A decade ago Dubai had one of the largest ecological footprints of any city in the world. By 2050 it wants to have the smallest. Can it get there?
To plunge headlong into the audacity of Dubai—the sprawling efflorescence of concrete, glass, and steel that has sprung up over the past three decades on the scorched sands of Arabia—you would never imagine the possibility of skiing. Right in the middle of the flat city, the slope looks like a silver spaceship impaled in the ground floor of the Mall of the Emirates. Inside, you can window-shop at Prada, Dior, and Alexander McQueen before pushing through the glass doors of Ski Dubai. Passing a mural of the Alps, you zip up your parka, pull on your gloves. You begin to marvel then at what air-conditioning can do when pushed to its limits.
You can even buy a souvenir shirt that says “I went from 122°F to 14°.” It is literally 14° on the slopes in the middle of this desert. The humidity is stifling then, because of the proximity of the sea. Yet it rarely rains; Dubai gets less than four inches a year. There are no permanent rivers. There is next to no soil suitable for growing crops or even the suggestion of farmland.
What kind of settlement makes sense in this hot and dry setting? For centuries Dubai was a fishing village and trading port, small and poor. Then oil and a wild real estate boom transformed it into a city that sports the world’s tallest building, one of its densest collections of skyscrapers, and it’s the third busiest airport. Anyone looking to build a sustainable city would not do it in a hot desert but Dubai has done it, and it is successful.
And yet a sustainable city is precisely what Dubai’s government says it aims to create.
Sustainable? Dubai? When camels fly, you might say. The boom years made the city a poster child for the excess that results when cheap energy meets environmental indifference. Indoor skiing is just a symbol: Dubai burns far more fossil fuel to air-condition its towers of glass. To keep the taps running in all those buildings, it essentially boils hundreds of Olympic pools worth of seawater every day. And to create more beachfront for more luxury hotels and villas, it buried coral reefs under immense artificial islands.
How is Dubai’s Carbon Footprint?
In 2006 the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) declared the United Arab Emirates the country with the largest ecological footprint, per capita, largely because of its carbon emissions. It is not a surprising fact with all the large luxury vehicles. In the decade since, the city’s population has doubled, to more than 2.8 million. The number of cars on its roads has more than doubled. A surprising number are Bentleys, Lamborghinis, and other gorgeous gas hogs.
Something else has happened since 2006: Dubai has started to change.
Gleaming driverless metro trains now run the length of the linear city, alongside Sheikh Zayed Road, carrying about as many people, and often faster, as the cars on that clogged 12-lane artery. On Dubai’s southern outskirts, a new housing development has opened—called Sustainable City—that recycles its water and waste and produces more energy than it consumes. Further out in the desert, Dubai is building a giant solar power plant that will soon be producing some of the cheapest and cleanest electricity on Earth. Dubai is one of the first cities in the world testing and implementing unmanned electric drone transportation.
“The leadership has recognized that the growth of the economy is not sustainable without taking action on emissions,” says Tanzeed Alam, climate director for the Emirates Wildlife Society, WWF’s local partner.
How Sustainable Leadership Makes a Difference
In Dubai, the “leadership” is His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the 67-year-old hereditary emir, aka the Ruler. Sheikh Mohammed took over in 2006. He has decreed that his city will get 75 percent of its energy from clean sources by 2050. He wants it to have the smallest carbon footprint in the world. Many people I met on a recent visit to Dubai, including Rostock and Alam, believe the city might actually pull that off.
And if it can happen here, they say, it can happen anywhere. Many cities need to stop making excuses.
The Pollution Problem
Dubai has exploded in terms of population in recent years, having been a small fishing and trading port of little note until an oil and real estate boom. Like most rapidly developing countries, Dubai’s growth has come with a significant environmental cost. When Emiratis want a ski slope in the middle of the desert, they build one. There have been numerous other projects undertaken to transform Dubai and overcome natural obstacles.
Dubai Clean Energy Strategy 2050
The UAE is investing up to US$163.3 Billion (AED600 billion) in generating power from clean energy sources. Concurrently, Dubai seeks to secure its power supply by providing 75 percent through clean energy by 2050. Dubai’s strategy and the federal investment is set to revolutionize the energy sector over the next three decades, with a commitment to sustainability in energy conservation, and an overarching goal to have the smallest carbon footprint in the world by 2050.
Dubai Leads The Way In Solar Energy
Through its efforts, the emirate has made groundbreaking strides in innovation. Its focus on energy-efficient growth has led to the development of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, the largest single-site solar park in the world.
Among the ambitions is to produce 5000MW by 2030, reducing the country’s dependence on fossil fuels with a reduction of approximately 6.5 million tonnes of carbon emissions, and create 1,100 green jobs by 2020. Meanwhile, Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) is striving to redefine the way it provides energy by generating 7% of the city’s total power output through clean energy by 2020, 25% by 2030, and ultimately reaching 75% by 2050. As part of its Dubai Integrated Energy Strategy (DIES) 2030, the Dubai Supreme Council of Energy (DSCE) also aims to reduce the emirate’s electricity and water consumption by 30% by that year.
With an investment of AED 50 billion ($ 13.6 billion) in the park alone and an AED100 billion ($ 27.2billion) investment in the Green Fund as part of the Dubai Clean Energy Strategy 2050, it’s no wonder Dubai is now at the forefront of globally renowned green practices. In 2015, the State of the Green Economy Report declared the emirate to be the “capital of the green economy”. The park, which will feature an R&D section as well as smart grid technologies and the ability to produce electricity and water using solar energy, is set to encourage a culture of innovation in renewable energy while providing incentives for the efficient use of natural resources and reducing the carbon footprint.
This will reduce the price of energy for consumers through renewable energy sources. The UAE’s commitment to generating renewable energy has already had a positive global impact. In a statement made following 2017’s World Environment Day, HE Saeed Mohammed Al Tayer, Vice Chairman of the Dubai Supreme Council of Energy & the Managing Director and Chief Executive of DEWA, stated that Dubai’s efforts had contributed to a worldwide drop in prices and had lowered the price of solar and wind power bids in Europe and the Middle East.
The results mean Dubai could end up offering the world’s cheapest solar power, even by night. In a futuristic move worthy of a sci-fi film, Dubai has already used energy technology originally designed for use in outer space to create a sustainable house that is completely disconnected from the emirate’s power grid. The smart home is the first of its kind and was built in a mere 100 days. Homes such as this will have the potential to help power Dubai’s electricity grid with any surplus energy down the line as well.
Conclusion About The Sustainability in Dubai
Dubai’s leaders have now recognized that the current rate of development is ecologically unsustainable. New environmental policies and a more ecologically conscious approach, in general, have been needed for some time. While they are overdue, no one can deny that they are comprehensive.
A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable to predict that Dubai might become one of the greenest cities in the world. However, this is looking to be an increasingly realistic possibility.