Eye on United Arab Emirates: Fostering Sustainability

The Palm Jumeirah
Dubai City and The Palm Jumeirah.
Photo by Bernt Rostad via Flickr

In early November, a group of Japanese business leaders and government advisers will visit the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a tiny oil-rich country on the Persian Gulf, to present their vision of a “Sustainable City.” The group, known as the Sustainable Urban Development Consortium for Japan and Gulf States Partnership, plans to propose a city that would reduce energy consumption by up to 50 percent using technology that has been tested in Japan. “The initiative is certainly welcome,” says Worldwatch Institute researcher Zoe Chafe. “The question is whether the ideas and technologies presented will be implemented soon with government support.”

In its 2006 Living Planet Report, the global conservation group WWF declared that the UAE has the largest “ecological footprint” per capita of any country in the world, above that of Japan or even the United States. This will surprise few who have been to the country recently, says Chafe. The desert city of Dubai, sometimes called the “playground for the rich,” is now home to its own indoor ski slope and a growing number of artificial resort islands, and it relies on energy-intensive desalination for much of its water supply. And, of course, the UAE economy is still driven in large part by earnings from the country’s lucrative oil resources.

But at least one local organization—the Emirates Environmental Group (EEG)—is working to change the country’s poor environmental image, according to Chafe. EEG recently surpassed its pledge target in its campaign to plant 1 million trees in one year, according to the group’s chairperson, Habiba Al Marashi. The organization has also organized a successful national recycling program and works to educate citizens on environmental issues through debates, workshops, and other programs. “There is a general desire among the people to help protect the environment,” says Al Marashi. “However, there is a feeling of apathy among them. We would like to see more active involvement…in environmental issues and concerns.”

Both Chafe and Al Marashi support the UAE’s recent efforts to promote renewable energy. According to Gulf News, parking meters, traffic lights, offshore buoys, and water heating in several hotels nationwide are now solar powered. And while the Abu Dhabi-based Masdar Institute is one of the largest graduate-level institutions in the world focused on alternative energy development, renewable energy sources are still underutilized in the region, according to Dr. Alan Dickson of Solstice International, a renewables firm in Dubai. “What makes renewable energy unsuccessful here is the fact that electricity rates in the UAE are lower than the rest of the world,” Dickson explains.

A trip to Dubai in 2006, as part of the North American civil society delegation to a United Nations Environment Programme-sponsored meeting of environment ministers from around the world,opened Chafe’s eyes to the region’s untapped energy resources. “There is so much potential for solar energy there,” she says. “It’s amazing to think what could happen if the skyscrapers were covered in photovoltaics.” Dubai is fast earning a reputation as a world-class destination, with conferences, fashion shows, and major economic transactions taking place against its cosmopolitan desert backdrop. Whether it will similarly take a world-class lead in spotlighting the shift to renewable energies remains to be seen.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.