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ENVIRONMENT-UAE: Coming Up – World’s First ‘Zero-Carbon’ City

Meena Janardhan

DUBAI, Jun 14 2007 (IPS) - A city free of cars, pedestrian-friendly, powered by renewable energy and surrounded by wind and photovoltaic farms – all in the middle of a petroleum-rich desert.

This five billion US dollar plan, which might do credit to a sci-fi film set, is envisaged for Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). When complete, in 2009, it will be the nearest thing yet to a zero-carbon, zero-waste city.

Using the traditional planning principles of a walled city, together with existing technologies to achieve sustainable development, this six sq km expanse will house an energy, science and technology community.

Called the Masdar (meaning ‘source’ in Arabic) Initiative, this ambitious plan for a ‘Green City’ is being driven by the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, a private, joint stock company established and wholly-owned by Mubadala Development Company.

‘‘As the first major hydrocarbon-producing nation to take such a step, Abu Dhabi has established its leadership position by launching Masdar, a global cooperative platform for open engagement in the search for solutions to some of mankind’s most pressing issues – energy security, environment and truly sustainable human development,” Masdar chief executive Sultan Al Jaber said.

Abu Dhabi accounts for more than 90 percent of the UAE’s oil resources, and the country’s reserves, exceeding 100 billion barrels, ranked third largest in the world.

The ‘Green City’ will house the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, a graduate science and research institute that will be established in cooperation with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; world-class laboratories; commercial space for related-sector companies; light manufacturing facilities and a selected pool of international tenants who will invest, develop, and commercialise advanced energy technologies.

It will also host Masdar’s offices, residences for its staff, as well as a science museum and edutainment facilities. It is expected to house at least 50,000 people initially and as many as 100,000 eventually.

‘‘We are creating a synergetic environment; it is a true alternative energy cluster with researchers, students, scientists, business investment professionals, and policy makers in the same community. It will combine the talent, expertise and resources to enable the required technological breakthroughs,” Jaber explained to IPS.

To encourage people to be a part of this setup amid harsh weather conditions that witness temperatures soaring up to nearly 50 degrees Celsius during July and August, a pedestrian-friendly environment has been planned with narrow streets and shaded walkways. The maximum distance to the nearest transport link and amenities is likely to be no more than 200 m and will be complemented by a rapid personal transport system.

This self-sustaining city is expected to provide up to 1,500 companies with an attractive incentives package, including a one-stop shop programme for government services, transparent laws, 100 percent foreign ownership, tax-free environment, intellectual property protection and proximity to nearby manufactures, suppliers and markets.

Mohammed Raouf of the Gulf Research Centre, said the Abu Dhabi plan could be replicated and improed upon. ‘‘We need more than just ideas, thoughts and studies; we need ways to implement them effectively. Hopefully this initiative will trigger others in the region to follow suit.”

Though the Dubai-based environmentalist was sceptical about achieving ‘zero levels of carbon emissions’, he said, ‘‘There is no doubt this project will cut emissions drastically.”

According to a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the greenhouse effect on climate change in the Middle East region will increase the region’s temperatures by 1-2 degrees Celsius during the next 25 years. The ‘Green City’ plan is a part of Abu Dhabi’s decision in April 2006 to embrace renewable and sustainable energy technologies.

In another rsponsive initiative in March, the UAE signalled the commencement of a major national carbon dioxide emission reduction programme by announcing an initiative aimed at delivering a national carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS) network.

It is estimated that the CCS network could reduce UAE’s carbon dioxide emissions by almost 40 percent, increase oil production by up to 10 percent and liberate large quantities of natural gas. This could be achieved through the separation of the gas from industrial and energy related sources and its transportation to oil reservoirs for enhanced oil recovery.

Announcing the plan, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, told the media, ‘‘We are a leading provider of energy for the world. As such we must, and do, recognise the responsibility to constantly seek out and incorporate technologies to make that provision more environmentally efficient.”

Abu Dhabi also plans to invest 350 million US dollars in a 100 megawatt solar power plant and hopes to tap into a growing global trend among environment-conscious investors. The plant will be expandable to 500 Mw with a target to generate enough power for 500,000 households.

‘‘As an environmentalist I am ready to pay more to live in a place where the quality of life is better. But, ordinary citizens, especially those in the low income group, do not care or understand this. Hence, it is important to keep the price of ‘green’ development affordable,” Raouf told IPS.

‘‘By attempting the first carbon neutral city in the world, Masdar is demonstrating its commitment to change the way the world understands energy and sustainable resource utilisation. One day all cities will be built like this,” Jaber added.

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