Dubai – From oil wealth to the world’s smallest CO2 footprint?

07 Sep 2021

With the discovery of its oil reserves, the former fishing village of Dubai transformed into a metropolis of superlatives. Bigger, better, faster – that’s the reigning motto. This desert city’s new goal is to achieve the world’s smallest carbon footprint. But are Dubai and environmental protection really compatible?

In 2018, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was one of the countries with the world’s highest CO2 emissions per capita. As the most populous emirate with over 3 million inhabitants, Dubai is a major contributor. The enormous building boom, in particular, is likely to drive up CO2 pollution. Nevertheless, Dubai wants to become the city with the smallest CO2 footprint in the world. The government has set itself this ambitious goal for 2050 as part of its Clean Energy Strategy.

How Dubai is aiming to become more sustainable

A city that would be almost unbearable in summer without air conditioning is now to become not only a major business and innovation location but also a showcase for sustainability. The Clean Energy Strategy aims to meet 75% of energy demand with clean energy by 2050. Compared to Germany, this is not an exceptionally high target: In this country too, the maximum possible amount of our electricity is to be generated with renewable energies by 2050. Dubai’s goal of achieving the world’s smallest CO2 footprint, on the other hand, is more ambitious – in the city of the world’s tallest building and largest mall, climate goals probably require superlatives as well. But how can this be achieved?

The first step is to invest billions. 27.2 billion US dollars will be invested in a Green Fund to finance renewable energies and resource-saving technologies. In addition, an innovation centre built with the help of 3D printing will contribute to research on new techniques. Another record-breaking building will be constructed by 2030: The largest photovoltaic plant in the world, the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park. This is to provide a capacity of 5000 MW and thus save 6.5 million tonnes of emissions annually. What is striking about the Clean Energy Strategy is that, in contrast to European projects, there are no plans to abandon coal and nuclear energy completely.

Dubai’s flagship projects: The Sustainable City and Expo 2020

In 2016, the first residents moved into „The Sustainable City„, an eco-community on the outskirts of Dubai. Their description would probably make our Green politicians jealous: Because cars are banned here in the residential area, there are electric buggies, bicycles and an autonomous shuttle instead. Solar panels on the houses and above the carports at the edge of the municipality provide part of the electricity supply. The 500 L-shaped houses provide each other with shade, thereby reducing the cooling demands on air conditioning systems. In addition, the „buffer zone“, consisting of several rows of trees, provides healthy air, less noise, and shade for local cycle lanes and pathways. Add to that, fruit and vegetable production in local greenhouses, a ban on single-use plastic in public buildings and a gym whose treadmills generate electricity.

Sustainability is also one of the central themes at this year’s Expo in Dubai. In Sustainability District, relevant new technologies will be presented. According to the organisers, the Expo site itself was also built as sustainably as possible. However, life after the Expo will be just as exciting, because 80% of the infrastructure will continue to be used after the exhibition – thereby creating the new Smart City called District 2020. The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified exhibition buildings will then become residential and office spaces, schools and hospitals, for instance. At the Expo 2015 in Milan, things looked quite different: Here there was no overall concept for the subsequent use of the buildings, which is why parts were completely demolished or shipped off and rebuilt elsewhere. Dubai’s plans sound better thought through – and above all more sustainable.

Why a sustainable Dubai is still not credible

Back to the oil again: The fact that its extraction is playing less and less of a role in the local economy was not exactly a voluntary decision on Dubai’s part – their oil will only last for a few more decades. Dubai’s reduction of dependency on this industry and on fossil energies in general was therefore only a logical consequence. Instead, the city established itself as a location for trade and technology and promoted tourism. Economic interests drive action – and the same applies to environmental protection. The Clean Energy Strategy makes no secret of this fact: It is intended not only to protect the environment, but also to save 190 billion USD.

Combining profit and environmental protection is generally not a bad thing. But that is not the only contradiction between Dubai and sustainability. Most notably, the city’s location in the desert does not exactly contribute to the conservation of resources. Although there is no shortage of sun here and solar energy is therefore an obvious choice, lack of water is all the more problematic. This stands in opposition to the enormous water consumption driven by air conditioning, green spaces and attractions such as the indoor ski park, water shows and huge pool landscapes. Are you wondering how this enormous consumption can be covered? With the help of seawater desalination. The largest plants in the world are – of course – in the UAE.

But desalination plants do not really promote sustainability. This is because corals are also sometimes sucked in, energy demand is high, and large quantities of brine are produced. This brine is discharged back into the sea where, due to its high salinity and temperature, it destroys the life chances of marine organisms in the vicinity of the plant. In addition, chemicals such as chlorine or copper find there way into the waste water. There are probably no strict regulations controlling this.

The heat in Dubai is already problematic for the inhabitants and the environment. But it gets worse. In 2015, researchers calculated the following scenario: If CO2 emissions remain constant, temperatures will rise to such an extent by 2100 that it would no longer be possible to survive the heat waves in the Persian Gulf outdoors. More than 60 degrees would then be possible. Even Dubai’s latest project, the artificial generation of rain with the help of electric shocks, wouldn’t be much help. Is „cloud seeding“ good for the climate? Not even the professor doing the research has an answer to that.


Dubai is known for its ambitious goals and large-scale projects. It is therefore not surprising that the emirate is also undertaking a great deal when it comes to climate protection. Dubai – as the Expo 2020 location, and with its focus on start-ups and new technologies – has a good chance of finding innovative ways to protect the environment. Here, pilot projects and new ideas are actively promoted and implemented at a rapid pace. Nevertheless, Dubai’s environmental goal leaves an insipid aftertaste. This is because, in the city of superlatives, resource and energy consumption is particularly high. Instead of attracting companies and tourists to the emirate on a grand scale and accommodating them in prestigious buildings, it would actually be more sustainable to shift down a gear. The fact that the buildings were built to be as energy-efficient as possible is of no great help. Only time will tell whether the excessive lifestyle and the goal of having the world’s smallest CO2 footprint can really be reconciled.

Julia Schuch