Net Zero City captures the UAE's path-breaking climate change policies

The book provides an action-orientated roadmap to guide any city in the transition to this critical new approach


Joydeep Sengupta

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Farah Naz (R) is the author of Net Zero City. Photo: Supplied
Farah Naz (R) is the author of Net Zero City. Photo: Supplied

Published: Thu 17 Mar 2022, 11:55 PM

Last updated: Thu 17 Mar 2022, 11:57 PM

Climate change is an alarming topic, but what is often overlooked is the fact that to attain sustainability, action must begin in cities.

Rapid urbanisation has resulted in overburdened infrastructure and services and unplanned sprawl. By 2050, cities will host another 2.5 billion urban dwellers, making the world's population 80 per cent urban. Net Zero City, the region's first book on the transition to Net Zero, has signalled the urgent wake-up call for swift corrective action.

The book — authored by Farah Naz, a climate strategist and Lead of Specialist Services, Sustainable ESG Solutions for AECOM Middle East, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Africa and a Dubai resident since 2015, and Langdon Morris, a globally renowned author, consultant and a speaker on innovation and sustainability— is a detailed, definitive, and action-orientated roadmap to guide any city in the transition to this critical new approach.

The book will be launched in Dubai, which will host the Middle East Climate Week, supported by United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), between March 28 and 31.

Khaleej Times spoke with Naz ahead of the launch of the book.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

What was the inspiration behind the book Net Zero City? And how did you partner with Langdon Morris to write this book?

Morris and I shared a great concern about climate change and its impact on people and cities.

The project started as a research project by Morris in the London School of Economics in 2020, where I was his industry supervisor/ partner.

Globally climate and biodiversity were announced in 2019, which means a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it.

The effect of climate change is already causing severe disruptions in how we live, work, and play. In future, it may cause more disruptions. As we both started working together, we saw that while cities produce significant amounts of greenhouse gases, there did not seem to be a comprehensive guide that showed how cities could take an Integrated approach to reaching net zero transition from governance to technical solutions. So, we set out to write one.

Work started summer of 2020 and was completed in autumn of 2021.

Farah Naz (R) is the author of Net Zero City. Photo: Supplied
Farah Naz (R) is the author of Net Zero City. Photo: Supplied

What we have discovered through our research is that there is a tremendous amount of material available on the topic of net zero, many fine examples and initiatives to reduce greenhouse gases from all over the world. But they are point solutions, so, perhaps, our biggest challenge was coming up with an overall strategy and roadmap that integrates all the information, numerous case studies and examples into a coherent action plan.

This was one of our key goals for the book, and it took quite a long time. We interviewed people globally and engaged with students and researchers to identify the path to least resistance. Even though both of us authored the book, we are only the messengers. The book encompasses a comprehensive approach to Net zero transition for cities covering five key areas: Governance, Urban Design, Circular Economy, Energy (Food energy water nexus and Energy Infrastructure), Innovation and Data Science.

Finally, we were able to develop a comprehensive framework that seems to be quite useful. In the book we present a 10 Year Transformation Roadmap for cities. We believe cities can adopt a "Climate Smart Master plan" that addresses the Net Zero Transition as an underlying Urban Framework. This framework would enable the city to establish and better understand the Carbon emissions from key sectors like:

  • Transportation
  • Utilities Industry
  • Energy sector
  • Agricultural Land, Forestry and Fishing
  • Building Industry
  • Materials

This book addresses this very topic. We present a 10-year Transformation Roadmap for cities, providing multifaceted pathways to overcome the Climate Emergency by attaining Net Zero. This book is an open call for action for the global community to rise up to the challenge, and shows how we can choose a new way of thinking and doing

How long have you been living and working as an engineer in the UAE?

Since arriving in Dubai in 2015, I have been steering a sustainability and innovation agenda in the built environment across the Middle East. I have led the sustainability and innovation strategy at the Museum of the Future, Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi, Bee'ah HQ in Sharjah, Masdar Eco Housing, and the Expo 2020 Sustainability Pavilion, including liveability and energy strategy for key master planning projects across the region.

While based in the United Kingdom, I was involved in creating the energy strategy for the country's first zero-energy building, Ashmount Primary School, which won the 2015 Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Sustainable Buildings Award.

As an innovator, I focus on implementing best practices in the built environment by applying systems thinking related to the Food-Energy-Water Nexus, biomimetics, Capital model of Sustainability, Liveability, and Inclusive Integrated Innovation Frameworks, which I believe build the foundation of our cities and communities.


What kind of initiatives is the UAE taking towards a transition to Net Zero?

Last November, before the COP-26 summit, the UAE announced their commitment to becoming net-zero by 2050. The UAE Net Zero 2050 strategic initiative aligns with the Paris Agreement, which calls on countries to prepare long-term strategies to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and limit the rise in global temperature to 1.5 C compared to pre-industrial levels. The Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MOCCAE) will lead and coordinate efforts to execute the UAE Net Zero by 2050 strategic initiative and ensure collaboration at the national level to fulfil this objective.

The following actions have been taken by the UAE to date:

  • Vision 2021 is targeting a sustainable environment and infrastructure by 2021. The UAE has set KPIs to measure its targets and launched initiatives and plans to achieve the same. The National Climate Change Plan of the UAE 2017-2050 serves as a roadmap to bolster nationwide actions for climate mitigation. This way, the UAE has integrated climate change measures into national policies, strategies, and planning.
  • The UAE has engaged in the implementation of 14 projects for the purpose of reducing the emissions of GHGs under the umbrella of Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects. The prospective total annual reduction of these projects estimated about one million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2Eq).
  • The UAE is working with different local and regional stakeholders to reduce its emissions. In 1990, the UAE emitted 32.6 tonnes of CO2 per person per year. In 2010, the figure dropped to 21.9 tonnes per person per year.
  • The UAE's largest emirate, Abu Dhabi, has committed more than $15 (Dh55.10) billion to renewable energy programmes through the Masdar Initiative. Masdar underscores twin commitments to the global environment and diversification of the UAE's economy. The initiative's partners include some of the world's largest energy companies and elite institutions: BP, Shell, Occidental Petroleum, Total Exploration and Production, General Electric, Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Rolls Royce, Imperial College London, MIT and WWF. It has four key elements:

— An innovation Centre to support the demonstration, commercialisation, and adoption of sustainable energy technologies

— The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology with graduate programmes in renewable energy and sustainability, located in Masdar City, the world's first carbon-neutral, waste-free, car-free city

— A development company focused on the commercialisation of emissions reduction and clean development mechanism solutions as provided by the Kyoto Protocol

— A special economic zone to host institutions investing in renewable energy technology.

  • Dubai Expo 2020 as an example of Climate Smart City.

In the last six years, the concept of Smart Cities have evolved into Climate-Smart Cities EXPO 2020 is a Micro Scale innovation of Lab of a Futurist Climate-smart city.

In Expo, we are experiencing - Inclusive Integrated Innovation, where people display and talk about Technical Innovation, even how the pavilions are built their architecture; engineering is a testament to this technical innovation.

Entrepreneurs express business innovation, and businesses focus on the commercial and business development of the products and ideas to live, as well as social innovation is taking place with all the learnings and awareness.

Terra Pavillion – the exhibitions inspire an individual to question his/her role in this planet and inspire a child to think outside of the box.

I believe, as humans are not defined by the vision of the future, we are left with old decisions of the past. Past is important to know our roots, but it also should work as a catalyst to create the blueprint of the future. This is what I see the UAE has done. They have jumped orbits in creating a vision for the future, and now, with Net Zero Agenda and Climate-smart cities we would be experiencing another orbital jump in establishing a Climate Smart City.


How serious is the climate change threat to the UAE like the rest of the world?

The challenges to the natural environment today are immense. The UAE faces the impact of rapid development and the effects of climate change and global warming. Protection of the environment and sustainable development are key topics that receive great attention from the UAE Government.

The UAE's rapid economic development made the country face serious environmental challenges that arise from the high pace of population growth, the increase in the demand for energy and water and the fast-paced urban development accompanied with high levels of GHG and other emissions in the UAE.

According to the Living Planet Report 2010 by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the UAE was rated number one in the world for having the biggest ecological footprint. The ecological footprint is a measure of a country's sustainability that compares the use of natural resources per person per capita, which is expressed by a unit of bio-productive land called the 'global hectare' (gha).

Key environment threats include:

  1. Invasive Species
  2. Extreme weather conditions (flooding, sandstorm, and droughts)
  3. Limited water resource
  4. Overfishing
  5. Air and water pollution
  6. Waste generation
  7. Land degradation and desertification

Which country and city in the region is most equipped to emerge as Net Zero?

Most countries in the Middle East are facing the impacts of extreme weather conditions and climate change. There is no doubt now that there really is a climate emergency, but there is a lot of uncertainty about what we must do to address it. The COP 26 meeting in Glasgow in November 2021 clearly highlights the difficulties we have as a global society in coping with systemic problems of this magnitude. In Glasgow, there was essentially no disagreement about the nature and scope of the problem, but a lot of dithering about what to do.


Currently, few countries in the region have pledged for Net-zero transition. They are as follows:

  • In October 2021, UAE became the first Gulf country to announce a Net Zero commitment by 2050. Investment of Dh600 billion in clean and renewable energy sources is planned over the next three decades.
  • Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have pledged 2060 Net zero
  • Qatar has pledged 25 per cent reduction of Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2030

There is now no doubt that the destiny of humanity lies in our cities. The human population crossed the halfway point around 2010 on our journey toward becoming a fully urbanised civilisation, and each day the populations of our cities continue to increase while rural populations decline.

This urban growth is occurring in a time of great turbulence, and due particularly to worsening climate change, the fate of these very cities is now in question. Will they thrive, or will they be overwhelmed by tumultuous storms and bitter droughts brought on by climate change?

Much of the human situation during the next century will be defined according to our capacity to adapt to this new, entirely unprecedented, and frightening set of climate conditions. But in fact, we have no choice but to adapt, which also means that we must innovate and prolifically.

So, perhaps, it is our ability to innovate that will largely determine our fate. Innovate well and we can survive and thrive; fail to innovate and we are doomed to prolonged suffering and decline.

The necessary innovations will be developed across countless dimensions of modern society. They will involve how we build, what we build, and what we build with. They will impact our systems of food and water, our ideas about a healthy economy, our approaches to governance and decision making, and our use of technology.

And perhaps most of all, they will involve a fundamental change to the energy infrastructure of civilisation, both where we get our energy from, and how we use it. CO2-producing fossil fuels will be replaced by sources that do not produce greenhouse gases, a switch that's going to be expensive and disruptive, which means it's a technological, economic, and social transformation.

But with it also comes a unique and enormous opportunity.

Achieving Net Zero

Achieving Net Zero is a complex problem, and it will not be solved by simplistic thinking or actions. In the book we propose that to deal with it effectively we require a few key solution elements: We need a framework model to describe the system city, for which we propose an Urban System Framework consisting of five key elements that make the city what it is.

There are several mega developments in the region in countries like the UAE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Can these projects be delivered sustainably (there are ambitious sustainability targets) or does sustainability automatically suffer due to the scale of projects and the number of different components?

Getting to net-zero is politically challenging as it is socially, economically, and structurally challenging. The intent of the book is to provide a comprehensive action plan describing the critical elements of the net-zero transformations we speak about.

It is aimed at city leaders and business leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators, citizens and parents, professionals across all fields, including architecture, engineering, and construction. It is also for the dreamers and visionaries. It's for all of us, and its purpose is to describe actions that are already being taken all over the world as best practices that may also be applied very widely, and to provide a transformation framework for cities.

All this is intended to shift the dialogue from "wait and see" to "act now." COP26 showed us that our cities and countries must start now. Therefore, we must design and engineer this transition and make it happen on a timescale that is exceptionally fast by the standards of how cities normally evolve. And so, this will apparently be the first time in the long history of human civilisation that we have attempted, or achieved, such a planned and intentional change at such a large scale and on such an accelerated timeline.

The choices we make today will redefine our pathway forward, and a great deal depends on our capacity to do this well – a great deal of destruction and suffering will be avoided if we do, and so it is a practical as well as a moral imperative. How then should we approach making fundamental change to this very complex system – or more accurately, as we noted above, this system-of-systems?

We propose that four elements are essential:

First, we need an organisational perspective, an Urban System Framework that enables us to understand and manage the broad complexity of the net-zero transformation challenge, the transformation of nothing less than civilisation. This we present in the book.

Secondly, we need a general Theory of Social Change to guide us through the very challenging process of changing ourselves, the city, and civilisation. We present a Theory of Social Change in Chapter 5.

Thirdly, we need to know what to do, and this requires a definition of the necessary action practices and examples that show us how – this we address in detail in part two of the book.

And finally, we need a Transformation Roadmap showing us how to proceed, step by step, which we present in part three of the book.

History will not look back favourably upon us if we fail to meet this challenge, but it will appreciate us for doing what is now clearly necessary. There are more than 100 examples presented in the book that clearly show we certainly act now and do something about it.

We need to define a pathway, which we propose as a Four Phase emodel.

And we need to identify the actions that you can take with respect to each sector of the framework, which address with a detailed Transformation Roadmap.

How has the book captured the vision of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, who has been championing the sustainability cause and the Expo 2020 Dubai is a great exposition of that initiative?

The book has captured the vision of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, who has been championing sustainability for over a decade by including examples from Dubai UAE and Expo 2020 Dubai as one of the Global Best Practices.

  • Conscious Leadership: In the book we talk about the importance of Conscious Leadership and Governance to drive the climate agenda for our cities and how Dubai, and the UAE have Addressed the climate agenda in their policies, and approach to clean energy transition is one of the global best practice examples for the world for over a decade. Some key examples are highlighted in the book as Global and Regional Best practice examples for the readers.
  • The UAE's Net Zero Pledge: In October 2021 UAE became the first Gulf Country to announce a Net Zero commitment by 2050. Investment of Dh600 billion in clean and renewable energy sources is planned over the next three decades. This announcement again shows UAEs and Sheikh's vision for the region.
  • Future Foresight and Public Engagement: An excellent example of this sort of public engagement is the Dubai Museum of the Future, which takes a proactive stance toward understanding what the future may hold, and thereby becomes a significant resource for the UAE, as well as for the broader global community. While it may not be suitable for every city to create a "museum of the future," it makes perfect sense for every city to find ways to engage with the public in a discussion about change and the future of their own community.
  • Net zero Agricultural Innovation – The UAE's leadership on Food Energy Water Nexus is one of the key project case studies mentioned in the book. Those focused on the Net Zero journey will take particular interest in start-up firms that address industries as varied as agriculture, waste management, advanced materials, energy production, and recycling. The Norwegian firm Desert Control has patented a product called "Liquid NanoClay (LNC)," In its initial commercial trials in the UAE, Desert Control's product was found to produce 20 percent more watermelons and 60 percent more pearl millet compared with traditional means, while using just half the water. Liquid Natural Clay (LNC) can turn desert sand into fertile soil in less than 7 hours. A process which previously has taken between seven and 12 years." This is a good best practice example of how cities can transition towards net zero through their actions.
  • Net zero Entrepreneurship & Invest in Young Minds, Museum of the Future, adoption to Block Chain City, Transition to green transportation and investment in startups are positive ways to invest in great minds and ideas. The UAE Vision 2021 and Dubai Future Foundation is based on building a new competitive knowledge economy. In 2020 that investment in start-ups in the Middle East and North Africa totalled more than $700 (Dh2571.11) million in 2019, including at least $150 (Dh550.95) million of capital attracted from outside the region.
  • Expo 2020 as a Micro Scale innovation Lab for Dubai, UAE: In the last six years the concept of Smart Cities has evolved into Climate Smart Cities EXPO 2020 is a Micro Scale innovation of Lab of a Futurist Climate smart cities. In the Expo, we are experiencing Inclusive Integrated Innovation, where people are displaying and talking about Technical Innovation, even how the pavilions are built, their architecture, engineering is a testament to this technical innovation. Business innovation is expressed from entrepreneurs and business focus on the commercial and business development of the products and ideas to live, as well as a social innovation is taking place with all the learnings and awareness on sustainable living and liveability of the citizens.

The book is meant for city leaders as well architects, engineers and urban designers, the public, youth, and indeed anyone who is interested in or working in the Built Environment. And especially it is for everyone who is concerned about climate change and wishes to understand the actions that are needed to overcome it. Most critically, the book is an open call for Climate Action to transform new and existing cities into Net Zero Cities, and by offering the Net Zero Transformation Roadmap to get there. The book echoes the visionary leadership of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, through the following words.

The future does not wait for the hesitant people.

The more we achieve, the more we realise

how much more we can achieve.

We may not live for hundreds of years,

but the products of our creativity

can leave a legacy long after we are gone.

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