Masdar City, Castle in the Sand

Is Masdar City the vision of a greener future—or another Emirati excess?

From the air, Masdar City looks like a giant microchip embedded in the gray-brown desert just outside Abu Dhabi. Masdar, which began construction in 2006, was conceived as a carbon-neutral utopia. Only a few hundred people currently live in Masdar City. But when it’s finished, between 2025 and 2030, the development will encompass 2.3 square miles. Nearly 88,000 solar panels will power a sprawling mesh of condominium blocks, laboratories, parks, gyms, and cafés. There will be a mosque, and unmanned cars will shuttle everyone around on magnetic tracks. Some 40,000 people will live on site; 50,000 more will commute there daily from across the United Arab Emirates. Administrative headquarters will look like a nuclear reactor with a wavelike roof and surrounded by trees. Most residents will be very healthy: Buildings have been outfitted with hard-to-miss staircases and out-of-the-way elevators to encourage walking. Masdar City’s excess energy—there will be a lot of that, since everyone will be environmentally conscious—will be sold to less energy-efficient countries such as Saudi Arabia. Everyone behind Masdar City, starting with Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE, says it will be a model of sustainability for the whole world.

At least, that’s the plan. Like most utopias, Masdar is at risk of becoming a punch line. It is, after all, premised on a paradox: a green-tinted dream imported to a place made rich by fossil fuels. Sure, there’s a great deal of sun; those sleek, driverless pods are now operational; and there is already an organic food store on the main square. But so far, Masdar City is shaping up to be the latest Emirati exercise in urban excess. Like the Palm Islands of Dubai, it’s an entirely inorganic show of oil-derived wealth.

The story of Masdar City begins in 2006, when Abu Dhabi announced plans for a self-sustaining city that would transform not only global energy markets but also the way cities around the world are designed. It would bring together state and private investment. (The Abu Dhabi Future Energy Co., which is building Masdar, is a subsidiary of Mubadala Development, which is controlled by the Abu Dhabi government.) It would be the future before the future happened.

The future has been delayed somewhat. First there was the global downturn, which prompted officials this year to slash their $22 billion budget by 15 percent and push back the Masdar completion date by almost a decade. Now there’s a fear that the utopian vision may not be so utopian: In 2007, when Masdar’s master plan was drafted, the construction was expected to function on its own grid, but even that promising first step has fallen short—the development is now hooked up to the public system. Plus, the occasional sandstorm leaves solar panels coated with dust and thus inoperable, which jacks up water use and maintenance expenses.

The Emiratis’ environmental aspirations are either absurdly hypocritical or long overdue, or maybe both. According to the World Wildlife Federation’s Living Planet Report 2010, the UAE has the largest per capita carbon footprint on the globe, edging out nearby Qatar. (The U.S. comes in fifth, behind, weirdly, Denmark and Belgium.)

Geoffrey M. Heal, a Columbia University Business School professor who has studied environmental economics, says Masdar is hardly a model for others. Few places enjoy as much year-round sunlight as the Persian Gulf, where summertime temperatures often soar past 110F. John Felmy, the American Petroleum Institute’s chief economist, adds that even if solar energy were cheap and abundant everywhere, that wouldn’t do much to reduce global dependence on fossil fuels. “Everyone forgets that when you’re talking about solar power you’re talking about electricity,” Felmy says. “Very little electricity is generated by oil. Solar power is not going to affect the energy market unless you have a fleet of electric-powered cars.”

This has done nothing to dampen enthusiasm for Masdar City in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, where business leaders are reluctant to question government policy. Ida Tillisch, director general of the Emirates Wildlife Society, says the Masdar Initiative, a research institute at Masdar City, will help Abu Dhabi reach its renewable energy goal of 7 percent by 2020. By 2030, Abu Dhabi could reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent, she says. Initiatives such as Masdar City, Tillisch says, “highlight the need to undertake cutting-edge environmental researching, develop innovative policies, and take action in support of reducing the country’s ecological footprint.”

If nothing else, Masdar City is helping the UAE rebrand itself as a forward-looking, socially responsible hub of greenness—part of the UAE’s campaign to increase foreign direct investment. Mounir Harfouche, head of the UAE branch of the advertising firm Lowe + Partners, says Masdar “will help Abu Dhabi be the human capital of the region and the world.” Heal, meanwhile, calls Masdar “a gimmick, a way of attracting publicity and attention.”

For environmentalists, that’s not necessarily encouraging. Should Masdar succeed in helping the UAE attract more foreign capital, it likely will be compelled to build more office parks, five-star hotels, and fake islands. The malls and skyscrapers and freeways will be eclipsed by construction cranes, and more and more planeloads of Indian, Pakistani, and Sri Lankan workers will be flown in to build the future. That will generate a great deal of carbon dioxide.

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