The nations in the inhospitable region aren’t sitting idly by in the face of climate change.
From a distance, the ultramodern metropolises around the Persian Gulf might seem like mirages in the shimmering heat. Thriving cities like Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with their futuristic skylines standing in stark contrast to forbidding desert landscapes, are epitomes of ambition and feats of modern engineering — constructed with the help of vast oil and gas revenues.
Yet the industrial-scale burning of the vast amounts of oil that have been exported from the Gulf region has come with a heavy price. The impacts of emissions-fueled climate change are set to make the Gulf’s already inhospitable terrain even less suitable for human habitation. Within half a century, these emirates and other coastal cities around the Gulf may be exposed to such frequent and excessive heatwaves, scientists say, that the current highs of 45 degrees Celsius may seem like balmy weather by comparison.
Desertification will accelerate, placing fragile manmade urban environments at increased risk. Local biodiversity, already diminished, could disappear and not even marine life will be spared from the ravages of extreme heat and changing weather patterns. “Climate-driven changes in salinity and temperature will make most of the southern Gulf unsuitable for species that are presently occurring there,” warns Colette Wabnitz, the lead author of a recent study on the calamity that is likely to befall the area’s flora and fauna.
Yet the nations of the Gulf aren’t sitting idly by in the face of these grave challenges. They are on their way to embracing renewables, particularly in the form of solar energy (an obvious choice in a sun-drenched region). They are also overhauling water management systems in an effort to reduce the likelihood of permanent freshwater scarcity, already a severe problem as it is. From Abu Dhabi to Doha, ambitious sustainability projects are gaining momentum, including more renewable energy projects and new green buildings.
“The most promising sustainability projects being implemented in the region include coastal zone management initiatives, improved disaster preparedness and response coordination, climate-smart water management, sustainable waste management, low-carbon economies and a transition to renewable energy,” Salman Zafar, a prominent local environmental expert who is founder of the green consultancy EcoMENA, tells Sustainability Times.
Notably, Dubai is constructing the world’s largest solar park as part of a plan by the broader United Arab Emirates to meet 7% of its energy needs from solar by 2020 and gradually increase the share of solar power to 15% by 2030. The UAE also seeks to obtain 12% of locally generated electricity from nuclear power by that same date.
“In 2017, the UAE launched ‘Energy Strategy 2050’, which is considered the first unified energy strategy in the country that is based on supply and demand,” the UAE’s government explains on its website. “The strategy aims to increase the contribution of clean energy in the total energy mix from 25 per cent to 50 per cent by 2050 and reduce [the] carbon footprint of power generation by 70 percent, thus saving AED 700 billion by 2050. It also seeks to increase [the] consumption efficiency of individuals and corporates by 40 per cent.”
Qatar, a peninsular Arab nation near the UAE, is likewise investing heavily in solar power in a bid to harness energy from the sunrays which bathe the Middle Eastern nation all year round. An increased share of solar power seeks to reduce the emirate’s carbon footprint, which is a welcome development as this small nation of 2.6 million emits more CO2 per capita than any other country, according to the United Nations, with 38.52 metric tons per person recorded in 2016.
Qatar, which has won the rights to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, is also seeking to bring sustainability to the hugely popular sporting competition. The emirate is constructing a recyclable football stadium that, after the event, can be disassembled and moved elsewhere or else repurposed into smaller athletic stadiums or cultural venues. In addition, the oil-rich emirate is embracing green living by constructing a sprawling oasis of green buildings within the commercial heart of the capital Doha. Its developer is touting the $5.5-billion project, known as Msheireb Downtown Doha, as “one of the world’s largest sustainable cities.” Designed to harness solar energy, collect rainwater, and connect to public transportation, Msheireb could set a new model for how the urban centers of the Persian Gulf emirates function within their desert environments.
Sustainability consultant Karim Elgendy described the project to Reuters as “the best example of urban regeneration I’ve seen in the region in a while… Msheireb is a genuine effort to fix the city center.” Radhouane Ben Hamadou, head of biological and environmental sciences at Qatar University, echoes that sentiment: “Raising the awareness of young people mainly here in Qatar and the region, and (awareness) of how we can save our resources – Msheireb will be a very good demonstration of that,”
Yet most locals, whatever their age, have a long way to go before they achieve markedly more sustainable lifestyles, Zafar cautions. “The Gulf states are known for being the world’s largest per capita consumers of water, despite the fact that the Middle East is the world’s most water-scarce region,” he explains. “The region is heavily dependent on energy-guzzling seawater desalination plants.”
Desalination projects, which provide much-needed freshwater in areas where there is little or none, can harm precariously marine areas by flooding them with brine. According to a recent UN-sponsored study, 55% of the vast amounts of brine produced globally each year as a byproduct of desalination is generated in just four Middle Eastern countries: Saudi Arabia (22%), the United Arab Emirates (20.2%), Kuwait (6.6%), and Qatar (5.8%). Local plants tend to rely on thermal desalination technologies that produce four times as much brine per cubic meter of clean water as plants that rely on river water membrane processes.
“There is a need is to remove heavy subsidies provided by the government in order to encourage businesses and the general public to be more responsible towards water conservation,” Salman Zafar stresses. “The same is the case with energy. Gulf states are among the world’s top per capita energy users, and the cheap and easy availability of fossil fuels has aggravated the matter,” he adds. “The removal of energy subsidies and increasing the share of renewable energy in the energy mix will be of great help in motivating businesses to conserve energy and promote green manufacturing practices.”
More sustainable business practices and lifestyles in the Gulf region will require foresight, long-term strategies and innovative solutions. They will also require well-thought-out government policies. “Unfortunately, [many] decisionmakers in the region are still not fully aware of the severe threats posed by climate change to the environmental and social wellbeing of the local population,” Zafar says. “The Gulf states are highly vulnerable to climate change and proactive, concerted, long-term and focused efforts are required to tackle the problem of global warming,” he adds.
There are encouraging signs. The government of Abu Dhabi has just launched the #WeAreCommitted social media campaign, which features educational videos both in Arabic and English, to urge young people to make more sustainable lifestyle choices and lead more sustainable lives. The aim, says Thani Al Zeyoudi, Abu Dhabi’s minister of Climate Change and Environment, is to educate young people about “how to lead a more sustainable life as our forefathers did in the past.”