On a sustainable path?

Abu Dhabi is trying to convince businesses to take sustainability issues more seriously, with mixed results. Published in The Gulf, June 2013

In mid January, more than 30,000 people from 150 countries descended on Abu Dhabi for what was billed as the emirate’s first ‘sustainability week’. What that involved was a series of conferences, including the World Future Energy Summit, the International Water Summit and the Abu Dhabi International Renewable Energy Conference.

Perhaps more than any other Gulf country, Abu Dhabi has been devoting considerable efforts to establishing its sustainability credentials. There were many sceptical voices when the oil-rich emirate was chosen as the first headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency in June 2009, but its candidacy had been helped by the money the government has poured into Masdar City, a low carbon and low waste community, and the Masdar Institute of Science & Technology, a research-orientated university focused on alternative energy and sustainability.

But it is not just a question of inter-governmental organisations and international conferences. Another arm of the government, the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD), has also been pushing for greater awareness and action in the rather more prosaic arena of the local business community.

In May 2008, Mohammed Ahmed al Bowardi, EAD’s managing director, called for the establishment of a new cross-industry body to promote sustainability, balancing the need for economic development with environmental, social and other issues.

“Abu Dhabi is keen to keep the balance between fast development and the sustainability requirements,” explained Majid al Mansouri, the agency’s secretary general, at the time.

What emerged was the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Group (ADSG). The group was formally launched on 30 June that year with 15 founding members drawn from the public and private sectors, including Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, National Bank of Abu Dhabi and Aldar Properties. The number has steadily climbed since then to 44 members. Among the most recent to join was Abu Dhabi National Energy Company (Taqa), which became a member in September 2012.

During its brief history, ADSG has also steadily expanded its focus beyond the emirate, co-operating with the likes of ICLEI (the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives), a network of local governments around the world, on the issue of sustainable cities.

“We want to build our international network and expand cooperation,” says Volker Soppelsa, sustainability policy advisor at the ADSG.

“ADSG’s role is to champion sustainability in its widest sense. The initial focus was on Abu Dhabi but some of the feedback coming from members is that it is difficult to define sustainability for Abu Dhabi alone because it has to operate within a national and regional context, and even globally.”

ADSG’s track record within the emirate has, however, been rather mixed. The founding members signed a declaration which committed them to adopting sustainability management and reporting practices, but it is a voluntary organisation and has no powers of enforcement, only ones of encouragement. Just 15 of its members produced a sustainability report in 2009, and that dropped to seven the following year.

Yet the need for Abu Dhabi to take action is clear when you consider the challenges the emirate and the rest of the UAE face. The UAE has one of the highest ecological footprints of any country, according to the Global Footprint Network, which ranked it third worst in the world in 2012 behind Qatar and Kuwait. According to the US-based organisation, the UAE has an ecological footprint of 8.88 hectares per person, meaning that if everyone in the world consumed as much as Emiratis do, then we would need five planets to sustain humanity.

The fundamental question that this prompts is whether the country can continue on its current development course, or whether it needs to adjust its behaviour to ensure that future generations of Emiratis have a decent quality of life. Sustainability advocates suggest these problems can be overcome if Abu Dhabi starts to take the right approach to its planning, management and reporting processes.

“We’re working with the members of the ADSG to look at how green criteria attached to their purchasing could transform the economy into a much greener economy,” says Mark Halle, international vice president at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).

“We ask companies to set standards for environmentally-friendly products in their purchasing, for example by buying certified wood or energy-efficient equipment or including a recycling take-back obligation. Through many billions of dollars worth of purchasing they can send a signal to the market that environmentally-friendly products will be favoured. If you do this on a large enough scale you can transform the economy because if enough people are insisting on a particular environmental standard it won’t be worth producing to a lower standard anymore.”

The issue of procurement is ADSG’s flagship initiative. The programme was launched in April 2012 and since then there have been a number of workshops held to increase awareness and allow members to share their experiences and expertise. Soppelsa says the organisation is also working on sustainable labour practices. Further down the line, it is planning to address other areas such as waste, sustainable information and communications technology, and incorporating the issue of sustainability into the school curriculum.

For ADSG members and non-members alike, the notion of sustainability can often prompt fears of higher costs with little being gained in return. But according to some, integrating socio-economic and environmental concerns into business operations can offer benefits too, such as higher sales, reduced long-term costs, lower risks and an enhanced reputation.

“Energy-efficient production saves you money,” says Halle. “There is an initial investment and companies don’t want to lose any competitive edge in the transition while they are implementing it, but you can claim a competitive advantage once you have because you can say your product is cleaner.”

While Abu Dhabi continues to pump as much oil and gas out of the ground as it does, it will always be susceptible to the charge of being engaged in little more than window dressing, or ‘green washing’. But Halle says that, of all the countries in the region, the emirate has the most impressive track record to date.

“Abu Dhabi is way ahead of the rest of the Gulf,” he says. ”In the region it is far in the lead with taking sustainability issues seriously. It doesn’t mean the challenges aren’t also great. It’s hard, with the profile of the economy they have, to move very quickly to genuine sustainability. But this is not window dressing - they do take it very seriously. The Abu Dhabi government’s record is really quite impressive. I would say Abu Dhabi has a long way to go but it is taking the right approach.”