Fenced off by a wall of trees, about 20 km from the high rises towering over Dubai’s city center, there lies a small solar-powered settlement aiming to become a green oasis in the desert.
Renowned for its glitzy skyscrapers, air-conditioning-blasting shopping malls and indoor skiing facilities, the emirate of Dubai has long been the antithesis of sustainability to environmentalists.
But the United Arab Emirates (UAE) plans to change that reputation, with a range of projects aimed at having more than 40 percent of the country’s energy come from renewable sources and cutting consumption by the same margin by 2050.
Opened to the first residents in 2016 and to be fully completed next year, the initiative dubbed Sustainable City is a private settlement on the outskirts of Dubai designed to use as little energy and water as possible.
Comprising 500 low-lying villas that are home to nearly 3,000 people, as well as commercial spaces and a mosque, the city aims to be a “net-zero” settlement, producing all the energy it needs from renewable sources on site.
“The Sustainable City is a living laboratory for testing future technologies and solutions,” said Karim El-Jisr, head of SEE Institute, the research arm of the city’s developer, Diamond Developers.
When the project started six years ago, building a zero-energy development “seemed a bit like a dream”, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Today it is not difficult anymore, tomorrow everybody will have to do it,” he added.
From neighboring Masdar City to the Qatari capital Doha, it is one of several developments launched across the region in recent years that aim to serve as a model for environmentally- friendly living in the Middle East.
Houses, offices and other buildings are responsible for about 40 percent of planet-warming emissions globally, according to the think tank World Resources Institute (WRI).
The issue is particularly relevant in the UAE, said Emma Stewart, who leads WRI’s urban efficiency and climate program, with World Bank data showing that the country has one of the highest per capita carbon footprints in the world.
About 75 percent of all electricity produced in the UAE is sucked up by buildings, mainly to fuel air-conditioners that keep locals fresh during the scorching summer months, Stewart said.
“They have an immense need for cooling to keep the population within their comfort range,” she said in a phone interview.
In the Sustainable City, residents zig zag through the streets on bicycles or aboard small electric carts, under the shade of the palm trees flanking the strips of square, white houses. Cars are banned from most of the area.
All buildings and parking spaces are topped by solar panels which feed the energy they produce into the grid, allowing residents to pay only the difference between what they produce and consume, according to the developer.
Residential units designed to avoid direct exposure to the sun and covered in paint that reflects sunlight to keep the heat out, while wastewater is recycled to irrigate green areas, El-Jisr said during a visit to the site.
Resident Belinda Boisson said she paid more rent than the Dubai average but, besides sustainability, the development offered a family-friendly environment and sense of community that was rare to find among Dubai’s high rises.
“(Children) can play outside without me worrying about my daughter being hit by a car,” said Boisson, a 46-year-old expat from South Africa.
The Dubai settlement is the first in the region - which is particularly vulnerable to extreme heat, droughts and rising sea levels, according to the World Bank - to become fully operational, says its developer.
In neighboring Abu Dhabi, the state-sponsored Masdar City was touted as the world’s first emissions-free city and designed to house up to 50,000 people. After breaking ground in 2008 the settlement remains behind schedule and sparsely populated.
In Qatar, the Msheireb area of Doha is also undergoing a carbon-cutting makeover.
Developers of the 76-acre regeneration zone, which aims to become “one of the largest sustainable cities in the world”, are outfitting it with green features, from rainwater harvesting to shady overhangs that make walking outside cooler.
A similar city extension based on the Msheireb project is being planned in Muscat, Oman, while Diamond Developers is building another “sustainable city” in the emirate of Sharjah which will be about twice the size of the one in Dubai.
This second green city hopes to improve on the first, where not everything has worked according to plan, El-Jisr said.
A grey-water system set up to use water from showers and washing machines to feed the city’s artificial lake was decommissioned when developers realized the phosphates from the soap were fueling unsightly blooms of algae, he said.
The water is now used for irrigation, but the city still relies heavily on water from Dubai’s energy-intensive desalination plants, El-Jisr added.
And the settlement still consumes more energy than it produces, he explained.
In a bid to reduce consumption, new motion-activated lighting is being installed and the developers are looking for new ideas to improve efficiency, said El-Jisr.
“It is not enough to design, build and then walk away,” he added. “You always have to make adjustments.”
Low-carbon projects like Dubai’s Sustainable City are useful testing grounds for cities looking to go green, said Abdulla Al Basti, the head of Dubai’s executive council.
But they are no magic bullet against global warming, said Alessandro Melis, an architecture professor at Britain’s University of Portsmouth.
“They are good experiments that can tell us many things, but at this moment in time it would be more important to focus on how we can transform the urban fabric that we already have,” Melis said in a phone interview.
Stewart of the WRI agreed, saying that building new developments, however sustainable, can be less efficient than retrofitting existing ones.
Construction works account for on average about 10 percent of all emissions generated by a building’s lifecycle, she noted.
However, by showing what is possible, new builds could inspire policymakers to take bolder action, she said.
In September, the UAE pledged that by 2030 all new buildings will produce no more emissions than they can absorb, and all existing buildings will meet that goal by 2050 - a promise Melis said was ambitious but technically feasible.
And if a group of desert emirates can find a way to go green, it could prove a powerful example to other cities, said Stewart.
“If this can be done in a desert environment that is difficult for humans to inhabit... it can be done everywhere,” she said.