Rising optimism for tackling climate change in the region

Turner & Townsend’s Miriam Al-Alawi explores how the UAE is currently tackling climate change, the likely steps it will take to become more sustainable, and how the construction industry can contribute

Driven by increasing greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide, which is causing an increase in global temperatures, climate change has in recent years, topped the global agendas (even alongside the pandemic).

In tackling this global issue, the UAE government has shown regional leadership in its climate change strategies, commitments, and actions. The UAE was the first Middle Eastern country to sign and ratify the Paris Agreement, and have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 23.5% compared to business as usual, by the year 2030 (one of the most ambitious pledges in the MENA region). In addition, in 2017 the UAE adopted the National Climate Change Plan 2017-2050, which set a framework for the management of greenhouse gas emissions, climate change adaptation, and private sector-driven, innovative, economic diversification.

The world is already one degree warmer than it was 100 years ago and on current trends, it is set to be two degrees warmer by 2050 and even higher by 2100.

In the UAE, the past six years have been the hottest years on record, with temperatures expected to continue to rise. Even a country used to intense heat and scarce water supply, the worst effects of climate change could, without action, have significant impact across its ecosystems, biodiversity, and across its national and local economy.

Most of the UAE’s population inhabit coastal areas; thus, the country’s infrastructure is also located within these coastal zones. The damage to the coastline and offshore infrastructure is a significant cause of concern (with sea levels expected to rise by one metre by 2100 in a business-as-usual scenario). Furthermore, increased demand for space cooling, resulting in higher utility bills, sets further pressures on the local economy.

In recognising the threats of climate change, and in line with its action plan, the UAE has implemented several initiatives to reduce CO2 emissions, and improve the sustainability of the country including:

• Increasing the share of cleaner energy in the power mix by building more solar farms. Currently, three of the biggest solar farms are under construction in the UAE, including the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park in Dubai and Al Dhafra Solar Park in Abu Dhabi

• Expanding capacity for carbon capture and storage. ADNOC announced in 2020, that it would be expanding its CCUS programme by over 500% in the next 10 years, capturing five million tonnes of CO2 per year

• Promoting sustainable agriculture to tackle future food scarcity. Over $272m in incentives will be implemented to create a global AgTech centre in the UAE

• Implementing environmentally friendly waste systems

• Providing significant investment towards the conservation and planting of mangroves

• Embracing green and sustainable construction practices

• Transforming up to 60% of Dubai into nature reserves as per the Dubai 2040 Masterplan

The UAE’s investments in clean energy are part of a broader strategy to reduce reliance on oil and gas and diversify the economy. The investments are critical steps towards decarbonising some of the UAE’s highly energy-intensive industries including manufacturing and construction.

Interestingly, the UAE is also investing significant sums in protecting and replanting mangroves. While mangroves are suffering degradation and decline worldwide, the UAE may be the only country where mangrove areas are growing significantly. Mangroves not only prevent coastal erosion but also help to stabilise coastline ecosystems. Mangrove forests also release oxygen and moisture into the environment, whilst also reducing CO2 levels by three to five times more than conventional forests. These salt-tolerant trees contribute to climate change mitigation by trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the root system and sediments, acting as a carbon capture or carbon sink.

For the regional construction industry, climate change will be a major disruptor – both in terms of the physical effects, and the policies/investments brought in to reduce emissions. On the physical effects, the construction industry should be prepared for more ‘unworkable’ hot days in the summer, higher energy usage in buildings to run AC, and more severe weather events.

Regional climate related policies could range from encouraging more energy efficient buildings, changing the material typology used in industry (e.g., low emissions cement), introducing more innovative methods of construction such as offsite manufacturing and modular construction, right through to the development of multi-billion-dollar solar power projects. UAE construction businesses will also need to continue to work to minimise their environmental impact, through initiatives such as reducing water waste and mitigating risks associated by surface run off.

I believe that strategic investment in climate change-related projects and infrastructure could be the key catalyst to drive the Middle East’s next construction boom, push economic growth through diversification, increase job outlook, and reduce reliance on hydrocarbons.

Deep-rooted changes are required to get the construction sector to pull its weight in climate change. Still, the UAE Government will be the driving force for change by implementing more low carbon and carbon neutral regulations. The construction sector will have to adopt new practices and implement supply chains, that will be optimised to make it possible to source energy-efficient and sustainable materials.


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