Taking root

How the UAE is putting mangroves at the heart of its net zero ambitions.

Ten mangrove trees will be planted for every attendee at this year's COP28 conference as part of the UAE’s wide-ranging commitments to nature-based methods for reducing carbon levels in the atmosphere. 

With some 80,000 people expected in the UAE for the UN conference meeting, which begins on November 30, the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD) has committed to reducing the carbon footprint of conference visitors by planting 800,000 mangrove trees as part of its Ghars Al Emarat UAE Planting Initiative. 

The trees will be planted in the Gulf state’s coastal areas, including Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve, Al Mirfa City, and Jubail Island. Abu Dhabi already hosts 85 per cent of the UAE’s mangroves.

“This initiative aims to support Goal 13 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals related to 'climate action', which calls for urgent measures to be taken to address climate change and its impacts," announced EAD’s secretary general Shaikha Salem Al Dhaheri. 

It is part of the UAE’s ‘green lungs’ focus with the country aiming to plant 100 million mangroves by 2030. The Ghars Al Emarat pledge was announced in September, the same month that the UAE endorsed the global Mangrove Breakthrough initiative at the Climate Ambition Summit in New York. 

Launched at COP27 in Egypt, the Mangrove Breakthrough is a collaboration between the Global Mangrove Alliance (GMA) and the UN Climate High-Level Champions. The UAE joins a growing list of governments, businesses, and non-profit organisations calling for global investment to secure the future of over 15 million hectares of mangroves by 2030. 

"We recognise the paramount importance of mangroves in combating climate change and supporting our coastal communities and we look forward to helping drive real on-the-ground change,” said Minister of Climate Change and Environment, Mariam Al Mheiri, following the official endorsement. “I invite nations around the globe to support this unique initiative.”

Evergreen mangrove forests are known to remove significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the air, with studies suggesting that these flooded wetlands are able to sequester four times more carbon than terrestrial ecosystems like rainforests. With a tangled root system that filters and absorbs impurities before it reaches the water, and a waterlogged soil that traps carbon for millennia, this water and air purification process is an ecological magic act that is proving critical in the battle against climate change.

The predominant species of mangrove in the UAE is the grey mangrove - the Avicennia Marina - which is known to withstand high salinity and hot temperatures. With current climate projections predicting rising temperatures in the region, their resilience to increasingly inhospitable conditions could prove to be crucial to the UAE meeting its net zero commitments.

Thanks to extensive afforestation programmes launched by the country’s first president, Sheikh Zayed, in the 1970s, the UAE is already home to more than 60 million mangrove trees blanketing over 183 square kilometres of the country’s coastal regions, resulting in an estimated 43,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide being captured every year.

Planting a further 100 million mangroves would increase the total coverage to 483 square kilometres, capable of absorbing 115,000 tonnes of CO2 annually.

Not only are these coastal forests an effective natural carbon sink, but they also play a vital role in protecting shorelines and ecosystems. The nutrient rich, sheltered water provides an ideal nursery habitat, meaning that mangroves are a breeding ground for shrimp, crab and other species of sea life that have proven integral to the region’s fishing industry. It is estimated that 80 percent of the global fish catch is dependent on mangroves.

"We recognise the paramount importance of mangroves in combating climate change and supporting our coastal communities."

Mariam Al Mheiri, UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment.

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With a tangled root system that filters and absorbs impurities before it reaches the water, and a waterlogged soil that traps carbon for millennia, mangroves are a critical net zero tool. Photo: Shutterstock.

During COP28, the UAE will also host a high-level Mangroves Ministerial as part of ‘Nature, Oceans and Land Use Day’. The hosts hope that it will result in substantial announcements anchored in a science-based, action-oriented plan to deliver on targets.

“The Mangroves Ministerial aims to shape a strong pathway to advance nature-based solutions in our collective fight against climate change,” said minister Almheiri. “It will focus on accelerating finance, policy and technology to meet the Mangrove Breakthrough global target of restoring and protecting 15 million hectares of mangroves, as well as halting their destruction, by 2030.”

Innovation lies at the heart of the UAE’s mangroves strategy. At Abu Dhabi’s Mirfa lagoon, the high-tech drone planting techniques offer a glimpse into how the country plans to reach its mangrove targets. 

The Blue Carbon project is a collaboration between energy firm Engie, tech company Distant Imagery, and the EAD. Following extensive mapping analysis to identify optimal planting sites across the lagoon, heavy-lift multicopters drop the seeds from above. 

Each drone can carry up to 25kg of seeds, and in areas where the land is known to be hard, seeds have been coated with nutrients to ensure they can penetrate the soil. Since 2020, more than 50,000 mangrove seeds have been planted using this technique.

The UAE also sees wider awareness on the topic as key to ensure that the next generation knows of the importance of nature-based climate change mitigation techniques and might be inspired to contribute. Educational programmes, workshops, and events have been organized to engage the public and promote conservation efforts. 

One such event, launched by the EAD in partnership with Tecom Group and Emirates Nature-WWF, features an immersive mangroves-themed escape room that will tour the country. After beginning its nationwide tour at Dubai City, the escape room is expected to welcome thousands of visitors who will be encouraged to take their participation one step further by signing up to the EAD's citizen science programmes.

“Initiatives like the ‘Escape Climate Change – Mangrove Edition’ Escape Room provide a pathway for UAE youth and the community to understand the science and complexity involved in building climate resilience, empowering them to step up and make greater contributions towards climate and nature, through citizen science and volunteerism," said Shaikha Salem Al Dhaheri, from the EAD.

Laila Mostafa Abdullatif, director general at Emirates Nature-WWF, said the escape room "delivers an immersive experience, designed to inspire greater interest in the climate-nature crisis and motivate participants to be part of the solution.”

Today the world has just half of its original number of mangroves, with only 14 million hectares remaining. In addition to its appeal to unlock $4bn in sustainable finance, the Mangrove Breakthrough prioritises halting mangrove depletion, restoring half of all recent mangrove losses, and doubling the protection of existing mangroves. - PA