Grand designs should look to the future

This comment by Chandran Nair appears in the Financial Times on 26 May, 2008.

To find out what happens when almost unlimited amounts of money are let loose on creative people – architects and designers, consultants and planners – visit the United Arab Emirates, says Chandran Nair.

The outcome is a stunning, though sometimes bizarre, collection of towers, resorts, buildings and other projects – Dubai’s sail-shaped Burj Al Arab Hotel, the various Palm Islands resorts and a mall-based indoor ski slope, to name but three. In the pipeline are an entire snow resort and an underwater hotel. But it is also the ultimate sustainability challenge. Dubai, home to nearly one-third of the UAE’s 4.1m population, has per capita carbon dioxide emissions second only to those of the US. For the federation as a whole, per capita energy use is more than double the world’s average. Fish stocks along its coast have plummeted by more than 80 per cent, according to the environmental agency, and marine shorelines have been devastated by resort development.

Poverty certainly is not the reason for this. The seven states of the UAE have one of the world’s fastest growing economies, expanding by more than 7 per cent in real terms in 2007. Its citizens are among the world’s richest, with a per capita gross domestic product of just over $35,000. Nor is a lack of awareness a problem. One answer dreamed up to get on the sustainability bandwagon is the construction of a “zero-carbon, zero-waste” city – Abu Dhabi’s Masdar initiative, being built in the desert. Masdar’s advocates include leading global architects and planners. Local officials tout it as a key step towards protecting the environment and establishing the UAE as a leader in sustainable technologies. But in many ways Masdar is a huge distraction to what needs to be done. It is not just a question of whether it will work – though this is highly debatable. Conceived principally by scientists and engineers from the US, why aren’t similar cities being built in, say, Arizona? The answer is that such schemes make no economic sense and so would fail to attract investors, while their environmental claims would not stand up to scrutiny by planning authorities.

Moreover, its claims of “carbon neutrality” are at best a PR exercise. For Masdar, they would need to avoid including the huge energy inputs needed to build it. With a $5bn price tag and housing for only 50,000 people the project is an odd way of gaining sustainability credentials. But instead of looking at Masdar’s viability, we should ask why officials are so easily seduced by the superficial high-tech fix it embodies. Far more could be achieved by adopting a series of straightforward, more easily implemented measures that could – and should – be undertaken first. These include setting targets for reducing worsening air pollution, cutting carbon emissions from transport and the building sectors, removing fuel subsidies, ending the practice of burning waste gas by “flaring” it at refineries, restricting development in sensitive marine areas and ensuring that desalinated water is properly priced and not used on unnecessary gardens. Such measures, however, do not have the same international PR appeal as building an eco-friendly city from scratch. Nor do they bring the same rewards to international consultancies or engineering and design companies.

What is needed is for the UAE’s leaders to accept that technological solutions have their limits. They should focus on what kind of future they want to bring to the Emirates. Yes, they want economic growth, but for it to be sustainable they have to abandon their current approach of throwing money at overseas experts and develop institutions and regulations that will change the communities’ thinking and behaviour – ending the belief that whatever problems economic growth may bring, technologies can overcome them. Adopting such a mind-set is not easy. But as their infrastructure projects show, boldness is not a problem for the leaders of UAE. They should redirect this towards devising ways to make their advisors more accountable. Then they would be in a better position to address the environmental issues posed by UAE’s development, which in turn would help forge a genuine reputation for leadership in sustainability. For those selling the latest technologies and ideas, there should be a sense of social responsibility too. This can only be realised at a local level. The UAE’s leaders must stop outsourcing the future sustainability of their society to others who are not going to be around to live with the consequences of the grand ideas they are hawking.

Chandran Nair is the founder and CEO of the Global Institute For Tomorrow.