Following its rapid rise from a humble fishing village to an ultra-modern metropolis, Dubai is a city of superlatives: It’s home to the world’s tallest building, biggest shopping mall, largest picture frame, or the most capacious indoor skiing center.
The oil boom since the 1950s unleashed a fast-paced economic growth in Dubai. It also brought the gleaming skyscrapers and multinational businesses, while attracting the talent to propel the city further. Nicknamed “Manhattan of the Middle East“, this metropolis became synonymous with extravagance, shopping, and luxury for many. Dubai’s sumptuous charms lure over 15 million international visitors every year.
However, the glitz and glamor of this melting pot came with a price tag higher than the most lavish shopping possible. In 2010, the World Wildlife Fund revealed that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was the country with the world’s largest ecological footprint, due to factors like fuel consumption, private jets, limited public transport, human-made islands, and inefficient buildings.
As a high-income emerging market, the UAE is still grappling with the challenges of rapid growth and urbanization. Nonetheless, its economic powerhouse Dubai is coming into terms with the fact that the future needs to be green. Deciding to take action on the emissions, the desert megacity wants to add another superlative to its reputation: Dubai hopes to be the world’s most sustainable city by 2050.
Planned investments of USD 163 billion over the next few decades will aim to re-organize Dubai to attend to its energy, water, and construction needs in a sustainable way.
Energy Revolution: From Earth to Skies
Especially in a natural resource-based economy, it wouldn’t be possible to make a significant change in carbon emissions without tackling energy issues.
In 2017, the UAE launched its “Energy Strategy 2050” to do so. The initiative aims to push the contribution of clean energy to total energy usage to 50 percent by 2050 while reducing the carbon footprint of power generation by 70 percent.
Since the 1950s, the Middle Eastern nation drilled deep through the earth for the oil, which shaped much of the country’s economic landscape. However, the UAE has another source of untapped natural wealth: The sun.
A record-breaking solar park rising from the Dubai desert, which cost the government USD 13.6 billion, is set to be one of the many energy investments to power the city in a greener way. This park will produce some of the cheapest and cleanest electricity on earth.
By 2030, all the buildings in Dubai will have solar panels on their roofs.
Overhauling Public Transport
Until recently, all Dubai residents, including the ruling elite, relied on camels for transportation. However, once the oil boom started to bring modern roads and infrastructure in the mid-20th century, Dubai quickly grew into a car-centric city.
As a part of Dubai’s 2050 vision, helping the residents to ditch their cars with a reliable and efficient public transport system is among the priorities to reduce the carbon emissions.
After some investments, at a length of 74.6 kilometers, Dubai metro is the world’s longest driver-free and fully automated metro rail network. Likewise, the megacity also boasts the first tram service outside Europe that works on the underground power supply.
In a city where walking or cycling can be challenging due to the heat, Dubai will also experiment with drone taxis dubbed as “flying taxis” and driverless transport pods in near future.
Making It Rain in the Desert
In Dubai, the rain is infrequent, lasts for a short period, and occurs naturally only a handful times a year. However, the city’s over 3 million residents need water. Dubai’s extravagant features like the manifold golf clubs, human-made islands, lavish gardens, or the indoor skiing center elevate the water needs. Even though the UAE is one of the world’s most water-scarce countries, it also has one of the world’s highest per capita water consumption, with 550 liters per day.
Tackling discrepancies as such requires an extraordinary approach, but Dubai has them. Thanks to a meteorological manipulation technique called “cloud seeding”, which entails sowing clouds with small particles to make them rain or snow, it can pour down in the desert. Even though it might dampen the moods of the sun-seeking tourists, the National Centre of Meteorology and Seismology can conduct dozens of successful experiments a month.
Dubai still largely relies on desalinization, an energy-intensive process that makes seawater drinkable. However, as the energy in the country will likely get cheaper and cleaner thanks to solar investments, this process will have a reduced environmental impact.
New infrastructural regulations and improvements will also aim to cut water waste, an issue accelerated by insufficient water management networks.
While climate change might introduce new uncertainties about water anywhere in the world, the UAE Research Program for Rain Enhancement Science will benefit investments to optimize water security.
According to the World Resources Institute, buildings account for 32 percent of global energy consumption and a quarter of global human-induced carbon emissions. These figures are even starker for a country like UAE, where residents heavily rely on air-conditioners to cope with the scorching heat. The buildings in the UAE eat up about 75 percent of all electricity produced in the country.
Hence, green buildings are high on the agenda to become the world’s most sustainable city. In 2014, the Dubai municipality made it mandatory for all the new buildings to be green.
A promising development to align with Dubai’s 2050 vision was the USD 354 million megaproject, The Sustainable City. This solar-powered compact city requires minimal water and energy use, while its state-of-art design aims to maximize the life quality within the complex.
The Sustainable City, a private settlement in the outskirts of Dubai with residential, recreational, and commercial areas, opened to residents in 2016 and will be fully completed in 2020. Many more similar initiatives will likely dot around the desert-city within the next few decades.
Green Desert, Green World
Karim El-Jisr, who established the Sustainable City Institute in Dubai, told Reuters that the efforts to create a sustainable Dubai “seemed a bit like a dream” at first.
Yet, through private and public collaborations, innovation, smart engineering, and forward-thinking, the dream is beginning to bear its first fruits. El-Jisr hopes that these sustainability efforts will soon be the norm.
Today it is not difficult anymore, tomorrow everybody will have to do it.Karim El-Jisr, Chief Sustainability Officer at Diamond Developers
If building a green and sustainable oasis in the middle of the desert is possible in Dubai, there’s no doubt it’s possible everywhere.