Solutions for a Low Carbon Middle East

The Middle-East has enjoyed oil riches for over half a century. Unfortunately within a span of two generations,  the nomadic zero-carbon lifestyle in the region has morphed into a pattern of living that is akin to an energy  black hole. Today, the choice of tall skyscrapers,  golf courses,  thermal power plants, desalinated sea water, gas guzzling vehicles, 24-7 air conditioning and grand indoor spaces,  are all contributing towards the energy drain. The energy policy in the middle east is a complete departure from the nature’s design for the region. And because the price for this grandiose is paid by tapping into natures energy capital,  oil (or gas), the reverses are depleting rapidly. In September 2012, a report by Citigroup warned Saudi Arabia that owing to the increase in domestic consumption, the country could run out of oil to export by 2030.

To put this immense consumption into perspective, the 9 million population in the relatively small country of UAE consumes the same amount of energy as 185 million Pakistan.  While Pakistan’s low energy consumption per capita may be aspirational for many eco-practitioners in the west but ironically it  exits because of the country’s shoddy execution of energy policy.

From Google’s Public Data it can be seen that Qatar leads the way in CO2 emissions per capita with 44 kg/person/year.  The next in line is Kuwait with 28 kg, followed by UAE and Saudi Arabia with values 20 and 18 kg respectively. The values of the mentioned middle-eastern countries are well above world average of 4.8 kg per person per year.

A recent trend in the middle east has been the construction of tall sky scrapers. The Burj Al Khalifa in Dubai stands proudly as the tallest building in the world but unfortunately its neo- futuritic architecture takes little consideration of sustainability or energy efficiency. Glass facades may look appealing but for extremely sunny climates, they only increase the heat load by allowing more of the sun inside the building.

It should be mentioned that the Burj Al Khalifa employs a low solar factor glass with a shading coefficient of 0.18.  However, with an overall glass area of over 120,000 m2, it is estimated that during peak times 4.2 MW of heat load will be added because of sunlight alone. Also the transport of water, personnel and goods to the higher floors becomes an extremely high energy consuming activity. The skyscrapers also increase population density which in turn increases the traffic and consequently the emissions.

Smog in Dubai can be clearly seen

Smog in Dubai can be clearly seen

Smog is one of the many unintended consequences of skyscrapers. Smog increases the energy consumption because of the micro-climate it creates. Not only the air quality is reduced by this culmination of pollutants  but a green house effect is also created which increases the ambient temperature. As a result more air conditioning is needed.  Although it is heartening to see that a proposed skyscraper, the Burj Al Taqa  in Dubai, aims to generate 100% of its energy  through renewables both on the building and from near by site, but skyscrapers themselves are part of the problem. The need is of sustainable architecture that is in tune with both  nature and the needs of its dwellers.

It wasn’t long ago that the Solar chimneys were a compulsory part the buildings in the Arab world. These chimneys not only improved the natural ventilation but also provided passive cooling during blazing hot summers.

Solar Chimney of ventilation

Traditional architecture of the emirates employing Solar Chimney

For any conscious soul, all of middle-east’s ostentatious displays equate to  environmental poverty. The only oasis of sustainability in the middle-east is Al –Masdar city. The oil rich emirate of Abu-Dhabi, in contrast to it’s sister emirate Dubai has opted  for a more sustainable route to the future. Masdar city project is a planned city constructed 17 km for southeast Abu Dhabi. The buildings in Masdar city  have taken inspiration from the old arabesque terracotta buildings. Interestingly the temperature in the streets of Masdar is 15 to  20 C cooler than the surrounding desert owing to well-designed cityscape. The narrow streets remain well  shaded while cooler air from a 45 meters tall tower is siphoned and discharged at the ground level. There is much that can be learned by this project by not only by the  middle-east but by all hot climate countries.

The use of earth material during construction compared to aluminium and glass also increases the specific heat capacity of building. This gives the building a higher thermal inertia which in turn reduces the energy consumption. Most of the Arab world is blessed with ample sunshine and also has  vast uninhabited spaces. Dubai receives an average of 5.74 kWh/m2/day of solar insolation, a level of sunshine that is the envy of northern european countries. Just like Masdar city, much of the electricity can be provided by Solar PV panels or CSP technology. Water can be recycled and grey water can be used for irrigation.

With the exception of a few oasis cities and towns, bulk of the population in the middle east lives near the coast. With Seawater Greenhouse technology,  the region can not only achieve food sufficiency but also reduce its carbon footprint significantly. Note that more than 85% of the food in the middle east is imported. Given the deep pockets because of oil wealth, the time to invest in green technologies is sooner rather than later.

It should be understood that to fix a vessel with holes, one does not make the vessel taller. Unfortunately that has been the traditional approach in oil rich region of middle-east.  The architecture of Masdar city holds the key for the Arab world in the post oil era. The future is not sky-scraping  energy sinks but smaller sustainable housing and business units. The future is not fossil fuel based electricity, but an energy mix dominated by solar energy. The future is not more desalination plants but more waste water treatment plants.

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Telegraph article: Saudi Arabia to Run out of oil by 2030

Google Public Data

Burj Al Khalifa Glass Data


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