Building Sustainable Cities
Seeds are being sown for the development of environment-friendly cities but how long will it take for the green shoots to emerge?
“Time is running out. If we don’t really change we will be in real trouble in the next 10 years.” That was the stark warning from Dr Arab Hobdallah from United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) at the Emirates Green Building Council’s (EmiratesGBC) Congress on 20-21 October.
Sustainable Cities for the Future was the theme for this year’s congress, which saw stakeholders, delegates and government representatives discuss best practice and look at how existing successful green programmes can be adopted in the UAE and beyond.
“Cities and buildings are where we live, work and play, and we need to ensure that we build cities that not only stimulate economic activity, but also for our social well-being, and protecting the environment and the scarce resources that we have,” said EmiratesGBC chairman, Saeed Al Abbar.
The vision is clear, but what is the method?
“We need to look at de-coupling the economic growth from environmental impacts and this is, in essence, the green economy which is being spear-headed under the vision of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum,” he said. “This is a huge challenge but also a huge opportunity.”
It is no contemporary notion that everyone should take their share of environmental responsibility, from monitoring their water consumption to recycling.
It is estimated that if an individual slightly adapted their daily habits, they could reduce their personal carbon footprint by 30%. So why don’t they?
Perhaps when you do not see an immediate, tangible benefit, people have little incentive to change their ways.
Is that the same mindset when we’re talking about green building? Do developers see their single project as a drop in the ocean when it comes to climate change?
“Changing human behaviour – individuals and businesses – is extremely difficult and we aren’t giving it enough attention,” said Hobdallah, who believes the construction industry is the most obvious place to start.
“If there is a sector of low hanging fruit in terms of energy efficiency, it’s the building sector,” he said.
“At each stage there are opportunities for energy, chemical, water, material efficiency.
“It is important that the government goes back to the beginning of a supply chain and tries to see how we can bring this altogether and identify all our opportunities.”
But what will encourage stakeholders to spend valuable time doing this?
“What is missing is a business case for sustainable building,” continued Hobdallah. “We have not enough cases which are ethical and give the rate of return developers want.”
As long as money is making the world go around, it will also contribute to its environmental decline, so the only certain way to make sure green building it is adopted, is for legislation to be put in place.
One step towards this was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Ministry of Public Works (MoPW) and EmiratesGBC, agreeing to promote sustainability across entire building supply.
“To be able to sign this MoU today is a beautiful achievement,” said Habiba Al Marashi, co-founder and chairman of Emirates Environmental Group (EEG). She hopes it will result in working groups, laws and regulations to help stabilise and institutionalise the process.
As the UAE embarks on an aggressive and ambitious construction boom, the mistakes made the last time must not be repeated.
“We have learned a lot. There is a lot available in the market now when we are talking about energy efficiency, so buildings can be much more advanced and be better equipped,” said Marashi.
“We have the technology, we have the suppliers, so now we need to work together.”
But for this to happen, there needs to be a shift in attitude with developers and contractors in terms of the profitability of greener building.
“In every aspect and every step there is money to be made and money to be saved – this is the mentality that the private sector should be looking at,” she said.
During Dubai’s first construction boom, which came to a head in 2008, developers were focussed on rushing to finish their buildings and there was little legislation encouraging the consideration of the ethics of their projects.
“They were looking at quick profit. We are saying take your time, do it, and do it correctly the first time and you will enjoy the result,” she added.
Zahra Al Aboodi, undersecretary at MoPW, is positive about the region’s attitude shift.
“There is a big difference between today and 13 years back. It was not a big issue, it was just an accessory. We didn’t have to have it, but now it is a must,” she said.
“We can’t just close our eyes and think ‘tomorrow’s good’. Tomorrow isn’t good anymore.”
She says it is top of the government’s agenda and that mandates mean the private sector is now forced to listen.
“There is a lot of regulation being brought in,” she said.
These include Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council’s (UPC) Estidama system, which rates buildings’ energy efficiency on a five pearl system.
Introduced in 2010, it made it mandatory for any new structure to achieve a two pearl rating as a minimum by meeting air tightness, waste management, and water usage targets, amongst others.
But the EmiratesGBC admits there is little motivation for existing buildings to change their ways, with funding, time and framework just some of the hurdles.
Another option is to adopt the European practice of building efficiency audits, but an EmiratesGBC report acknowledges this is only successful if financial rewards are offered.
Bringing ideas to fruition will take time and money, but the seeds are planted and the region is moving in the right direction.