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A flame burns waste gas in a refinery and petrochemical complex in Al Ruwais, United Arab Emirates, May 14, 2018. © 2018 Christophe Viseux/Bloomberg via Getty Images

(Dubai) – The United Arab Emirates’ fossil fuel industry contributes to toxic air pollution with a devastating impact on human health even as its government works to position itself as a global leader on climate and health issues at the United Nations climate conference COP28, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 24-page report, “‘You Can Smell Petrol in the Air’: UAE Fossil Fuels Feed Toxic Pollution” documents alarmingly high air pollution levels in the UAE, which create major health risks for its citizens and residents and contribute to the global climate crisis. The UAE is one of the world’s largest oil producers and home to seven so-called “carbon bombs,” the world’s largest fossil fuel production projects. Air pollution and climate change are directly linked, as the burning of fossil fuels contributes to air pollution and drives climate change.

“Fossil fuels pollute the air people breathe in the UAE,” said Richard Pearshouse, environment director at Human Rights Watch, “But the obliteration of civil society by UAE’s government means that no one can publicly express concerns, let alone criticize the government’s failure to prevent this harm.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified air pollution as the “single biggest environmental threat to human health” globally. People with certain health conditions such as asthma, pregnant people, children, older people, people with disabilities, migrant workers especially those working outdoors, people living in poverty, and other socially and economically marginalized populations are more likely to be exposed to or adversely affected by toxic air.

Human Rights Watch reviewed and analyzed government air pollution data from 2018 to 2023, satellite-derived data, and government reports, and interviewed 12 migrant workers, including low wage workers engaged in outdoor work. Human Rights Watch also spoke with exiled Emiratis, academic experts, and international and domestic environmental groups and reviewed relevant government policies and media reports.

Human Rights Watch analysis of levels of PM2.5 (very small particles that measure 2.5 micrometers or smaller and can penetrate deep into the lungs and easily enter the bloodstream) captured by 30 government ground monitoring stations in September 2023 found that they were, on average, almost three times the daily recommended levels of WHO’s air quality guidelines. According to the latest World Bank data, the mean annual exposure to PM2.5 in the UAE is more than eight times higher than the WHO considers safe for human health. Approximately 1,872 people die every year from outdoor air pollution in the UAE, based on WHO estimates.

The UAE government says that the country has poor air quality but mainly ascribes this to natural dust from sandstorms. However, academic studies have shown that natural causes are not the single, or in some cases even the major, factor in air pollution. For example, a 2022 study found that that, in addition to the dust, emissions including from fossil fuels contribute significantly to the problem in the UAE.

Those in the UAE wanting to report on, or speak out about, the risks of fossil fuel expansion and its links to air pollution face risks of unlawful surveillance, arrest, detention, and ill-treatment. Over the last decade, the UAE authorities have sustained an assault on human rights and freedoms. They have targeted human rights activists, enacting repressive laws and using the criminal justice system to eliminate the human rights movement. One climate activist said: “Nobody will ever hold the government to account publicly. We do not have the privilege of speaking out against the government.”

Migrant workers described breathing air that burned their lungs, feeling out of breath at work, having itchy skin, and other health problems that they believe could be related to toxic air. Yet, they said they had not been provided with information about the risks of air pollution, its sources, who is most affected, and how they can protect themselves. One worker who has been in Dubai for three years said: “Sometimes, the environment becomes dark and murky. We discuss among friends why it is that way… The conversation ends there. During such times friends also fall sick.”

The UAE government has submitted a revised nationally determined contribution – or NDC, a domestic climate action plan required by the Paris Agreement on Climate Change – to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2023. This plan, while making some ambitious commitments, also indicates the government’s intention to increase fossil fuel production. That goal is inconsistent with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis globally.

The planned expansion of fossil fuel operations also undermines the UAE government’s objectives to reduce high air pollution levels, Human Rights Watch said. While the government recognizes that its air pollution is a problem, its current air quality standards are much weaker than the WHO recommends. The government is failing to adequately monitor and address high pollution levels and protect populations most at risk.

The government should tackle the root causes of air pollution by drastically reducing the release of pollutants that are harmful to human health, including by developing plans for a full phase out of fossil fuels, Human Rights Watch said. The UAE government should take concrete steps to better monitor air quality by making information public and easy to access and understand by everyone, by applying rigorous air quality standards in line with WHO recommendations, and by assessing, clearly communicating, and mitigating risks to human health, including for at-risk groups.

“Air pollution is a dirty secret in the UAE,” Pearshouse said. “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.”

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