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Thu 12 Nov 2009 12:19 PM

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Green light

Joanne Bladd welcomes Abu Dhabi’s plan to ban plastic bags but argues that it should be just the beginning.

In case you hadn’t noticed, green is big in the UAE. We’re home to the world’s first carbon-neutral, zero-waste city; we host the International Renewable Energy Agency and we have an annual Environment Day.

So the news that Abu Dhabi is set to ban plastic bags could be seen as the latest in a long tradition of efforts to turn us all into carbon-neutral cherubs. But I wish it were that simple.

Many things annoy me about green initiatives. First up are the corporations that relentlessly flog their token eco-friendly changes, so they can continue, in every other area, to pillage the planet as usual. (The technical term for this is greenwashing.)

Case in point; the retail firms that sneakily brand a lone product as being Fair Trade in a bid to get some nice publicity, while churning out the remaining 99 percent of their line through a sweatshop in China.

Or the oil companies that announce they are offsetting the greenhouse gas emissions from their business travel, as part of their policy of being “environmentally responsible”.

However you dress it up, a company whose basic activity is oil and gas is never going to be green.

Then I’m irritated by the firms that angelically plug eco-friendly schemes that have more perks for them than the suffering planet. Top on my list here, are hotel chains that ask you to reuse your towels. You’ve seen them – the little signs propped by the sinks urging you to “help save the environment” by wringing out your damp towel for another day.

This is a room that is typically either frigidly air-conditioned or boiling hot, where every electrical appliance is on standby, and where a mini-fridge is chilling an array of food and drink you probably won’t touch. (A $8 for a Kit-Kat, really, does anyone?) It’s not about the planet, it’s about cutting down on the laundry bill.

While we should applaud the sentiment behind Abu Dhabi’s plastic bag ban, it falls somewhere between these two gripes. Here in the UAE, we have the dubious privilege of having the world’s highest per capita environmental footprint.

In short, we gobble up more natural resources per capita than anywhere else on earth. So we’re unlikely to save the planet using jute shopping bags. As green measures go, it is easy, cheap and doesn’t ask that much of buyers, but it’s hardly going to offset our 4x4 obsession.

For supermarkets, it’s a bonus. Some already rake in a little cash by righteously charging for bags, and it exempts them from having to do anything more meaningful. Still, the real danger here is that people will think binning carrier bags equals a smooth path to eco-salvation.

There you’ll be, virtuously lugging your hessian bags, basking in the glow of knowing you’re doing your bit to save the planet. Despite the fact you might have driven to the mall in a Hummer, bought food that has travelled more miles than your average air hostess, and comes shrink-wrapped in the kind of swaddling usually seen on mummies.

In real terms, carrier bags are a drop in the ocean of plastic unsustainability. So call me skeptical, but I’m not sure the future of eco-friendliness lies in jute. Over to you Masdar City.

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CH 10 years ago

All these initiatives are a bit ridiculous If you wanna make an impact then look at how you can do it by cutting something away which is (obviously) not a necessity. The best example are the many big cars that drive around. 13-16 gallon/100km. They are not a necessity and you could easily live without them. Make an initiative like that an then see how green everyone is down here!

debbie 10 years ago

masdar city and banning plastic cities are all fine. in fact i think they are great pr initiatives, or "distractors". but what baout the big carbon footprint that was just created at the f1 races?

Wildwine 10 years ago

Fully agree with debbie and CH; this is mere "GREENWASHING"!!

JP 10 years ago

I agree, The UAE has the largest carbon foot print after the US and it is the size of the state of Maine!!! We don't need the biggest and the tallest of everything. Increasing the carbon foot print just to prove that there's lots of money here is not the way to save the planet -- living in harmony with the environment and being responsible about how one uses the limited resources, is!!

Saeid 10 years ago

To CH. The big cars that you're referring to ARE a necessity in the UAE. I was driving a Toyota Hilux pickup truck before and was adequately in love with it. It was powerful, went on any road I threw at it and got decent gas millage with it's 2.7 liter engine. There was one problem with it. Everyone wanted to drive me off the road. I'm serious. There wasn't one lane on the road that I could drive on without getting tailgated, cut in front of or harassed, just for the fun of it. Now I drive a Chevy Avalanche. And everyone loves me. People actually slam on their breaks to give me way. And cutting in front of me is a bad and remote memory. We are not in Europe. We are where we are and the necessities for being on the road safely and keeping your sanity while driving dictate having a big car, like I do (-:

Sandjockey 10 years ago

...always seem to get in the way of the truth. 1. The world's largest carbon footprint is an honor held by China, not the US. 2. The true measure of a country's carbon footprint isn't the total emissions as compared to the rest of the world but rather the PER CAPITA emissions. Qatar and UAE are numbers 1 and 2. The US is way down at number 9 (less than 1/3 of Qatar and approx 1/2 of UAE). 2. Though a good first step a country's carbon footprint is only a small factor in the fight against climate change. One needs to look at their entire ecological footprint, which includes a look at the ability of a country to self-sustain. Sadly the UAE (and most other ME countries) are not self-sustaining and their actual ecological footprint is abysmal. With their shopping malls, indoor ski domes, and millions of tourists, there is a long long road ahead of the UAE> While driving more fuel efficient vehicles might not make a huge impact if you measure it one by one, it is the overall impact of all those vehicles that starts to make a dent. Believe it or not there are electric vehicle alternatives available in the UAE right now. That is one great step. Eliminating plastic shopping backs is another. Turning off your A/C when you aren't home (or tuning up a degree or two) is another. If each of us did our own small part we would start to make a big impact. So, rather than trying to pick ideas apart why don't you just join in? FWIW, SJ

TF 10 years ago

Dear Saeid, I'm glad that everyone loves you in your Avalanche. Enjoy it my friend because your kids, if you are lucky to have them, certainly won't. The climate change facts and evidence are now irrefutable. Yes, Europe and the West have contributed massively to the situation we now find ourselves in. Third and second world countries demand the same level of industrial and technological advancement (your Chevy) and why not? Sometimes you have to do a bit of greenwashing to make people understand about the environment in which they live. A consumer initiative leads to higher awareness about associated environmental issues. However governments must take the lead in this. Watering golf courses for a minority in the middle of a desert is criminally wasteful, as is carbon capture and offsetting. Its like trying to buy your way out of a crisis by just adding to it. Recycling just moves the problems elsewhere. Only by cutting down on the incredibly wasteful consumption here in the UAE can we fully address the the issue. The UAE is blessed not only with oil but with with powerful sunlight which if harnessed and stored (although that's a complex issue) could provide power to the entire region and beyond.

His Excellency Dr Paul 10 years ago

I must confess I was a little surprised when I first came to the UAE and saw so many pickup trucks. How can such a small place support so many freelance painters, decorators and window cleaners I thought? Surely if you are after something big, roomy and UAE-road proof, and aren't too worried about creating an impression of working-classness, buying a bus or one of those big orange tankers is an even better choice?

GR 10 years ago

I am sorry but while they are turning cities like Al Ain in the middle of the desert into "Garden cities" (- it has 75 parks and gardens not to mention all the tree and flower lined streets and roundabouts -) growing salad vegetables in the middle of the desert and making snow everyday in Dubai - it seems rahter futile to not use a plastic bag!

Saeid 10 years ago

Dear TF, as the old saying goes, when in Rome do as the Romans do. Also, since you mentioned my children, my 6 year old daughter is the very reason I bought the big tanker. I spend much time abroad, and in most countries my vehicle of choice are scooters and small cars.