Is Dubai’s construction boom sustainable?

From my 31st floor bedroom window, I will soon be able to see the world’s largest observation wheel.

My beachside flat did not even exist 10 years ago. It shot up as part of a property bubble in Dubai, which spectacularly burst in 2008 but has gradually re-formed.

Wildly ambitious construction projects put the desert state on the map.

Now they are in fashion again, with plans to build:

  • a rainforest in the desert
  • the world’s largest shopping mall
  • the tallest twin towers on Earth

There is an Arabic saying that a believer does not get stung twice.

That is surely the hope for Dubai’s construction industry.

It is back on its feet thanks to large foreign investment and loans.

Environmental footprint

It appears steadier, as it is based on strong consumer demand and a more regulated real estate market.

One notable downside, however, has been Dubai’s ever expanding muddy environmental footprint.

An average person in Dubai:

  • uses about double the amount of water than the global average
  • produces 2.5kg (5lb) of waste a day
  • is among the world’s worst carbon dioxide polluters

Gas turbines produce most of Dubai’s energy.

As a fuel source, this is a pretty clean option, as the grid’s carbon emissions are only 60% of the world’s average.

The distribution of gas is also twice as efficient when compared globally, so the infrastructure is not the problem.

There is also the ambition to improve.

Dubai’s rulers want 15% of electricity from renewables, with 30% less consumed per head, by 2030.

The renewables target looks achievable.

Right now, as the searing summer draws ever closer – luckily it is still cool enough to sit outside – the Sun is finally playing its part, thanks to a recent sea change in solar technology and prices.

Solar panels may soon become more familiar on people’s rooftops.

Reduced prices

A pricing scheme launched last week helps people save on their own electricity costs and encourages them to earn by feeding back to the grid.

On a much larger scale, the push for the emirate’s grid to have its own mass solar supply has received some good news.

Saudi-based power plant developer and operator Acwa Power will provide Dubai with 2,000MW of the world’s cheapest solar power, at below 4p per kWh, for 25 years.

Acwa chief executive Paddy Padmanathan said big savings were possible from utilising the creditworthiness of DEWA, the state-owned electricity company.

How Dubai grew:

1991: 25 years after oil is discovered in Dubai, production peaks. Its economy has rapidly diversified since

2002: Construction booms as foreigners are allowed to buy properties. Many are sold off-plan almost immediately – with few regulations in place

2009: Following the global financial crisis, hundreds of construction projects are abandoned or suspended as credit dries up. Property prices fall by 30-50%

2013: A second construction boom occurs. Property prices rise by over 30% exacerbated by the news Dubai will host Expo 2020

2015: Dubai’s property prices cool off slightly as new government regulations kick in amid a weakening global market. New constructions continues apace. Plans for the first rainforest in the desert in Dubai are unveiled as work gets under way on the biggest mall and observation wheel in the world

The consumption target could be a much trickier challenge though, as that involves changing people’s attitudes.

DEWA already runs campaigns for people to turn down their air-conditioning in the summer months and do all the things responsible citizens are asked to do around the world, such as turn off lights and waste less.

Public awareness

Saeed Al Abbar, chair of the Emirates Green Building Council, told the BBC that “awareness of sustainability issues has definitely increased significantly over the past few years”.

But the figures show there is still a long way to go.

One step the government has already taken is to ensure all new public and private buildings are constructed according to a far-reaching set of green building regulations introduced last year.

Saeed Al Abbar said: “Over 800 buildings have complied with the regulations so far at the design stage, which is a tremendous achievement.

“The real challenge is in ensuring that the code requirements are fully incorporated in the completed constructions through rigorous quality control measures.”

Government-backed environmental stunts have been used to help change attitudes.

They also make good stories, such as this recent eagle flight and the opening of the Middle East’s first eco-mosque.

Dubai now has just over five years to build what it calls “a monument to the green economy, a landmark in sustainable development”, when it hosts Expo 2020.

Some private projects may not help though.

According to its developers, the Dubai Rainforest is a chance to learn about the jungle lifestyle in a dome-covered ecosystem.

But Prof Ali El-Keblawy, director of the Sharjah Seed Bank and Herbarium, said it was challenging nature to create an artificial forest in harsh desert conditions and told a local newspaper, The National, the impact on the environment should be assessed before the project was built.

That could indeed be sage advice for many of the constructions planned for Dubai, if the emirate is serious about its own environmental targets.