Greening the desert: How the UAE aims to change its carbon footprint


Relentless construction, a booming aviation sector and near-permanent air conditioning: Dubai is not an obvious contender for the title of one of the world’s most sustainable cities.

Yet this is the goal the emirate has set itself. Having shaken off the worst effects of the recession, building has again taken off – but this time, the emphasis is on being ‘green’.

In line with the national government’s own targets, Dubai has plans to ‘green-up’, or retrofit, existing buildings and cut carbon emissions despite depending heavily on expensive, energy-hungry processes — from the spectacular fountain show staged every 15 minutes outside Dubai Mall to dazzle tourists, to the gallons of water churned up in A/C units each day for residents suffering in the searing temperatures.


By 2030, the government wants to have reduced energy use across the emirate by 30 percent and to generate at least 25 percent of its power from renewable sources, including solar, clean coal and nuclear. It also wants to eliminate waste sent to landfill within 20 years, and devise more sustainable methods of water generation.

A quick riffle through the statistics suggests this could be a tall order. The UAE has one of the largest carbon footprints in the world. The 2015 UAE State of Energy Report, which was published by the government in January and holds the most recent data, says the UAE produced almost 20 tonnes of CO2 emissions per person in 2010, a 63 percent increase from 2000.

Water and electricity generation account for 33 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, followed by transportation, responsible for 22 percent.

In Dubai, an average person uses a mammoth 20,000 kilowatt-hours of energy and 130 gallons of water per year, according to Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA), while water consumption across the UAE was estimated to be around 500 litres per day in 2013, according to the Federal Electricity and Water Authority. This was 82 percent above the global average and three times higher than average per capita consumption in the European Union. Waste levels per capita are also among the highest in the world, with Abu Dhabi alone producing between 1.8kg and 2.4kg per person per day – almost double that of the UK.

But the UAE remains resolute, even going so far as to pledge that the site of the World Expo 2020 event Dubai will host in five years’ time will be the “most sustainable ever”. At least 50 percent of the Expo site is to be constructed from recyclable materials and powered with renewable energy, claimed Reem Al Hashimy, UAE minister of state and managing director of the Dubai Expo 2020 Higher Committee, at a conference in March, as she insisted Dubai would play a big role in promoting global environmental sustainability in years to come.

With the UAE on a bigger push than ever to diversify its economy and attract 20 million tourists by 2021, sceptics have dismissed its relatively recent focus on sustainability as a ‘talking shop’. There is an apparent contradiction, they say, between the UAE’s ambitious environmental targets and plans for eye-catching yet unnatural schemes such as Damac’s Dubai Rainforest, intended to be the first tropical rainforest in the Middle East.

Damac senior vice-president Niall McLoughlin responds: “We are very conscious of the need to create this environment to the highest environmental standards and are working with international experts to ensure it meets all requirements.”

One UK-based energy consultant, who asked not to be named, says: “No country that is serious about achieving global business recognition could be seen not to care about the environment. Whether they do enough to change things is a different matter.”

But others say this is not the point. To set – and work towards meeting – clear sustainability targets, is a necessary step for improving the country’s environmental credentials.

“Money and investment are increasingly linked to sustainability, and globally public attitudes demand it,” notes Nicholas Lander, regional sustainability lead at CH2M Hill, who is speaking independently of the company’s role as principal sustainability advisor to the Dubai Expo 2020 delivery team.

“Some people still prioritise short-term gain without understanding how global megatrends will affect these gains in the coming years. But the science and economics of global warming tell us we need to shift towards a green economy to catalyse growth and ensure resilience in the future, and [the UAE] is making efforts to do this.”

Lander says real estate developments that are not demonstrably ‘green’ are losing out in terms of how quickly they sell and the values they command, while market perceptions of sustainability are affecting other sectors, too. “We still have a way to go, but Dubai has shown time and again that it can defy popular expectation and reach its goals.”

Majida Ali Rashid, assistant director-general and head of Dubai Land’s Investment Management and Promotion Center, says Dubai has set a “major goal” to become greener. “Although we are keen to achieve economic development and attract more foreign investment, we are paying attention to sustainability and creating new projects to pursue energy-efficiency,” she says.

“The achievement of such objectives involves significant challenges, but we are able to confront them, thanks to our learning in these areas.”

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that buildings use about 40 percent of global energy. With the UAE’s construction sector gathering pace again, the government updated its environmental performance standards for all new buildings. The UAE Green Building Guidelines,  in place since 2010, were reissued in January 2014 to stipulate minimum standards of energy efficiency, water consumption and materials to be used in new-build properties.

It has also adopted the international LEED green building certification system, with 850 projects either already certified or registered for LEED certification. The State of Energy Report names several of these buildings, including DEWA’s headquarters in Al Quoz and the first ‘green’ mosque in the Islamic world, which opened in Port Saeed last year. There is also the sprawling Masdar  ‘smart city’ under construction in Abu Dhabi, intended as a test-bed for new sustainable technologies.

Rashid claims there is “detailed follow up by official bodies on how these new developments are performing”, and adds efforts are being made to improve energy-guzzling artificial green spaces such as golf courses, by using efficient irrigation techniques and plants that adapt to the prevailing climatic conditions.

Several of the UAE’s biggest developers, including Emaar Properties, are embracing the new requirements.

“Our sustainability commitment is [epitomised] in the Burj Khalifa,” an Emaar Properties spokesperson says. “The tower’s high performance exterior cladding system is designed to withstand the UAE’s summer temperatures. Its condensate collection system provides about 15 million gallons of supplement water per year, equivalent to about 20 Olympic swimming pools, and solar panels are used to meet the bulk of residents’ water heating requirements.”

The Expo 2020 organising committee is still finalising how it will achieve its sustainability methods for the 438-hectare site, but John Martin St Valery, founding partner of the Links Group, which helps new companies set up in the Gulf, says it has an opportunity to make a global mark.

“If the UAE gets this right, which it is likely to do with the vision and drive of the leadership, Expo 2020 could become a global billboard for making ‘eco-cities’ the standard modus operandi,” he says.

Progress already has been made in retrofitting older buildings. Emirates Green Building Council chairman Saeed Al Abbar says an estimated 30,000 of the 120,000 buildings in Dubai have high energy saving potential and the government is seeking to maximise that.

“Dubai is a new city that grew quickly. Many of the first buildings were constructed long before building codes were introduced, which means they are not as efficient as they could be and pose challenges in terms of energy reduction,” he says.

To encourage investment in environmental upgrades, the Ministry of Public Works and Dubai Supreme Council of Energy last month published technical guidelines for retrofitting existing buildings. At the same time, the government is progressing with an ambitious yet unpublicised programme to retrofit some of its oldest properties. The initiative is being led by Etihad Energy Services, a wholly owned subsidiary of DEWA formed two years ago.

Chief executive Stephane Le Gentil says the company is in the process of completing two projects for DEWA worth $10m, as well as  other contracts in the pipeline, including to retrofit all 14 buildings in the Dubai International Financial Centre, and properties on behalf of the Dubai World Trade Centre, Dubai Airport Free Zone, Dubai Civil Defence and Wasl Asset Management Group. Agreements have been signed and tenders are being organised, with projects due to start from 2016.

Of the projects on site, the first involves retrofitting DEWA’s headquarters in Bur Dubai and two power stations in Jebel Ali and Rashidiya. The HQ project targets a 31 percent energy reduction with $4.4m of investment, expected to be recouped in cost savings within six years. The power stations retrofit involves upgrading lighting systems to achieve a 68 percent energy reduction, costing $5.7m with a three-and-a-half-year payback.

The second involves retrofitting all 254 commercial buildings in the Jebel Ali Free Zone with energy-efficient chillers, lighting, piping, ventilation and other systems. “The short term goal is to focus on government-owned buildings as they are keen to reduce their bills and lead by example,” says Le Gentil. Within the next three years, he says, the company will seek to contract with residential landlords, but there are inherent challenges because tenants often pay the energy bills, rather than landlords, therefore, with minimal financial benefits they are less incentivised to pay for upgrades.

However, the UAE’s environmental targets “are realistic because the country has to change — it can’t stay as it is,” says Le Gentil. The first retrofits will achieve millions of dollars in savings and proof of the financial benefits will make it easier to convince others to ‘go green’.

Meanwhile, sustainability experts have noticed a fledgling renewables industry in the UAE. And 2015 has been declared the ‘Year of Renewable Energy’.

“The lower oil price and increased awareness of depleting fossil fuels is giving the nascent sector enormous momentum,” St Valery says.

“The UAE is looking to almost double its contribution to these industries to nearly 20 percent of GDP by 2020, so foreign companies that align themselves with this agenda stand to reap significant returns.”

Reda El Chaar, chairman of Dubai-based Access Power MEA, agrees.

“We are seeing huge interest in solar power regionally,” he says. “Dubai is set to award 1,000 megawatts of solar projects this year, that’s a 100-fold increase since last year.

“The economics of solar have changed dramatically over the past three years. [Operational] costs have plummeted by over 50 percent and the MENA solar market is expected to reach over $2bn in 2015, according to research by the Middle East Solar Industry. This presents a compelling investment opportunity.”

The government has sought to incentivise solar development through a payback scheme in which solar panel developers can sell surplus energy to the national grid. However, there are other barriers such as licensing, says St Valery.

“Renewable infrastructure firms do not fit neatly into free zone/foreign corporate ownership rules – they are a bit of a grey area,” he says. “So it is not easy for international players to set up in the UAE and there is a shortage of expertise.” His company is lobbying the government to amend licensing rules to open up the market.

The green bond and sukuk sector also has grown – by 50 percent over the past year, according to a Climate Bonds Initiative report last week.

More broadly, the UAE faces behavioural barriers to going green. Says Lander: “Water and waste represent the two biggest challenges. Water is not priced to represent its value and, as a result, it’s wasted.

“Our groundwater resources are running out; salinity in the Gulf is rising due to desalination, and yet people hose down their driveways rather than grab a broom. The technology exists to treat and reuse water, the problem is attitudes that need to be addressed through education and price signals.”

By Sarah Townsend

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