Fossil fuels poison air

Rights group says COP28 should address air pollution, abuses

The United Arab Emirates which is hosting the COP28 climate summit in Dubai is itself suffering from alarmingly high levels of air pollution caused by its oil extraction industry, an international rights group said in a report released on Monday.

Even as the UAE works to position itself as a global climate leader at the COP28, its president of the conference Sultan Al Jaber has been criticsed for insisting that there was no scientific basis to prove that fossil fuel phaseout would limit global average temperatures top 1.5C, and send humanity “back to the caves”.

‘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,’ the report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) said. 

The 26-page report, You Can Smell Petrol in the Air: UAE Fossil Fuels Feed Toxic Pollution documents alarmingly high air pollution levels in the UAE creating major health risks for its citizens and residents. The UAE is one of the world’s largest oil producers and home to seven so-called carbon bombs

Air pollution and climate change are directly linked, as the burning of fossil fuels contributes to air pollution and drives climate change. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified air pollution as the ‘single biggest environmental threat to human health’ globally. 

HRW says it analysed government air pollution data since 2018, satellite-derived measurements, and interviewed 12 migrant workers, including low wage workers engaged in outdoor work. Data from 30 monitoring stations in September 2023 showed 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.

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. 

HRW says that the planned expansion of fossil fuel operations also undermines the UAE government’s objectives to reduce high air pollution levels. While the government recognises that its air pollution is a problem, its current air quality standards are much weaker than the WHO recommends. 

“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.”

You Can Smell Petrol in the Air’: UAE Fossil Fuels Feed Toxic Pollution is available at:

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