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The Gulf region faces a massive challenge in balancing economic and resource consumption growth against the threat of climate change and finite global resource availability.
It can be said that living in the Gulf is living on the edge of what is habitable. Through technology we are able to inhabit the region in much greater density than the climate and resources historically allowed. However, this technology response is slowly exacerbating the problems; requiring continuing technological advancements to enable us to continue this adventure. But how can we rise to the challenge?
We all need to recognise that the world is round and its potential is finite. World resources are limited, and we are consuming far more than can be replaced. The global eco-footprint is now far higher than the bio-capacity of the planet, and in the Gulf region demand far outstrips supply, yet we are still taking natural water, nutrients and energy suppliers for granted. Action is vital, but this need for ‘an environmental movement’ comes back to providing a viable future for our children, for reducing conflict and providing sound financial foundations.
If we look at the five capital models of sustainability, our financial capital is derived from natural, social and human capital. Therefore, to continue to grow the ‘real’ economy we need to find more resources, or use what we have more efficiently. For this we need to move away from linear economies and consumption patterns, and toward circular economies; recognising that in the metabolism of a city or country everything (energy, water, waste, food and nutrient supplies) is linked. The recent news that Saudi Arabia could be a net oil importer by 2030 - due to increasing water and energy demands - highlights the critical nature of the challenge. Who will supply the Kingdom with oil in 18 years, and what will all the countries that rely on their exports do?
Carboun, the voluntary group that promotes sustainable cities in the Middle East, recently published a report on the climate change challenge facing the Gulf, which highlights the fact that dramatic measures are needed to play our part in reducing global carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. With the region exhibiting record-breaking energy and water consumption rates, high carbon intensity energy and water supply systems, and with electricity consumption predicted to double over the next decade, there’s a lot of work to do, but also huge potential for change. Experts from the Usable Buildings Trust believe the best way to delivering a low carbon future is to halve demand, double efficiency and halve the carbon intensity. So, how can this be done? To make changes, we need to utilise a combination of political, technological and social capacity; with the social element important for addressing demand and encouraging political and technology developments.
I believe we have a leadership with a clear and ambitious plan for a green economy and initiatives already underway, including examples such as the Estidama Pearl Rating System and the Dubai Metro. This political commitment paves the way for individual and commercial changes. Technical capacity is also developing along with a steep rise in investment. The benefits of higher efficiency systems, efficient buildings and renewable technologies are recognised globally, and this has led to a rise in R&D funding from both governments and commercial enterprise. There is something of an underground race between the East (dominated by China and South Korea) and West (USA and Germany), as to who can spend the most on alternative technology and efficiency research. The Middle East is also involved through initiatives such as Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Institute and Saudi Arabia’s proposed KACARE. This should help to create a step change in systems efficiency and carbon intensities, but we should not expect a single silver bullet to save the day.
The role of society is crucial for long-lasting effective change. To make a difference we need to be engaged, informed and empowered: we need a paradigm shift in thinking and behaviour. It’s our everyday choices that have the most significant impact on resource use and waste generation. And we also have a key role in informing policy choices and technological development through our behaviour and consumption patterns. The realisation that ‘buildings don’t use energy: people do’, shows the construction industry that to make a real difference in delivering sustainable buildings it is important to enable and inform users to reduce consumption, not just apply technological fixes. User behaviour and control is clearly also a fundamental aspect of non-building related resource use such as food consumption and transportation choices. There is overwhelming evidence of the importance of changing social behaviour such as ground roots movements and consumer pressure through the use of buying power. The role that society has to play is vital, both in demanding and embracing regulation at all levels as well as changing individual behaviours by taking our foot off the consumption pedal and educating others to do likewise. We are all part of the problem and need to change to be part of the solution to either reap the benefits or face the consequences of the future.
Sources: Zero Carbon Task Force; The Berkeley Institute of the Environment; Environmental Change Institute, Oxford University; WWF; J Porrit (Routledge); Carboun.
This article was first published in the Masdar Times