/ 4 December 2023

UAE fossil fuel sector is a severe health hazard, says Human Rights Watch

Cop28 In Dubai Previews
A view at the Expo City ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on November 27, 2023. (Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

A report by Human Rights Watch released on Monday found that the fossil fuel industry in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is causing harmful air pollution with severe consequences for human health. 

The high level of air pollution “not only poses health hazards for both the local population and migrant workers but also exacerbates global warming”, the report found.

The report, launched during COP28 in Dubai, called on nations at the summit to urge the UAE to give up its plans to expand fossil fuel production. 

This comes as COP28 president Sultan al-Jaber said: “There is no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5C.”

He is also the chief executive of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc).

Climate scientists and activists have slammed Al-Jaber’s comment, with Joelle Gergis, of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change saying of Al-Jaber’s remarks: “This dismisses decades of work by IPCC scientists.”

On Monday, Al-Jaber tried to backtrack. “We very much believe and respect the science,” he said.

Human Rights Watch said that it had based its report on data analysis from 30 government monitoring stations, which revealed the average PM2.5 levels — tiny toxic particles that enter the lungs and bloodstream — were nearly triple the daily recommended levels established by the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) air quality guidelines.

“Air pollution is a severe threat to public health in the UAE. Based on WHO estimates of the death rate attributable to outdoor air pollution, 1 872 people died from air pollution in 2019,” it said.

The report added that despite repeated warnings from the International Energy Agency that global efforts to achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century required a managed decline in the use of oil and gas, the UAE persisted in developing new fields in these sectors.

Although the UAE has committed to achieving net zero by 2050, the government’s plan does not explicitly address the matter of fossil fuels. Instead, the country places a greater emphasis on increasing renewable energy sources. 

“The UAE is expanding its fossil fuel operations, including oil, gas, coal and petrochemical, with plans for new oil and gas production by 2050 that exceeds all but six nations worldwide — despite a consensus that there cannot be new oil, gas or coal development if governments are to meet global climate targets and protect human rights,” it said.

On Sunday, former US vice-president and climate advocate Al Gore criticised the UAE’s emission levels. During a plenary session at COP28, he presented results by independent emissions tracker Climate TRACE that showed the country’s emissions were too high and “could not be hidden anymore”.

“Phase out fossil fuels; that is the solution to the climate crisis,” he said.

Climate Action Tracker, an independent nonprofit climate science and policy institute that tracks governments’ climate action, found that the UAE’s investment in new fossil fuel infrastructure was inconsistent with limiting global warming to 1.5°C. “Instead, these investments will likely bind the UAE to a high-emissions trajectory, potentially undermining its transition towards renewable energy,” it said.

The UAE’s greenhouse gas emissions increased by 7.5% in 2022, compared with the previous year, according to the Climate Action Tracker’s data.

State-owned company Adnoc announced in October that the UAE was working on expanding its carbon capture and storage capacity and would capture 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually by 2030.

“However, this effort constitutes only a tiny portion of the company’s operational emissions [24 million tonnes], not to mention the significant emissions from burning oil and gas in existing and planned fields,” the Human Rights Watch report said.

The report recommended that the UAE call for a moratorium on expanding fossil fuel operations, coupled with a strategic plan for the phased closure of existing operations. 

“The importance of facilitating a just transition for workers, communities and industries towards a renewable economy is highlighted. As part of its COP28 presidency, there is a specific directive to work towards a commitment to a rapid and equitable phase-out of all fossil fuels,” it said.

It added that the country must address environmental concerns at the national level. 

“The ministry of climate change and environment is urged to develop and enforce stringent regulations to limit air pollution in the UAE. This includes the establishment of legally binding limits for PM2.5 levels aligned with WHO guidelines.”

“The ministry of health and prevention is directed to educate healthcare providers on the health risks associated with air pollution and to ensure the accessibility, affordability and quality of healthcare services for all residents.”

It urged the WHO to provide technical assistance to the UAE government for developing more stringent and legally binding domestic standards on air pollution, aligning them with the World Health Organisation’s guidelines.

“These recommendations collectively address the intertwined challenges of climate change, public health and environmental justice,” it said.