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Emirates residents outpace Americans in environmental harm

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — When it comes to squandering
the earth's natural resources, residents of this desert land of
chilled swimming pools, monster 4x4s and air-conditioned malls are
on a par with even the ravenous consumption of Americans, according
to the World Wildlife Fund.

The average person in the Emirates puts more demand on the
global ecosystem than any other, giving the country the world's
largest per-capita ``ecological footprint,'' WWF data shows.

The
United States runs second.

But the oil-rich Emirates is considered a developing country,
and even as a signatory to the United Nations' Kyoto protocol on
global warming, is not required to cut emissions.

The United States
is no longer bound by Kyoto, which the Bush administration rejected
after taking office in 2001.

Even so, the Emirates government has been embarrassed by the WWF
report, which it says is flawed.

The federal environment agency is
devising strategies to cut emissions, including a public campaign
that may offer economic incentives to those who turn down their air
conditioning, Saad al-Numairy, an adviser to agency, said Monday.

``We have an action plan,'' al-Numairy said. ``But we are a
multicultural country with 180 nationalities. It's not going to be
easy.''

Energy consumption in the Emirates runs high for many of the
same reasons found in the United States: a feeling that the good
life requires huge air-conditioned houses and cars, and a disdain
for public transportation.

Making matters worse are Dubai's audacious developments,
including artificial resort islands that have destroyed coral reefs
and an indoor ski slope that still creates snow when it is 120
degrees outside.

``Of all the places to make artificial snow, this has to be the
most absurd,'' said Jonathan Loh, a British biologist who
co-authored the WWF report.

Nearby Kuwait, another scorching-hot Persian Gulf oil producer,
ranked fifth in the WWF report that emerged in October. Finland was
third and Canada fourth.

Environmental officials here say the Emirates ranking is based
on outdated information, since the WWF report relies on 2003 data
that estimates the country's population at 3 million when it is
closer to 5 million.

``It's a fact of life that the UAE will always have a large
ecological footprint because of where we are,'' said Habiba
al-Marashi, who chairs the Emirates Environmental Group. ``But to
be classified as the worst, that hurts. We don't think the report
is on solid ground.''

Loh acknowledged that factoring in more accurate population
figures might put UAE in second place just behind the United
States, but ``it's still going to show that the UAE is right on the
top of the scale.''

The country's full damage is not tallied because the WWF study
ignores aircraft emissions, Loh said. The UAE emirate of Dubai
claims one of the world's busiest airports.

The WWF rankings are measured in ``global hectares'' — the area
of biologically productive land and sea needed to provide the
resources consumed by an average person.

The Emirates' ecological
footprint measured 11.9 global hectares per person, compared to 9.6
hectares per person for the United States and a global average of
2.2 hectares a person.

The country took the top spot because its energy consumption is
high and emissions are spread among a small population, Loh said.

The country's landscape offers little help. Undulating sand
dunes and jagged mountains of bare rock offer precious little
greenery to soak up carbon emissions.

One focal point for Dubai's emissions is the red-and-white
smokestacks jutting from gas-fired power plants and an aluminum
smelter that line the beach on the city's outskirts.

The plants do
double duty distilling fresh water from Gulf seawater, an
energy-intensive process that accounts for 98 percent of the fresh
water in a country with no rivers and little usable groundwater.

In Dubai and Abu Dhabi desalinated water is lavished, Las
Vegas-style, on fountains, artificial lakes, swimming pools, resort
greenery and golf courses sitting atop once drifting desert sands.

Desalination also produces most fresh water in Saudi Arabia and
Kuwait, Gulf countries that also showed high footprints.

Due to the country's small size, carbon emissions and
consumption in the Emirates are a tiny fraction of that of the
United States, and Loh said most efforts to cut greenhouse gases
need to concentrate on America and other large industrial
countries.

But unlike in the United States, energy consumption has not
emerged as an issue.

The Emirates, like the rest of the
oil-producing Gulf states, was until the 1960s an impoverished
desert country whose residents survived through subsistence
fishing, farming and small-time trade.

Now, the government's energy subsidies give Emirates citizens
free water and cheap electricity. Gasoline sells for around $1.70
per gallon.

``Really, we're happy to be rich now,'' said Majid al-Mansouri,
who heads the environment agency serving Abu Dhabi.

The WWF has asked the Emirates government to cut energy use and
move toward renewable energy, especially solar power viable in one
of the world's sunniest climates.

Al-Mansouri said the country was looking to make improvements,
such as running publicly owned vehicles on compressed natural gas —
which is cleaner burning but still emits globe-warming carbon
dioxide.

The state oil company has eliminated 80 percent of its
wasteful flaring off of natural gas at oil wellheads, he said.

Other projects once considered environmentally friendly here are
being reevaluated.

Longtime Emirates ruler Sheik Zayed oversaw the
planting of a forestry belt kept alive by irrigation, which is now
considered a waste of water. Parts of the forests are being allowed
to slowly die off.

``Those forests became a refuge for wildlife,'' al-Mansouri
said. ``We have gazelle, oryx and hares because of these forests.''