We Need to Look Beyond Our Borders for Clean Air and Blue Skies

September 22, 2021


On the occasion of the 2021 International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies, Dr. Diana Francis was invited to speak at a webinar titled ‘Air Quality Beyond Borders: Exchanging Best Practices in Air Quality Management.’


By Dr. Diana Francis


I was delighted to take part in this event to echo the voice of academia and the scientific community on the question of air quality and its link to climate change, but also to highlight the efforts and new insights we have for society.


Academia and scientific research play an important role in advancing our understanding of air quality and climate change. It also helps policy makers establish science-based strategies and gives them a way to assess the efficiency of those guidelines and strategies.


Since the beginning, Khalifa University has been very involved in research and development on the UAE environment in general, but especially in air quality R&D. 


Masdar Institute was established to develop science-based knowledge on air pollution and to provide guidance and recommendations to governmental entities on the best ways to improve the air quality in the UAE. This has been achieved by investing in both observational and modelling activities which involves faculties, research staff and students. 


Externally, Khalifa University has partnered with the key players in this domain in the UAE with projects and ongoing collaborations with several entities such as the Ministry of Climate Change and the Environment (MOCCAE) and the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD), with whom we have the privilege to work hand-in-hand to improve the air quality in the UAE.


For instance, the Environmental and Geosciences Lab (ENGEOS) at Khalifa University, which I head, is responsible for providing air quality forecasts for the entire UAE daily to the MOCCAE in order to be shared with the public and serve as guidance for vulnerable groups. ENGEOS is also working very closely with the EAD to assess the impact of air pollution on the country’s weather patterns – an indirect impact of air pollution but rarely accounted for in strategic plans.


We have found many key insights on air quality through our work at ENGEOS. For example, we found that air quality is season dependent, with poorer air quality observed during the summer. We also found that the main contributor to the particulate matter levels observed in the UAE is natural aerosols – dust! This makes sense in a desert nation, but there’s also polluted dust from when natural dust mixes with pollutants as it travels over a polluted area to account for. This plays into air quality across the UAE depending on the level of emissions in the countries around the Arabian Gulf. Given the wind patterns here, polluted dust can be transported to the UAE by the Shamal winds. It’s clear that pollution and climate have a very complex relationship and that achieving clean air requires advanced techniques to untangle this interaction.


We know that increasing temperatures can lead to increased concentration of pollutants in the atmosphere because of the chemistry involved, but as temperatures rise, our consumption of electricity goes with it. 


Higher electricity consumption means more emissions, which means more pollution. Then, the increased level of pollutants in the atmosphere impacts the climate by warming the atmosphere as the particulate matter, especially black carbon, absorbs the sunlight.  


Scientific findings and knowledge are actually the backbone of any directive and viable policy. Khalifa University is committed to communicating the scientific findings in the domain of air quality in order to provide science-based knowledge to policy makers and help them elaborate the most appropriate strategies to improve the quality of the air we breathe. As a concrete example, knowing that some of the pollutants are being carried to the UAE from outside the country helps us to better design the relevant strategies to cut local emissions. The composition of the pollutants in the UAE, natural versus man-made ones, their spatio-temporal variability, and other factors are all key information when it comes to establishing sound policies and applying them.


There is no doubt that regional collaboration on air quality among the Gulf countries is crucial. Air knows no borders and whatever is emitted somewhere at a given time it will end up in the atmosphere somewhere else eventually. A positive action toward cutting emissions at one place can be easily cancelled by no action in the neighboring country. This is a crucial aspect to improving air quality, requiring long term coordination and engagement from all parties.


Dr. Diana Francis is a Senior Research Scientist and Head of the ENGEOS Lab at Khalifa University.