Room for growth? Regenerative development in the Gulf

Qatar has the highest per capita CO₂ emissions in the world and 7 planets would be needed if everyone lived like an average citizen of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). With these opening remarks we kicked off the side event of the HafenCity University, World Wildlife Fund and World Future Council in at the UNFCCC COP18 in Doha. The ingredients for a fruitful discussion on the future of resilient and regenerative Gulf States were already there.

All the panellists agreed that water will be the main challenge for Gulf States as sea levels rise and the availability of fresh water is likely to decrease in the future. Since most Gulf cities sit on the coastline, a sea level rise of just 1 metre will directly impact 41,500 km² of land and 37 million people, while a sea level rise of 5 metres would impact 113,000 km² in the GCC.  Because of a lack of fresh water, sea water is desalinated on a large scale. This energy intensive process represents about 30% of energy use in the region. On top of that, inhabitants of the Gulf consume outrageous amounts of water – at an average of 300 – 750 litres per person a day. Coupling this with the enormous population growth, especially in cities, it is clear that new ways of thinking about the relation between human development and ecosystems are urgently needed.

While cities in the Gulf are the main users of energy and water in the region and – at the same time – are the places most vulnerable to climate change impacts, the solutions also lay here. A regenerative city model is needed to restore the balance between ecosystems and human development. We need to take a closer look at history to see how humans have survived in this region in the past and lived in balance with the harsh natural environment surrounding them. This means that Gulf cities need to evaluate their resource use and implement measures to reduce resource consumption, increase resource efficiency, become aware of limits, shift consumption to local resources and restore and enhance the ecosystems that they distract their resources from. The inequality of access to resources between cities and rural areas and between countries of the Gulf region needs to be assessed and a balance needs to be restored. Some regions will have to decrease their footprint in order to give access to resources in other regions, especially because since 1970 the GDP of the Gulf region has quadrupled, the bio-capacity more than halved and fresh water resources have decreased to a fourth of its 1970 volume.

Our COP18 joint side event on ‘Climate change resilience and the role of regenerative cities in the Gulf Cooperation Council’

The urgency of climate change impacts on the Gulf and the need for policy action is recognised by experts both within and beyond the region. Mr Al Zeyoudi from the UAE Energy and Climate Change Directorate stated that Gulf governments are aware of this urgency and have started developing policy plans accordingly. The UAE for one is developing a green growth strategy which should be ready by the end of 2013 and will lay out a number of policy measures to ensure economic growth while protecting the environment. This is certainly a step towards decreasing the footprint and increasing environmental protection. However, in order to move towards a future of Gulf States with a balance between human development and ecosystems one should be as bold as Dr Saab, the secretary general of the Arab Forum for the Environment and Development, and question the goal of the journey before embarking: “Is it growth for growth, or growth for well-being that we want?”

Please find our report on “The Future of Gulf Cities” here.

Monday, December 10th, 2012