Dubai’s experience over the last decade and its ambitious sustainability goals for 2021 show how challenges can power progress
Three decades since climate change first started worrying world leaders and policymakers, momentum towards a more sustainable global economy is now building. At the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, political leaders adopted the world’s first legally binding global climate pact, with ambitions that included limiting global temperature increases to 1.5° Celsius and achieving zero net emissions in the second half of the century.
The deal came alongside signs of meaningful progress to decarbonise the global economy. In 2015, new investments in renewables outstripped those in fossil fuels for the first time. In the summer of the same year, Denmark produced more than 100% of its energy from renewable sources and was able to export excess power to Germany, Norway and Sweden; in addition, major CO2 emitters China and India are now accelerating their conversion to green energy; China has become one of the leading installers of solar photovoltaic panels, and India now hosts some of the largest solar projects in the world in Maharashtra and Sonthali. Slowly but surely, sustainability is becoming a reality.
Yet achieving the Paris goals requires a wider focus than just energy infrastructures in the big picture of nation-states. It is also about rethinking how we consume resources—and the built environment is one of the most important considerations. Buildings use 40% of the world’s energy, 25% of its water, 40% of its natural resources and produce one-third of emissions. At their best, buildings combine aesthetic beauty, sustainability and efficiency, with rooftop solar panels harnessing the power of the sun and architectural design leveraging sun and wind for lighting, cooling and ventilation. At their worst, buildings guzzle energy, produce atmosphere-damaging chemicals and waste and harm the health and productivity of their inhabitants.
Achieving the Paris goals, therefore, requires finding new, greener ways of constructing, powering and maintaining our built environment, either through “retrofitting” buildings or going green from the start. Architects and developers must carefully consider materials and design, potentially impacting short-term costs. But in the end, green buildings are safer, more efficient and more productive. And they are not only for affluent countries. Some of the keenest adopters of “green builds” are found in emerging markets, including South Africa, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and India.
From ‘planting a flag’ to ‘the regular way of doing business’: How greener standards take root
Few countries have experienced such rapid infrastructure development as the UAE, which saw population growth of 6280% between 1965 and 2013. With 85% of residents living in urban areas, primarily Abu Dhabi and Dubai, this expansion necessitated an accelerated pace of constructing buildings. Combined with the climate challenges of a desert region, green building is both tough—and necessary. The energy needs for air-conditioning and cooling alone are costly, meaning that environmentally sensitive buildings can benefit both residents and the environment.
Dubai’s green building progress started as early as the late 1990s, when the Dubai Chamber of Commerce began measures to reduce energy and water in its headquarters. In 2006, the Emirates Green Building Council was formed, and the following year His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, announced that all new urban structures would conform to green building standards, with targets to reduce water and energy usage by 30% and lighting costs by 9%.
In 2011, Dubai Municipality imposed mandatory green building specs for government buildings and voluntary ones for private buildings; by March 2014, the rules had become mandatory throughout Dubai. Among its practices, principles and standards were included the requirement for developers to use energy modelling to calculate energy consumption, compared with a certified building; designated preferred parking spaces for low-emission vehicles; bicycle storage racks; and a minimum of 25% of total planted area to utilise plant and tree species indigenous to or adapted for Dubai’s climate. Other requirements included exterior lighting being fitted with automatic controls, so lights do not operate during daylight.
In July 2016, a new classification scheme for green buildings was rolled out; developers must meet its requirements to receive permits. The new rating system evaluates the full life cycle of buildings: their energy efficiency, their use of environmentally friendly materials and their use of renewable energy. It could cut carbon emissions by 34%, the equivalent of planting 36 million trees.
Such government interventions are vital to create a green building sector from scratch, according to Jourdan Younis, managing director of Alpin Limited (Masdar City), a sustainable cleantech consultancy based in the UAE. “In every market, from Oregon to San Francisco to London to the Middle East, to get critical mass, as opposed to a few luxury projects or visionary private developers, you need the government to plant a flag and say: ‘This is where we are going, these are steps we are taking to get there, and these are the tools we are providing for you to be successful.’”
Once that critical mass builds, costs come down. “There was [previously] a perception about the high costs of green building, but due to the government mandate, a market was created and more service providers for green building came in, so prices came down. Now, green building is not a luxury any more. It is a regular way of doing business.”
Saeed Al Abbar, chairman of the Emirates Green Building Council, says a broad dialogue between government and the private sector has been critical to this process. “Over the years, we have been working with all stakeholder groups in the construction sector to promote sustainable building practices, and there has been significant progress in instilling the importance of green building principles. The success the UAE has achieved in embracing sustainable built environments is the result of governmental directions, policy changes and the shifts in societal attitude.”
A desert climate helps forge new templates for global design and retrofitting
Green building has its challenges in this desert region. “During the summer months, a lot of energy is spent keeping buildings cool. There is a real need to focus on air filtration—which means not just having thermally insulated buildings but also ensuring minimal air gaps and leakage, because it gets expensive to cool your building if your cooling is going out into the desert,” says Mr Younis. Other challenges include reducing the use of water in a region that has little rainfall.
But for proof that buildings can be made greener, while saving money, look to the headquarters of the Dubai Chamber in Deira. This 20,000 m2, 18-storey building has 500 users and, according to its efficiency ratings, consumes less energy than 91% of similar buildings in the US. Water and energy consumption were cut by 77% and 47%, respectively, between 1998 and 2008. The use of recycled water in sanitation systems is saving 1.1m imperial gallons of water a year and the use of cool fresh air, when temperatures are below 18°C, allows chillers to be switched off during parts of the year.
“The Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry headquarters is a good example of innovative approaches in built environments in Dubai,” says Mr Al Abbar of the Emirates Green Building Council. And it took place over 15 years, after the building’s construction, proving that greening is not just for the new-builds of tomorrow.
“When our greening project began in the late 1990s, there was no plan to retrofit our building as it was only opened in 1995,” says Essa Al Zaabi, senior vice-president, Institutional Support Sector, at the Dubai Chamber.
“Our engineering team realised the potential to operate the building in a more efficient way. There were no increased costs, and we actually saved on our utility bills. When the time came to upgrade our building, we made sure that the process was done in line with the highest green building standards. We ensured that all decisions related to the design, dismantling and rebuilding were made in line with the LEED framework. Since then, the building’s water and energy savings exceeded $7.5 million,” Mr Al Zaabi says, noting the improvements in the health and productivity of employees.
“Another amazing building, by global standards, is the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) headquarters,” says Mr Younis. Currently under development, it will be the “largest and tallest net-zero energy building, which is super innovative, and it is LEED-platinum,” he explains. It will use integrated solar power and work with nature, rather than against it, through innovative use of open courtyards to allow natural shading and air circulation to keep temperatures down.
Private developers are also active, notably Majid Al Futtaim, which owns a series of malls, leisure and retail establishments. Its City Centre Me’aisem mall won the Green Commercial Building of the Year award in 2016; Mr Younis describes the company as a front-runner: “All of their developments, regardless of whether it is required by municipal codes or not, went for a high level of certification, and for the last few years they have taken it further—not just in design and construction for new builds, but in their existing malls. This is a real initiative in private development, because they believe in sustainability and in managing their bottom line.”
Lessons for tomorrow
Dubai’s decade of progress and the ambitious future sustainability goals laid out in the UAE Vision 2021 show that with political will and an enabling regulatory framework, green building can move from the fringe to the mainstream. They also show how sustainable building is even more essential in countries with high energy needs,. Dubai Chamber’s headquarters is a prime example of how existing buildings can be made more efficient. It also provides a benchmark for other organisations and businesses that want to rethink their environmental impact and make positive changes.