Sustainable urbanization in the Gulf?

This short article was published in World Energy #42 April 2019

Eric Verdeil

Since 1987 and the release of the Bruntland Report about Sustainable Development, concerns over climate change, biodiversity and other global threats have grown. Urbanization is at the core of global anxiety. Urban population, as recorded by the UN, now reaches 4.2 billion, ie 55% of the total and is expected to grow by 2,5 billion in 2050. This tremendous growth consumes huge level of resources and emits about 75% of world Green house gases. Cities are a major factor of unsustainability, and the same time cities and urban dwellers increasingly suffer from global environmental changes. Gulf cities are no exception. Record breaking temperatures in Kuwait in 2016 highlighted the unbearable summer heats Gulf cities are facing and will have to cope with. Sea-level rise or extreme rainy events also might affect the future of cities in this region.

At the same time, governments, international organizations and urban authorities also insist that if cities are both the cause and the victims of global threats, they can also be the solution. Hence, cities have to be the place for implementing solutions, and policies have to be designed at the level of cities. The goals of these policies must be on the one side to reduce the urban environmental footprint and on the other side to address the resilience of cities. The New Urban Agenda adopted in Quito in 2016 underscored the necessity to understand sustainability as two-faceted: environmental preservation must go hand in hand with social inclusiveness.

Masdar City

How have Arab Cities and governments stepped into these directions? The continuous urban growth in this region of the world, in the face of harsh climatic conditions, has historically been made possible only through an extravagant use of cheap and widely available energy. To date, urban forms and consumption patterns are clearly at odds with sustainable practices. Until recently there were few signs of ecological concerns in this part of the world. Arab Cities are not very present in Cities networks that are at the forefront of environmental transition. For instance, the C40 Cities Climate Change Leadership Group include only three Arab Cities: Cairo, Amman and Dubai. Out of more than 1500 members, the local Governments for Sustainability Network includes only 10 from the Middle East and North Africa, five of them from Turkey. Despite this low profile in international arenas, Gulf governments loudly and glitteringly advertise their commitment to sustainable urban agendas. In the last ten years, governments have actively promoted projects and plans staging their will to implement sustainable strategies. However their motivations are complex and, in addition, achievements, also impressive, have objective limitations and should not hide contradictory trends.

Masdar City represents the first and to date, the most telling expression of urban sustainability ambitions. The famous carbon-neutral city in the suburb of Abu Dhabi, designed by Norman Foster, was launched in 2008. It uses brand new technologies in building design, energy management, renewable energy, water and waste management, as well as innovative transportation technologies. It is intended to become first a lab, and then a model for future urbanism in the region and beyond. The project became indeed a showroom, as Abu Dhabi also managed to attract the headquarters of the International Renewable Agency and to develop spectacular solar projects connected to the neighborhood. As cities in the Gulf region compete against each other in order to attract investments, governments have designed projects that emulate Abi Dhabi vision. This is for instance the case with the Saudi new towns of King Abdullah Economic Cities and above all, the latest Neom. In Dubai, several initiatives also express the will to compete with Masdar City, for instance the recent Sustainable City megaproject.

These urban projects are increasingly integrated into wider strategies aiming at developing renewable energy, as well as energy and natural resources efficiency schemes. All governments in this region have set up targets for RE production and regularly upgrade them. The UAE target 27% clean energy capacity in 2021. Saudi Arabia targets 10% RE capacity in 2023 and 30% in 2030. The continuous decrease of KWh price for solar technologies, both CSP and PV, as shown in the latest bids in Dubai and Saudi Arabia, renders these targets with reach. At the end 2018, the share of renewable energy has more than quadrupled in four years, from 210 MW in 2014 to 867 MW. But it amounts to less than 1% of electricity capacity..

Governments have also adopted ambitious schemes for energy efficiency. Green building councils have been established in almost every country in the region, which have adapted international standards for energy saving norms, such as LEED, to the local conditions, such as the Pearl rating system in Abu Dhabi. Gulf states have also begun to roll back costly subsidies to fossil fuel, electricity and water. Several cities are also building massive public transportation schemes. Dubai has been a pioneer, and now runs two metro lines. Similar projects are under construction in Riyadh, while Abu Dhabi plans its own system. But these transportation means will at least in the short term mostly serve the foreign population and not the nationals, who preferably use individual cars. Plans for electrifying the automobile system are now actively prepared but they request huge additional generation capacities, and a complete revamping of the energy distribution system.

Nevertheless, there are several differences in the narratives local authorities in this region use to justify they commitment to sustainable urbanization. In contrast to most world cities active in promoting ecological transition strategies, climate change concerns are not prominent in the governments’ discourses. The clearest element justifying the move is the necessity to prepare their economies for a post oil future. Economic diversification away from fossil energy is necessary. Clean techs and real estate stand at the core of the new green capitalism that unfolds. In this respect, sustainable urbanization appears not as a response to global threats but rather as a concern for the political stability of the countries and a new direction for economies. Abu Dhabi has taken the lead in this orientation with Masdar and other related plans. Indeed, Masdar is not only a local project but a company active in the field of renewable energy, also investing abroad and aiming at replicating its technological innovations in other contexts. Prince Mohamed Ben Salman’s Saudi 2030 plans very openly seeks to emulate his rivals’ from the Persian Gulf shore.

In the short term, fiscal pressures added up more justification for this long term goal of diversifying the economy. With the slump down of oil on international markets in 2014, most oil-based economies in the region have experienced fiscal tensions because oil revenues did not cover social expenses anymore. This affected very strongly the more populated states of Saudi Arabia or Oman where social demands are more heavily felt. Fiscal pressures played as a determinant factor in reforming electricity, fuel and water prices, which have been enforced in the last four years.

Having stated the high ambitious Gulf governments express and their original motivations, it is nevertheless necessary to underscore the limitations of those schemes. Four points come to mind:

The vulnerability of these urban sustainable projects/markets to real estate cycles remains high. The real estate crisis of 2008-09 administered a blow to Masdar City and highlighted some of the weaknesses of this kind of projects. It was downsized and reprofiled as a more classical real estate project. New developments remain well below the initially foreseen pace. The project did not fulfill its ambitious technological promises, even if the achievements already represent a strong departure from ordinary planning practices in the region. It is far from being carban-neutral even if renewable energy and energy savings allow for about 50% reduction in energy demand. Clearly, other sustainable megaprojects also depend upon foreign investments and stand at risk of similar real estate ups and downs. For instance, the delayed achievements of KAEC or Neom in Saudi Arabia illustrate their difficulty in convincing foreign investors and the fierce competition between these cities and projects, where returns are not determined only by technological advancements but also by political conditions.

This highlights the political nature of arrangements regulating access to infrastructure and resources in cities of this region and hence a certain level of uncertainties regarding the capacity of local governments to maintain the direction in the face of contradictory demands. For years, political legitimacy of the regimes in this part of the world has been linked to the provision of modern infrastructural services at cheap, in not free, price. As explained above, under fiscal pressures, governments have recently slashed subsidies for fuel, water or electricity. This effort needs to been pursued and expanded. Until now, no major protests have erupted over this issue, which however remains sensitive. Beyond that, urbanism remains car-centric and based on individual housing for nationals. This kind of urbanization, despite all improvements and the increasing capacity of renewable energy, remain unsustainable in the long run in terms of resource consumption (land, energy and water). The shortage of available land while demand remain strong creates political tensions, as already observed in Kuwait. As stated by researcher Sharifa Alshalfan, because of the “limits on development including access to land and infrastructure, supply struggled to meet the rising demand. In 2015, the Public Authority for Housing Welfare had over 106,000 applications on the waitlist for housing, yet from the start of the housing programme in 1954 and until 2015, the state was only able to provide 114,600 units. For the state to fulfil the current demand, it would need to develop almost the same amount of housing units it had provided over the past sixty years”. The sprawl of the low dense Kuwait City [MS1] connected by hundreds of kilometers of highways, creates huge traffic congestion.

Another dimension of sustainability pertains to the huge degradation of local environment around the big cities of the region. The extensive transformation of the shoreline in the Emirates as well as in Saudi Arabia has deeply devastated the local ecosystems, for instance the mangroves areas, also hurt by oil spills[S2] . The massive production of desalinated water produce as well very negative environmental outcomes. Most of the Persian Gulf desalination plants currently use thermal technology, which requires much more energy than osmose reverse technology, and also emits a lot of GHG. In any case, for every liter of fresh water, 1,5 liter of brine (and various chemical particles) is discharged into nearby water, destructing sea life because the increase of salinity (+10-15 ppm) and of higher water temperature. The introduction of the newly improved reverse osmose technology fueled by renewable solar energy, will gradually improve this dire situation, as the new Taweela unit installed by Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority exhibits.

The higher share of renewable energy, the improvement of energy intensity and of water use do not mean that the use of resources will decrease in the future. Currently, a city like Dubai emits three times more GHG per capita than New York City. On average, GCC countries exhibit levels of carbon emissions per GDP unit much higher than the world average and beyond East Asian and North American competitors. This is even stronger when considering per capita average. Future trends anticipate increase in carbon intensity, from 6,96 cubic meter of carbon per capita in 2016 for the MENA region toward 7,5 in 2030 while world average would remain below 5.

The continuous growth of population and urban surfaces in the coming years means that the ecological footprint will continue to rise, even if at a reduced pace. Stricto sensu, urban sustainability in the Gulf remains an elusive promise.

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