How the sustainable economy
is becoming a reality
From clean mobility to innovation in agriculture to beating air pollution, many bright minds, across generations in the UAE,
are helping to lead the way toward a more sustainable future
Saeed Al Abbar does not consider himself a trendsetter by any means, but it is fair to say few were following him when he chose to launch a career in sustainability in the UAE a little over a decade ago.
In addition to working in his consultancy, Mr Al Abbar now teaches university courses in energy and sits on the board of directors of the World Green Building Council, where he is the only representative from the Mena region.
He also acts as the chairman of the Emirates Green Building Council – another body which reflects the rapid rise in importance of sustainability issues in the UAE.
“That is effectively a grass roots body, a voluntary movement of promoting sustainable buildings in the UAE,” he says.
“And that consists of about 160 companies and thousands of individuals who have basically taken the pledge to say we want to be part of pushing sustainable buildings in the UAE.”
Its membership spans the generations, with a 55-year age spread.
“It goes right the way from university students to people who have retired and have some time they want to contribute to it.”
This kind of cross-generational buy-in has evolved over more than a decade from back when the UAE had one of the world’s largest carbon footprints relative to its population, and its residents were consuming more natural resources than anywhere else on the planet.
But the need for a more sustainable approach both here and abroad was part of the spur for Mr Al Abbar to take a greener path after obtaining a first class Master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Bath.
“After graduating I saw there was a big need for, not only in this region, but also globally, a focus on the issues around climate change, energy and sustainable development,” says Mr Al Abbar.
“So I forged a career path along those lines, which was in those days definitely not common.”
Forging a greener path. Saeed Al Abbar, an Emirati expert in the sustainability space saw the future earlier than most when he embarked on his career a decade ago.
Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National
But times have changed. The UAE is no longer playing catch up with the rest of the world, says Mr Al Abbar. It is now actively leading it.
The UAE was the first country in the region and among the first signatories in the world to the Paris Climate Agreement. Abu Dhabi’s World Future Energy Summit exhibition and conference, hosted by Masdar and organised by Reed Exhibitions, played a huge part in setting the agenda for the sustainability economy since it was launched in 2008 and has now become part of a week-long focus on the sector in the capital which also includes a meeting of the UN’s International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) and the Zayed Future Energy Prize awards. Over the years, the Emirates has also established bodies and events such as the World Green Economy Organisation and the World Green Economy Summit to grow the sustainability ecosystem in the country, including businesses specialising in sustainable solutions in the UAE, such as Mr Al Abbar’s consultancy company, AESG, which he set up eight years ago.
By 2050, Dubai aims to have the lowest carbon footprint in the world. And an ambitious series of emission and energy targets have been put in place at both the local and federal level to help reduce the UAE’s carbon footprint.
“Take for example the Dubai Integrated Energy Strategy, which has within that a clear plan for reducing energy consumption by 30 per cent by 2030. It’s not just a strategy. They have put a number of fairly comprehensive programmes alongside that, addressing street lighting, irrigation, building retrofits, building codes,” says Mr Al Abbar.
The government has done much to encourage the development of the green economy by providing direct and indirect funding for innovation, developing and upgrading its legal and regulatory frameworks and enhancing the educational system, says Dr Florence Eid-Oakden, the British chief economist of Arabia Monitor.
“But some significant challenges remain to be addressed,” she adds.
“When it comes to funding, there are opportunities to expand the government’s involvement in equity funding mechanisms. Although venture capital is growing in the UAE, it is still ten times smaller than in the US, as a percentage of GDP.”
A marketplace for start-ups
Enter CLIX– a marketplace launching at this year’s World Future Energy Summit, which is taking place as part of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, which runs from January 13.
The CLIX initiative aims to match sustainable entrepreneurs with investors to power sustainable climate change solutions through knowledge, innovation, and funding. It will feature businesses or ideas operating in three areas: air pollution, clean mobility and innovation in agriculture.
When it launched, the team behind CLIX were expecting around 100 entrants across the three pillars. But in a two month period, it attracted more than three times the number – 364 ideas, from 312 applicants, from 65 countries.
“It was massive,” says Ara Fernezian, group managing director for the Middle East at Reed Exhibitions, which is running the competition.
And in encouraging news for the UAE, there were more entries from the country than anywhere else, with seven start-ups. The USA and Canada were next with five start-ups, followed by three each from the UK and Germany.
“Now you may argue that it is in the UAE, so maybe this is why we received more. But you would be surprised by the number of people who don’t think we have innovation that comes out of here. And this is not true,” says Mr Fernezian.
A judging panel made up of members from bodies such as Khalifa Univeristy and Masdar whittled the ideas down to 28 start-ups from 13 countries, which will compete in the finals next week for financial backing from 12 investors.
Catalyst– a new US$5 million technology seed incubator launched by BP and Masdar Institute, which is designed to help clean technology entrepreneurs commercialise their ideas – is one such investor.
The incubator solely concentrates on renewable energy technologies, desalination techniques, and smart and artificial intelligence. It aims to source and support ideas from the UAE first, but is not limited to them. And there is nothing else like it here, says Cinar D Kurra, of Catalyst.
“What makes us different from the others, and this is very important, that number one, the minute they are selected through our filtration system, once these projects are selected, if they are coming from abroad we give them accommodation, second, we give them all corporate level support, which includes HR, finance, legal and administrative level support, so immediately they become a freezone company,” he says.
The fund launched in September, and has just two projects on its desk, so its first outing, so to speak, will be at CLIX.
“There arereally interesting projects in there,” says Mr Kurra.
Brizi Baby, a UK-based business, is one of the 28 startups competing for attention from Mr Kurra and the other 11 investors.
Its owner, Yosi Romano, 43, came across CLIX while researching air pollution initiatives and is hoping to attract $2 million in investment at the event.
His product, a cushion which can be added into any pram, filters the air to remove any pollution from the child’s breathing area. The device sucks the air from one side and passes it through a series of fabrics and a medical grade fan filter, blowing clean air out the other side, which creates a clean air shield in front of the baby’s face.
Mr Romano, whose mother is from Italy and father is from Libya, but has spent most of his life in the UK, came up with the idea while waiting at a bus stop with his daughter in London one winter’s day. He was working as a cameraman for the BBC and Associated Press at the time.
“The bus blew very warm air into our faces, and I realised that it could not be too healthy, even though it was nice and warm,” he says.
“My younger brother was studying chemistry at Cambridge at the time and then he helped me to get my head around what is in the air that we are breathing. And when I learned what was in the air, I got a bit worried, because the heaviest particles – which are unburnt fuel, heavy particles of metal and rubber, sit very low in the air. So when you are standing next to the pram you breathe better air than your young one. That was a bit worrying.”
After creating a simple prototype to address the problem, he contacted an industrial design consultancy in London to see if the idea was worth anything. He wanted to be sure that it was possible to create an open air filtration system before proceeding. And after creating a simple rig and fiddling with it for a few months, they discovered that it could be done, providing that aerodynamics were correct.
The product he plans to manufacture monitors the environment and triggers the filtering mechanism when it detects pollution in the air. “It also uploads the data to an app that is free for use for the whole community,” explains Mr Romano.
Entrepreneurs ecosystem. Ara Fernezian, group managing director for the Middle East, at Reed Exhibitions. He has high hopes for the CLIX platform connecting sustainable sector start-ups and investors.
Photo: Reem Mohammed/The National
He plans to start manufacturing the devices in the summer as part of a limited batch, and hopes to sell the product for $119 a piece. The air filters, which will need to be replaced every month or so, depending on the levels of air pollution, will cost around $9.
“If we manage to get an investor on board we can manufacture in bulk and offer the product for a cheaper price from day one. That’s what we are trying to achieve with CLIX,” says Mr Romano.
He also hopes that he will gain access to a research centre which will help further refine the product.
“We believe that this is our initial product. In different countries there are different sources of pollution. In India it is a lot of burning plastics. In China it’s manufacturing. We would like to build filters that are unique to the territory and not just generic filters that deal only with traffic borne pollution,” says Mr Romano.
“We filter the water, we feed our children organic food. There is no reason to expose them to polluted air, especially when we think clean air is a human right.”
Fellow finalist FlyNano, which is competing in the clean mobility category, was invited to take part in the competition.
The company, which has invented a luxury electric plane which requires no license, is designed to be a first step into aviation.
“It’s a water ski with wings,” says Mika Suila, managing director of FlyNano.
“Everybody of my age, at least males, have said to me that this is something that has been missing in their lives, for excitement and flying. To have the feeling of piloting an airplane. That’s what we are doing. We are claiming that we are the first company in the world that can offer the pilot experience.”
The company, which has gone through several investment rounds, is seeking $8m of investment at CLIX, and hopes to find dealers and distributors for the vehicle in the region.
“The investment would go to FlyNano that is based in Helsinki in Finland but yes, we have plans to start operations in the area as soon as possible,” says Mr Suila.
And that is the hope, says Mr Fernezian – to attract businesses from around the world to set up operations in the UAE.
“Imagine -imagine if two or three of these companies open factories in the country, we are playing a role in the ecosystem,” he says.
“When we were doing this work, we met with a lot of entities and we felt there was a big appetite to make this work – the startup ecosystem – from the top down. The motivation is there. But I think it requires something. I think we are still in a very young stage.”
The UAE’s sustainable ecosystem began with Masdar in 2006, says Mr Fernezian. Masdar was “the lighthouse,” he says.
“It was ambitious and amazing. All of us in 2006 when Masdar came out talking about solar and renewable energy, in an oil country, who thought about this?” says Mr Fernezian.
“It was progressive and disruptive. We want to disrupt things. CLIX is about disruption. The economy is changing. And it’s changing very fast. Our needs are changing.”
Faris Saeed took a big risk in buying his three electric cars. At the time he bought them there were no brands available here, so he travelled abroad for all of them – a Fisker in 2013, a Tesla S in 2015, and Tesla X last year – to the United States and Geneva. But there was a problem. In fact, there were several.
He could not fully insure them here because he bought them abroad, and had to settle for third party insurance at the time. And, because there were no dealers here, he could not even maintain them.
“It was so difficult but I am in love with electric cars, so I took the risk,” says the chief executive of Diamond Developers, which built Sustainable City.
That all changed when Tesla launched in the UAE.
“The acceleration of the transition to electrical cars is now booming,” says Mr Saeed.
Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi are working to actively encourage the use of electric vehicles by installing charging points across the cities. Since 2014, Dubai has installed around 100, and the number will double by the end of the year.
“What the government is doing through DEWA by spreading these charging stations everywhere is helping. So the triangle of things, which are the concerns of people – all banks are doing finance, all the agents are doing maintenance and the third one is the charging,” says Mr Saeed.
“I don’t have any problem charging the car. There are charging stations everywhere. The logistics of these things make it much easier for people to move to electric cars.”
As of early last year, Abu Dhabi had 12 charging stations, but the number is also growing.
Experts say Tesla’s presence in the UAE is playing a significant role in the development of the electric vehicles market.
It is a trend setter in the same way Apple is in technology, says Ivano Iannelli, the chief executive of Dubai Carbon.
“Creating this buzz is key to maturing the market,” says Mr Iannelli, who drives a Fisker.
But another important aspect is now being introduced which will further spur the development of the market – the introduction of cheaper electric vehicle models.
Renault launched the Zoe 40 model here last year, and the Chevrolet Bolt will be available in the in the fourth quarter. This year will also see the launch of the Tesla 3 in the UAE.
“With Tesla 3 there will be a huge transition and a very fast one towards electric cars,” says Mr Iannelli.
And the reduction in price of electric vehicles is key in accelerating sales, say experts.
Tony Seba is a serial Silicon Valley entrepreneur and the author of several books, including Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation, Solar Trillions and Winners Take All. In addition, he is an instructor in Entrepreneurship, Disruption and Clean Energy at Stanford’s Continuing Studies Program. Mr Seba will be speaking in Abu Dhabi during the World Future Energy Summit this month.
He claims that by 2030 potentially all energy will be solar, purely because of the reduction of the price in the related technologies.
“All transportation will be electric and self-driving. And that’s going to happen for purely economic reasons, not for sustainability," he says.
At the time of the book’s publication in 2014, he claimed that will happen because of exponential improvements in technologies like solar and batteries – progress experts say is already evident.
“The power density of batteries has doubled over the last few years,” says Mr Iannelli.
“Take my car as an example. My car has a very small battery and a very small range, a roughly 20KW battery, which gives me an electric range of 80 to 100KM range percharge. Now the same vehicle is fitted with batteries which provide three times the same range, [but with] the same space, the same cost.”
In 2014 when Mr Seba published Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation, he said that by the end of 2017, the market would have several cars that would have a range of 200 miles at a cost of $35,000 to $40,000.
Just now there are two, and next year there will be several more. So if you keep that cost curve going it is "pretty clear what’s going to happen," says Mr Seba.
“The median new car in America is about $33,000. By about 2020, a new electric vehicle will be cheaper by about 20 per cent than the median new car in America. Cheaper to buy and also it’s about 10 times cheaper to fuel and about 10 times cheaper to maintain. And also it lasts two and a half times longer,” says Mr Seba. “So essentially the rational economic choice will be for buyers to go electric.”
The date palm has played a key role in sustaining populations in the Arabian Gulf over the past 5,000 years – but it now represents a significant drain on the region’s dwindling water supplies.
However, scientists based in the UAE have made significant advances in recent years in reducing the amount of water required in the irrigation of palms. It is estimated that date palm trees in the UAE consume more than one third of the total amount of water used in irrigation – which accounts for 275 litres per day per tree in the height of the summer.
“The UAE has a big problem with water consumption in terms of agriculture,” says Katherine Bruce, a sustainability consultant with AESG, who conducted a study on the use of the UAE’s water supply while studying for a Master’s Degree in Sustainable Development at Cambridge.
“The UAE uses a lot of groundwater still for agriculture, for the date palms. So it is rapidly depleting its groundwater supply,” adds Ms Bruce, who last year won a European Space Agency competition which challenged people to come up with ideas to use satellite technology to improve sustainability. She joined AESG in September and is currently working on a government project that is looking at water reduction in buildings and homes.
According to statistics released by the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi in 2013, ground water made up the vast majority – or 94 per cent – of what was used for agriculture in the emirate. And studies conducted by the EAD in previous years have shown that ground water levels have been falling by up to five metres each year in the most agriculturally intensive areas. This is of particular concern because the UAE is one of the world’s most water-scarce nations – the country came third in a global ranking in 2013 for per capita water consumption with an average consumption rate of 550 litres of water per day per person. The number is more than three times the world’s average. Most of the water the UAE uses is desalinated as the groundwater supply is so low. The UAE is estimated to have around just 4,052,000 million cubic litres of groundwater, which is rarely replenished by rainfall. And estimates suggest that the country’s groundwater supply could completely depleted by 2030.
“Abu Dhabi, and the UAE in general, faces a significant challenge of water scarcity that threatens water security, native species of plants and animals, plus agriculture and forestry,” says Dr Abdullah J Al-Dakheel, a senior scientist with the the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA). “One of the key strategies for addressing groundwater sustainability includes conservation and regulating for the responsible use of available groundwater.”
In 2014, scientists in the UAE from the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) and the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency (EAD) formed a technical partnership with the Plant and Food Research (PFR) institute in New Zealand, sought to do exactly that, by launching a project which aimed to reduce date palm irrigation requirements.
The project began by measuring the amount of water required by one date palm variety; Lulu, which was later expanded to two more, Khalas and Shahla, using sensors, as it was not known how much water they actually needed.
“Measuring the actual water use by the date palm tree is not an easy task, therefore the project uses advanced technique of measuring the actual amount of water passes through the plant trunk up to the branches and leaves,” says Dr Al-Dakheel.
Their results confirmed that trees were being over watered by a factor of two and a half times– and showed that more than 50 per cent of water was being lost in drainage beyond the root area. The team concluded that savings could be made in water of 35 per cent, when compared to current practices. ICBA has gone on to showcase the work internationally, most recently in Egypt, where it shared the results of its long-term study at the 3rd Date Palm Festival in the Siwa Oasis in November of last year.
“EAD is leading the effort in regulating the water use in AbuDhabi, the outcome of this project that was supported by EAD and ICBA will leadto the implementation of policy guidelines for the use of water in date palmirrigation,” says Dr Al-Dakheel. “Certainly, the implication of the finding of this research will benefit farmers in the UAE and the region in general and ultimately help in better management of water resources and date palm agro-ecosystem sustainability,” he adds.
It is not just innovation in water conservation that is taxing bright minds in the sustainability space. At the CLIX marketplace at this year’s World Future Energy Summit, which is taking place as part of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week running from January 13, US-based Agrint is one of the finalists in the competition for mentoring and funding in the innovation in agriculture space. Agrint has developed an early pest detection sensor for trees, providing real-time alerts on infestation. It is hoped the device can help with the 4 billion palm trees threatened by the deadly Red Palm Weevil.
Energy efficiency has become a critical and potentially lucrative sector as the economic benefits of improving existing buildings or developing more sustainable new homes become more well known among investors in the region.
As a result the number of companies and organisations working in this space has also grown along with the opportunities.
Dubai Carbon, established by the emirate's Supreme Council of Energy and the United Nations, is helping to lead efforts in the UAE to reduce energy used in buildings. It works with government and non-governmental companies and monitors CO2 emissions in the city.
“The amount of CO2 emissions have been gradually decreasing over the past decade. They have actually more than halved in the last 10 years,” says Ivano Iannelli, the chief executive of Dubai Carbon.
He says the initial motivation is often economic, but once they are able to prove the extent of potential savings, the scale of the projects often ramp-up rapidly.
“When we start the programme, it is usually kicked off by the corporate DNA of the organisation, but once the numbers are proved by the efficiency of the programme, this is scaled 10-fold or 20-fold,” adds Mr Iannelli.
Innovative business model
Taka Solutions’ customers receive millions in energy savings – but do not part with a single dirham in capital in order to receive them. Instead, the energy consultant pays for all the work it carries out, and still makes a profit. And it has ambitions of rolling its successful business model out to the rest of the world.
The company was formed in the UAE almost five years ago, by a group of friends who spotted an opportunity in saving a large amount of energy, water, carbon and money by upgrading existing buildings.
“Most of us had been working on designing more buildings that we didn’t need, and we realised that our collective experience could be applied to a better use that would have a better impact on the world through reducing the impact of all the existing buildings,” says Charles Blaschke, the founder and chief executive of Taka Solutions, which is taking part in the CLIX competition during the World Future Energy Summit and Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week this month.
The company transforms old, inefficient buildings by upgrading them with smart energy technologies, saving anywhere between 20 per cent to 50 per cent of the building’s energy costs and reducing its carbon footprint. The average project saving is around 31 per cent.
“I guess the kicker, where it gets exciting, if that wasn’t exciting enough, is we don’t actually charge the customer. We pay for everything,” says Mr Blaschke, who will be speaking at the World Future Energy Summit.
Taka Solutions covers the cost of the consultants, engineers and any contractors,and buys all the equipment, including any hardware and software.
“We pay everyone to put it in, and then we are there to monitor, operate and maintain everything that we have done in the entire building for a number of years,” says Mr Blaschke.
“Through that contract life we bill them a fraction of the savings, so anywhere between 50 per cent and 70 per cent,” he adds.
For example, if a building was previously costing Dh10 million in energy bills, Taka Solutions would carry out a series of upgrades – which could include replacing all the lights, the installation of new motors, pumps, fans, and new AC, which would collectively cut the building’s energy consumption by 30 per cent.
“What we would then do is we would say, okay, for the next five years, we will split that Dh3m. You get all this equipment and engineering,” says Mr Blaschke.
“Then give us the other 50 per cent to pay for the money we just spent on your building, so after five years we have gotten the money back that we put in the building and made a little bit of money.”
It also has another model, which allows a company to pay for the work itself. Taka Solutions then guarantees the Dh3m saving.
“If [the saving doesn’t transpire], we pay the difference. They are locked in with their payback and we are there to support, monitor, operate and maintain through the life of that contract. Then we also do a lot of consulting as well.”
The company has completed around 40 projects so far and is exploring around 300 more. It is funded by a local family office and has a target of about Dh500m to invest in the UAE in the next four years.
“We think we will probably be closer to Dh1 billion if we do our job and we have that set up ready to go. And nobody else in the market is anywhere close to that,” says Mr Blaschke.
Sharjah is starting to take off, and Abu Dhabi is doing well just now too, he says. By next year, the company expects to be working in Saudi Arabia, and it also has plans to enter the US, South America, and Thailand.
“I think the logical step is we will deliver some of those projects over time, but I think it will go Abu Dhabi, full UAE, GCC and Saudi and then Europe and the US,” he says.
At the height of the financial crisis, Faris Saeed and his partner in Diamond Developers, Wassim Adlouni, returned to the drawing board. Having succeeded in the boom and weathered out the storm, delivering on the projects they had sold, they were sure Dubai would bounce back. And they wanted to do something different when it did. So they began visiting sustainable projects around the world, in cities like Denmark, Japan,California, Germany and England.
“They had a small team, because they couldn’t sustain a larger team during the crisis. So there were literally four or five of them,” says Karim El-Jisr, ExecutiveDirector of See Nexus Institute, which is part of the Diamon Developers group.
“Eventually they decided ‘let’s build a sustainable city,' and when they looked at land post crisis, they eventually looked at Dubailand, because it is an area of Dubai which the vision is to build communities and cities with a theme, just like Motor City and Global Village.”
They called it Sustainable City, in the same vein. The land for the project, which aims to be Dubai's first net zero energy city, was acquired in 2013, and construction started in January 2014. See Nexus Institute is the brains behind the city’s technology solutions. Phase one of the project is now complete, comprising 500 villas, which are divided into five clusters of 100 villas each. There is also a mixed use development of 89 apartments with some retail and office space, as well as a mosque, kindergarten and a farm, with bio domes which grow leafy greens and vegetables in the winter.
“It also includes the equestrian centre,” says Mr El-Jisr. “And we also have all the infrastructure and the ring road, a bicycle track and a horse track and all the trees which bring a lot of ecological benefits. That was completed in 2016.”
The houses are designed to minimise energy consumption through passive design, which tries to reduce the effect of the sun. Inside, the villas include LED lighting, efficient insulation, energy efficient appliances and air conditioning and UV reflective paint to help deflect the heat of the sun.
“All of that brings down the energy footprint by at least 40 per cent compared to any other equivalent villa in Dubai,” says Mr El-Jisr. “The other half is that we then produce electricity. All of the villas have solar modules on the roof tops. Those modules bring down the remaining electricity bill by another 50 per cent.”
The development also promotes electric vehicles, with five charge points provided by DEWA and two by Tesla. Currently, 4 per cent of residents – or 11 families – have electric vehicles. But it aims to increase this to 25 per cent by 2020.
“It is achievable because we educate [residents on the benefits of owning one]. We do seminars for residents on sustainability etc and we also have seminars on electric vehicles to demystify it. And then we organize test drives. We invited Tesla here twice,” says Mr El-Jisr.
Phase two of the project, on which construction has just started, includes a school which promotes sustainability; a 143 hotel operated by InterContinental Hotels Group; a pediatric medical village, mainly offering care for children with special needs; and an institute to provide professional training in all fields of sustainability. The hotel will include sustainability features, encompassing everything from the food that guests eat, to the lighting, showers and furniture.
“And it has some targets as well. We would like 30 per cent of the food to come from the city. So that’s very ambitious. It will take some time to achieve it,” says Mr El-Jisr.
The pediatric medical village will provide alternative medicine which is non-intrusive and holistic and for in-patients, people who need longer stays or longer term treatment.
“So if they come with their families, they can stay in the hotel which is adjacent to it,” says Mr El-Jisr. “There is nothing like the Sustainable City, meaning we deploy everything under one roof – the farming, the solar, the electric vehicles, the water recycling, the landscaping we chose which is very drought tolerant. We didn’t invent anything but we kind of captured all of the best practices from around the world, tweaked them and then adapted them in one space.”