By: HE Razan Al Mubarak Secretary General, Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi
Popular culture pits us against nature. Man versus nature is one of the key conflicts in the works of pop culture, with many doomsday films featuring a character trying to avert, escape or fight the uncontrollable forces of nature.
In retrospect, we got it all wrong – it’s been the other way around!
A few years ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report stated that global warming is unequivocal and the ecological disruptions we witness are induced by human activities, and the result of a century of intensive utilisation of natural resources, biodiversity and ecological neglect.
In the past 100 years, the world economy expanded sevenfold and the global population increased from 1.6 billion to 7 billion. The world also lost half of its tropical forests, 20% of plant species, and between 10 to 30% of all mammal, bird and amphibian species are currently threatened with extinction. The atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are now 385 parts per million (ppm) and rising fast, close to the 450 ppm threshold beyond which the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 2°C may be unattainable.
The state of biodiversity continues to decline, according to most indicators, which is of huge importance, as this underpins the health of the planet and it is a vital part of the global ecosystem: the oxygen we breathe comes from plankton in the oceans and forests around the globe; natural wetlands store and purify water, removing harmful pollutants, and can help defend against floods; the fruit and vegetables we eat are pollinated by bees: and around half of all prescription medicines are based on chemicals from plants and animals.
Ecosystems exist in a delicate balance, with each animal, plant and organism dependent on others for its survival. Damage or loss to any part of the ecosystem can cause irreversible damage, making it less able to support life.
The big issue is one of survival: when an ecosystem collapses on a global scale it is probable that an extremely hostile ecosystem will take over. For example the anoxic (oxygen-poor) areas of the oceans become off limits to natural predators upsetting the natural order and allowing jellyfish to grow in size to 200kg and decimate the plankton in the ocean. On land, explosions in insect populations can cause the spread of disease, and invasive moulds can devastate crops and forests.
Furthermore, today we’re faced with a double crisis – environmental and economic, and all across the world there’s a tug of war between the need for sustained economic growth and the imperative for environmental protection. The two are not only linked, but inseparable: the ‘environment’ is where we live, and ‘development’ is what we do to sustain our living.
Sustained growth has been the most potent way to reduce poverty. This growth, however, has come with a set of devastating challenges (i.e. climate change) that present the greatest barrier to sustaining high growth, in the absence of a universal framework for sustainable development.
Environment protection and preservation of natural resources clearly support sustainability and are components embedded in the concept of sustainable development, but enabling a sustainable society and economy is equally important.
Understanding the interdependence between globalisation – sustainable development – environment preservation is essential to a more integrated, impartial and coherent approach to development. It allows governments, international organisations, communities and companies to make proactive adjustments to changing conditions in the environment for adequate development.
Our challenge today is to maintain a healthy environment: clean air and water as well as healthy soil necessary for the survival of future generations, whilst driving a prosperous society globally. Hence sustainability should be seen as a goal for the entire society. There needs to be more integration of biodiversity and ecological issues into broader policies, strategies and programmes at global scale, alongside underlying factors, such as human, economic and technological development.
We need to usher in a century of transformation, a century of stewardship to make a long overdue commitment to the protection and improvement of the environment and the security of future generations.
I am full of pride that our young nation, the UAE, has stepped up to demonstrate commitment, vision and leadership in the fields of sustainability and renewable energy, promoting greater energy security and environmental preservation. The Zayed Future Energy Prize, now it its fourth year, is an expression of this unfaltering commitment.
This year I returned as Chair of the Selection Committee for the Prize; it was uplifting and refreshing to see environmental activists, eco-pioneers and social entrepreneurs alongside organisations large and small from around the world taking initiative, addressing the critical environmental, sustainability and energy issues we face today, and rolling out several exciting projects, from sustainable development frameworks and renewable energy technologies, to energy saving, waste management and recycling solutions.
I felt truly hopeful for our planet and for the next generation, and just like Dorothy I tapped my heels together and whispered ‘there’s no place like our world!’
HE Razan Al Mubarak is Secretary General of the Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi and served as a Chair of the Selection Committee for the 2012 Zayed Future Energy Prize