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Net zero carbon in the Middle East – Ambitious or not ambitious enough?

Sustainability By Lee French, Partner, Operations Director MENA – 21 February 2022

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Lee French in office

Lee French

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As a business, we made a very big commitment in 2021: by 2030 every project we design will be zero carbon.

On the surface, when you compare it to the pledges and commitments of nations around the globe, this may seem an overly ambitious target. I don’t see it that way.

For context, a majority of nations sit firmly in the net zero by 2050 camp, with the earliest legally enshrined commitment coming from Sweden, which has committed to achieving net zero carbon by 2045. One of the major metrics and calls to action for this commitment comes from the rate at which global temperatures continue to rise, due to our previous inaction. In 2015, it was etched into stone in Paris (or so we thought/hoped) that collectively as a planet, we were to limit the rise in average global temperatures to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels (mid-19th century), with a strive for target of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Current predictions and trajectory based on our current policies have us smashing through that limit this century. The potential consequences are disastrous.

This is why I cannot see our commitment and goals in Cundall as ambitious. I will explain. Ambitious means having or showing a strong desire and determination to succeed. We are way beyond that point now with climate change. Ambition is being replaced by duty. It is going to take every one of us, from individual to organisation to government, to push the boundaries like never before. To make commitments that appear ambitious but which in reality only keeping pace and pulling back from our own neglect. That is not ambition.

Of course, this is a global crisis, and each country has its own approach. This means everyone is at different stages in the race to zero. For some, this misalignment and lag is a huge cause for concern, particularly in certain regions. To provide more context to this, I wanted to look at the approaches in some of the regions that are perceived as less zero carbon progressive and focus on the place that I call home, the Middle East.

When you look at carbon emissions per capita, the global top 10 includes five countries in the Middle East. Five of the six countries that make up the GCC (Gulf Corporation Council) to be exact. The other country that makes up the full suite of GCC nations, and which is arguably the busiest in terms of radical construction and transformation in the world right now, is Saudi Arabia which comes in at 15th place. That’s all six of the countries that make up the GCC in the world’s top 15 carbon emissions per capita.

So, if I now take Cundall’s commitment for all of our designs to be zero carbon by 2030 and apply it to our Middle East business (which sits nearly wholly within the GCC), does that now make it ambitious?

Still no.

Many will think that a zero-carbon future for countries like the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia is but a pipe dream. Only six months ago, they were all noticeable absentees from most carbon neutral / net zero commitment lists. Add the region’s reliance on fossil fuels to this, and you have something that normally derails any conversation about the possibility of being truly sustainable.

But the reality is that behind the scenes, and in most cases it’s just a peek round the curtain, all of the GCC countries are making huge leaps forward.

At the end of 2021, the UAE released its plan to achieve net zero by 2050 with huge investments in renewable energy. This also aligns with the 2040 vision to become the best city to live in the world (you can’t be the best city in the world without being well on your way to zero carbon). This made the UAE the first country in the Middle East to make a commitment.

Saudi Arabia followed suit at the end of 2021 and pledged to be net zero by 2060. This is coupled with its 2030 vision of creating a real circular economy around tourism and society growth.

Oman has not yet committed to a date but has pledged reductions and the oil and gas sector is currently evaluating its zero emissions target. With new national and regional strategies under development with Oman Vision 2040, it’s only a matter of time before they follow suit.

While Kuwait has been vocal in its desires and plans, its leaders have not yet outlined exactly what these are. However, it is widely expected they will closely follow the recent UAE and Saudi Arabia pledges.

Qatar is yet to make a formal commitment and has been hesitant to follow other countries to date. It did make climate pledges before COP26 to reduce emissions by 25% which is an initial step in the right direction. Its leaders also continue to review their position which will no doubt follow the 2022 football World Cup and onwards to the 2030 vision.

Lastly, Bahrain confirmed its plan to reach net zero by 2060, following the commitment made by Saudi Arabia at the end of last year.

I am not naïve (and neither are they) and there is no denying that it’s going to be a tough and expensive path to zero carbon for the GCC countries. However, they are now firmly on the same electric train as the rest of the globe and there is real understanding and desire. Rather than just downplaying their appetite to change, we should listen and then be focussing on what WE can do and what WE can improve. Let’s start with improvement now and effect change today.

Every region, country and city that we operate in has its own journey to zero carbon, and some will face far less resistance on their paths than others. However, the most important thing to remember is that we are all aiming for the same outcome. To enable those around us, we need innovators, experts, designers, entrepreneurs and consultants to facilitate, educate and show them the way – and that is exactly what we are doing at Cundall.

So, is Zero Carbon Design 2030 ambitious? No. Is it our duty? Yes.