Sheikh Zayed's great-granddaughter issues climate change warning

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President Sheikh Khalifa’s granddaughter is calling on all people to tackle climate change, cut pollution and reduce single-use plastics.

In an exclusive interview with The National, Sheikha Shamma bint Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan also reflected on the environmental legacy of her great-grandfather, Sheikh Zayed, the ingenuity of the people who lived here before the oil boom and the UAE’s responsibility as a fossil-fuel-producing nation.

First turning to UAE efforts to tackle climate change, Sheikha Shamma said even a slight increase in temperatures could have both a psychological and physical effect on people.

“Climate change is a very serious global issue that needs to be addressed. [At least] 143 million people are at risk of becoming climate migrants,” she said, referring to recent World Bank figures outlining the threats by 2050.

The UAE is one of the largest oil-producing nations on the planet but is also committed to curbing climate change. For example, the Government has ratified the 2016 Paris agreement – designed to keep global temperature rises under 2C.

“You can’t expect a quick transition,” she said. “These things take time. Change will happen through a combination of government policy, private sector and individual action.”

She added that the UAE was committed to upskilling people to move the country from an oil-producing to knowledge-based economy.

Sheikha Shamma - also chief executive of the awareness body Alliances for Global Sustainability - said the world has to stop sending so much waste to landfill and the everyday consumer had a big role to play in confronting this.

“Purchasing power affects decisions of big corporations who produce the plastic that ends up in landfills and our oceans. People need to be more aware and more conscious of what they purchase and consume. We also need to move away from single-use plastic.”

Important, too, is to learn from the past. Sheikha Shamma reflected on the talent of the people who lived in modern-day UAE before the discovery of oil. They embraced sustainability before it was ever even a theme. Years ago she walked into Al Ain’s Qasr Al Muwaiji - birthplace of The President, Sheikh Khalifa - and was struck by how the workers could design such a natural system that trapped cool air without the use of today’s technology or engineering prowess.

“What we forget is that our forefathers used to build much more sustainably. As soon as you stepped in it was cooler air. And they used natural resources."

She pointed to the installation of a modern wind tower at the campus of renewable energy company, Masdar, in Abu Dhabi as an example of how these historic solutions could be harnessed today.

“It is about modernising and adapting old ways to what people want to see today. It would be nice to see those aspects of heritage and design ingenuity in more modern buildings."

Her comments came on the sidelines of the Emirates Green Building Council Congress in Dubai, where industry leaders, Government officials and sustainability experts spoke of the changes coursing through the sector.

Much of the debate focused on the “circular economy” – an emerging trend across the globe. The circular economy tries to shift the focus away from mere recycling and seeks to reduce waste, improve efficiency and reuse as much as possible.

Sheikha Shamma also spoke movingly about the work of her great-grandfather Sheikh Zayed, whose environmental legacy can be seen all around us. Look at the Al Wathba Wetland for example, or how the Arabian Oryx has been brought back from extinction.

“It is an important factor for me to continue his work. He left us a beautiful and clean country,” she said.

“He always said that we should preserve and conserve the environment and seeing the work that’s being done by Government now and through my work - it is gratifying to see a positive impact on the environment and society. It wakes me up in the morning.”