to end and reverse deforestation by 2030, with the UAE pledging to increase its carbon-capture plan from planting 30 million mangroves to 100 million mangroves by 2030.
• The final big news in the COP26 pledges that are being described as ‘cash, coal, cars and trees’ is the transition to electric vehicles, with governments, businesses, and investors committing to all new passenger cars and vans being 100 percent zero-emissions by 2035 in leading markets, and by 2040 in the rest of the world
• The major disappointment of the summit was around the talk on phasing out coal, with a last minute, more vague ‘phase down’ approach being implemented instead.
Many environmentalists have been critical of the progress made at COP26 because things aren’t moving quickly enough, but there’s no denying that some movement, and in the right direction is happening. If the world does indeed manage to meet or even exceed keeping under a 1.5°C temperature increase — and we will know more two years from now, when the UAE hosts COP28 — it could make our everyday health as residents of the UAE a whole lot safer.
Devinder Bains is journalist of 20 years, working as a writer and editor on some of the biggest national magazines, newspapers and online publications in the UK and the Middle East. She specialises in women’s empowerment, fashion, race, culture and travel, and as a qualified personal trainer and nutrition coach, she is an expert in health and fitness. She splits her time between freelance writing and running Fit Squad DXB – Dubai’s largest personal training and wellness company.