Is Dubai’s future green?

The UAE has the world’s largest carbon footprint per capita, but it is trying to mend its ways. Will it work?

Dr. Hassan Hassoon Al-Delphi

Environmental Professor at University of Dubai

‘Dubai has been the Middle East’s pioneering force in environment issues since the late ’90s. The UAE didn’t hang about for the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, enforced in 2005 [multilateral agreements on carbon targets] before taking positive steps. The late president of the UAE, HH Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, had already initiated this movement by encouraging the preservation of wildlife in all the emirates. Even then I argued that, in terms of infrastructure and environmental programmes, Dubai was a model which should be followed by developing countries.

‘Yes, it’s true that the construction boom here has created environmental problems, such as air and noise pollution, traffic problems, densely packed buildings – leading to low air circulation – high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, and so on. But I truly believe this is a temporary situation. Dubai’s authorities are working on solving these issues by setting up extra roads, introducing a metro system and moving offices and main governmental establishments from the centre of the city to the periphery. All these schemes will help reduce traffic. They’re also introducing thermal insulation [a process which reduces heat transfer] which helps burn less fossil fuels.

‘There’s no denying that the UAE’s desert location means it has one of the highest per capita carbon footprints in the world: it inevitably leads to greater water consumption and a bigger cooling load. The latter costs each individual in the UAE three times more than the necessary heating load costs an individual in Europe. Thus, Dubai naturally has a bigger carbon problem than places with less extreme climates.

‘On the other hand, being 20 degrees north of the equator is an advantage when it comes to hours of sunshine and high solar radiation. Solar energy is what will make Dubai green in the long term. However, in the short term, nuclear energy is the answer. The government is aware of this fact and is working towards introducing this technology, with the backing of the United States.

‘Fortunately, Dubai’s leaders are aware of their increasingly limited oil resources and have launched their green strategy in response to this situation – this transition is crucial to maintain their position in the world. Sooner or later, everyone will use alternative sources of energy, and the shift will take at least 50 years. It’s about time Dubai got onboard. Alternative energy in the UAE currently represents 7.5 per cent of total energy usage but should reach 15 per cent by 2025.

‘We have the ideas and wealth necessary to turn green. But Dubai’s neighbours have to cooperate. We need technology from outside to implement this switch. While I believe the economic crisis will slow down the process here, it will not eradicate it.

‘All the UAE’s green projects, such as Masdar City and the Green Building Code, prove Dubai’s environmental commitment. It’s not propaganda, despite the glamorous façades – people here really mean it. But at the same time ecology has to be a business. It’s how environmental habitats will be maintained. Money from tourism will be reinvested in sustainable habitats – thus eco-tourism is key.

‘The will and vision are strong. I really do believe Dubai will become green in the future.’

Rex Weyler

Cofounder of Greenpeace International

‘Can Dubai ever be green? It depends what we mean by ‘‘green’’. If we mean less wasteful: probably. But if we’re talking about sustainability, then you have to use less energy. You must develop public transportation and build neighbourhoods where people can walk. You need advanced procedures such as cold generation of power [the simultaneous production of power, heat and cold] and better use of waste energy, including heat waste recovery. The most important thing is to become energy efficient – the biggest source of energy is conserving what you already have.

‘Dubai is a good example of business taking control of the environmental agenda. I see this across the globe. The business world now knows that people want products they think of as being ‘‘green’’. Of course, what the investors want to create with all that optimism and ingenuity is profit, not real sustainability.

‘Concerning Masdar [the world’s first carbon-free, zero waste city, see page 16] in Abu Dhabi, we have to be very careful about statements like ‘zero-carbon, zero-waste’. In my opinion it’s not accurate and a lot of it is promotional, so we’d need to see the actual figures. Just think that you will have to cool all these buildings in the middle of the summer when it’s 50C. And people don’t want to go on ecotourism holidays to a modern city. They want nature. So I’m sceptical.

‘Regarding other energy alternatives, what countries will discover is that nuclear technology is not a low-carbon source. It requires a tremendous amount of power to develop infrastructure, ship uranium and create energy. Also consider that building enough nuclear power plants for an entire region is a long-term project and these plants only have a lifespan of about 40 years. As such, Dubai should skip the nuclear phase and go straight to solar energy.

‘Whatever the UAE decides, bear in mind that we cannot make ourselves green by technology alone; this denies the fact that our planet has limits. Everything we build, everything we do, requires energy. Even wind and solar power are not carbon neutral since fossil fuels are used to build those technologies.

‘If Dubai wants to be more sustainable, producing resources locally is an essential step – self sufficiency is vital to sustainability. How much of food consumed is grown within 100km of Dubai? Probably very little.

‘None of the UAE’s huge ‘‘green’’ urban projects are about consuming less – so the current ‘‘green’’ plan is not viable. It is a backwards strategy where international jet travel is necessary to import goods and support the tourism sector. Here is the hard lesson we have to learn: being sustainable means human society has to consume less. Not more, less! This message is the real inconvenient truth.’

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