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The Metric

Sep 2, 2015

Environmental Policymaking in the United Arab Emirates

The Environmental Performance Index is a tool to motivate countries to pursue better policies in areas where their performance is weak. The United Arab Emirates is one such nation that has utilized the EPI to shape its environmental policymaking.
Downtown Dubai. Photo from Flickr by Steven Straiton.

A primary goal of the Environmental Performance Index is to facilitate data-driven policymaking by fostering competition and action on key environmental issues. Ideally, countries would see their aggregate scores and investigate what they can do to improve, whether that be improving data collection or developing policy in areas with weak performance. The EPI’s potential for use in this way has been exemplified by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has shown concern about its score and taken direct steps to try to improve it.  

The UAE’s rank increased 52 spots from 2012 to 2014, putting the country at 25th in the world. Although scores between years aren’t directly comparable due to changes in methodology, the U.A.E.’s big jumps are still significant. And the 2014 “U.A.E. State of Green Economy” report is a clear indicator of the U.A.E.’s pride in its improved performance on the EPI. The report details policies, strategies, and indicators formed to meet the national goal of creating a sustainable economy, and it tracks the country’s EPI score since 2010 as an indicator of how well it is meeting its targets.


The UAE, a federation of seven emirates, was founded in 1971 by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan. Each emirate is led by its own ruling family, while the Al Nahyan family of Abu Dhabi maintains the presidency. Since its founding, the U.A.E.’s population has grown eightfold. The discovery of oil there in the 1950s transformed the economy and brought millions of expatriates to the UAE.

Since its early days, the country has been progressive on the environment because of Sheikh Zayed’s passion for it. He started a large forestry initiative and became responsible for the planting of one hundred million trees. It’s notable that however well-intentioned the project may have been, it may have ultimately contributed to the growing water stress the country is facing. 

In 2010, the U.A.E. ranked 152 out of 163 countries on the EPI. That score was corroborated by the Global Footprint Network’s Living Planet Report, released that same year, which showed the UAE having the highest per capita environmental footprint in the world. The rate at which a country burns fossil fuels comprises a large portion of the UAE’s Living Planet Report score—the country boasts one of the highest per capita CO2 emissions in the world. When the U.A.E.’s ruling family and policymakers became convinced this was unacceptable, they decided to respond.

The U.A.E.’s biggest efforts have been towards using the EPI as a tool to provoke policy in biodiversity and habitat protection. In the U.A.E.’s Ministry of Water and Environment “2012 Wildlife and Marine Conservation Efforts in the United Arab Emirates” report, a desire to achieve a better score on the EPI is directly mentioned. The primary goal identified was to increase the number of officially declared terrestrial and marine protected areas. Previously, only 6% of land was officially declared as protected in the U.A.E., well short of the EPI target of 17%. Many of the UAE’s sixty protected areas have been declared only within the past few years, indicative of a growing concern for conservation issues.

In 2007 alone the emirate of Sharjah officially declared six different areas as protected. And after a three-year period of review, the emirate of Fujairah created Wadi Wurayah, the U.A.E.’s first mountain protected area, in 2009. With at least twelve species of mammals, 75 species of birds, 17 reptile and amphibian species, hundreds of different plants, and nine different freshwater springs, the Wadi is an incredibly biodiverse area.

Later down the line, there could be significant improvements to the U.A.E.’s performance in climate and energy. The U.A.E.’s total emissions are quite high, at 200 million tons annually. However, the country has focused on taking important steps to begin reducing these emissions, which will become more evident over time. It established Masdar, a company meant to focus solely on researching and creating sustainability strategies and clean energy sources. It began operation of the world’s biggest concentrated solar power plant in Abu Dhabi. And plans for the world’s first entirely carbon emission-free city are in the works. Masdar City, also in Abu Dhabi, is set to be complete by 2020. Masdar boasts of its expectations for the city to be a contemporary and luxurious residential area that is also environmentally friendly. 

Governmental bodies themselves have also played their part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A developing public transportation system in Dubai has seen an incredible increase in use, from 60,000 passengers daily in 2009 to 500,000 in 2014. It is estimated to decrease CO2 emissions by about 645 tons per day. Abu Dhabi has recently begun construction on its own metro system, expected to be about 130 kilometers long. Other policy changes, like carbon capture and storage projects projected to remove 800,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year, have all characterized the U.A.E.’s efforts to lessen its impact on climate change. And although it is the third largest exporter of oil in the world, the U.A.E. has attempted to lessen oil’s consequences on global warming by reducing oil flaring by nearly 70% since 1995.

The U.A.E.’s performance in the EPI already reflects an improvement in its CO2 emissions per kwh. Though other climate and energy scores, like trend in carbon intensity, have been low and may remain low in the 2016 EPI, they could improve in future reports as the U.A.E.’s initiatives are reflected in upcoming data. 

A traditional Arab fishing and sailing vessel called a dhow. Photo from Flickr by A. Deavy. 

To be determined

Although the U.A.E. has used the EPI to shape policy extensively, its poor performance in the Fisheries category has been a sore spot. Fisheries make up a very small percentage of the nation’s GDP, so reform has historically been of low priority. From 1982 to 1999, fish production in the nation increased, from 70,000 metric tons to 115,000. Since that time, though, catches have only been declining, with reduced numbers or observed disappearance of species previously favored for commercial purposes, including Hamour (grouper), Sultan Ibrahim (red mullet), and Safi Arabi (rabbitfish). While the continual decrease can also be partly attributed to new legislation in 2003 that made trawling illegal and restricted the number of traps allowed in use, the decrease points to declining fish stocks and unsustainable practices. 

The culprit is not only overfishing but also high levels of coastal development, which have resulted in the burial of many coral reefs by sediment, as well as the loss of other important coastal habitats. Though the U.A.E. is struggling in implementing sustainable practices in this sector, it should be noted that it is not unique in this respect. Poor fisheries management and declining fish stocks are an epic global problem. The U.A.E. has made efforts to introduce fisheries legislation, but poor enforcement, protocol, and prosecutions, and the lack of a national data collection system for fisheries have led to few tangible improvements.

Sheikh Zayed, who was a 2005 United Nations Environmental Program Champion of the Earth Laureate, shaped the U.A.E.’s environmental agenda. In countries where ruling families shape policy, their interest is critically influential. His family is also the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, and unsurprisingly, Abu Dhabi plays the greatest role in pursuing environmental policymaking. Moreover, the ever-growing prominence of Western educational systems in the Emirates, which incorporate environmental studies, means that youth in the nation are being exposed to these issues early on. Some of these students go on to develop a passion for the environment and pursue advocacy and research in it. 

Having increased its ranking so much already, the U.A.E. is hoping to achieve a spot in the top ten in the coming years. Though initiatives like those the U.A.E. is pursuing don’t always get reflected in the EPI immediately, tangible results have the potential to be reflected in future scores. The EPI is released every two years to account for changes in data and to reevaluate countries accordingly. The U.A.E. sets an example for responding to performance indicators by assessing its weak points and using them as a benchmark to implement strategies and policy initiatives. In doing so, the U.A.E. offers a model for other countries wishing to do the same.