As the United Arab Emirates prepares to host COP28, a new Human Rights Watch report exposes the country's alarming levels of air pollution, a direct consequence of its heavy reliance on fossil fuels. The report, titled "‘You Can Smell Petrol in the Air’: UAE Fossil Fuels Feed Toxic Pollution," documents the devastating impact of air pollution on the health of UAE citizens and residents, highlighting the government's failure to address this pressing issue.
The UAE, one of the world's largest oil producers, is home to seven so-called "carbon bombs," massive fossil fuel projects that contribute significantly to air pollution and climate change. The burning of fossil fuels releases harmful pollutants into the air, causing respiratory illnesses, heart disease, and even premature death. The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified air pollution as the "single biggest environmental threat to human health," and the UAE's air quality falls far short of WHO's recommended guidelines.
Human Rights Watch's analysis of government air pollution data from 2018 to 2023 reveals that PM2.5 levels, which measure the concentration of fine inhalable particles, are almost three times higher than WHO's recommended levels. According to the World Bank, the UAE's mean annual exposure to PM2.5 is eight times higher than the WHO considers safe for human health.
The UAE government's suppression of civil society has further exacerbated the air pollution crisis. The government's tight control over information and the lack of freedom of expression have prevented public scrutiny of the fossil fuel industry's impact on air quality. This lack of transparency has hindered efforts to address the issue and has left vulnerable populations, such as migrant workers and those living in poverty, disproportionately exposed to toxic air pollution.
To address this pressing issue, the UAE government must take immediate action to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and implement effective air quality monitoring and mitigation measures. The government should develop a plan to phase out fossil fuels, invest in renewable energy sources, and implement stricter air quality standards in line with WHO recommendations. Furthermore, the government must allow for open dialogue and public participation in decision-making processes related to air pollution and fossil fuel use.
“Air pollution is a dirty secret in the UAE,” said Richard Pearshouse, environment director at Human Rights Watch. “If the government doesn’t allow civil society to scrutinize and speak freely about the connection between air pollution and its fossil fuel industry, people will keep experiencing health conditions that are entirely preventable.”