INTERVIEW: ‘Hero of the Planet’  Bill McDonough calls for a rethink of carbon in the circular economy

INTERVIEW: ‘Hero of the Planet’  Bill McDonough calls for a rethink of carbon in the circular economy
Illustration by Luis Grañena
Short Url
Updated 30 August 2020

INTERVIEW: ‘Hero of the Planet’  Bill McDonough calls for a rethink of carbon in the circular economy

INTERVIEW: ‘Hero of the Planet’  Bill McDonough calls for a rethink of carbon in the circular economy
  • World-renowned sustainable design advocate explains Saudi Arabia’s leading role in global energy transition

Bill McDonough pulled no punches. “It’s a very, very serious issue. The science is clear and the signals are seriously scary. Let’s just face it,” he said during an hour-long Zoom meeting from his home in Virginia in the US.

He was talking about the threat to humanity from environmental pollution and resulting climate change, and he is well-qualified to talk about it. Called “A hero for the planet” by Time magazine, and the only recipient of the US Presidential Award for Sustainable Development, McDonough is regarded as the “father of the circular economy,” the strategy that aims to transform the lives and livelihoods of humanity — before environmental disaster does that for us.

Now McDonough has joined forces with Saudi Arabia to meet that challenge and, in particular, to determine the place of hydrocarbon fuels — the lifeblood of the Kingdom — within the coming energy transition.

“This requires massive heroic behavior. Let’s do something over the next 10 years that will astonish our children,” he said, hammering home the scale of the challenge.

That message would not be out of place in the preachings of many environmental agitators, but McDonough brings to it intellectual pedigree and a track record of pragmatic application. When he says, “I’m going to design buildings like trees,” it is much more than just a slogan.

Born in Tokyo, as a child McDonough pondered big questions like the destruction of Hiroshima by the atomic bomb, dabbling in physics, chemistry and international relations before settling on architecture as a profession.

The concept of the “circular economy” grew out of his work in regenerative building design on the “cradle to cradle” principle — the idea that human constructions should be built with future generations firmly in mind.

International recognition for his work rose steadily from the environmentally aware 1990s until publication — along with Michael Braungart — of the book “Cradle to Cradle — Remaking the Way We Make Things” in 2002.

The principles in the book were adopted by the Chinese government in its 5-year plans and by the World Economic Forum in 2014. In Davos, McDonough built a structure called the ICE House — with the help of SABIC of Saudi Arabia — to illustrate the concept of sustainable design.

That collaboration with the Kingdom was evidence of an increasingly close relationship. McDonough had earlier met Prince Abdul Aziz bin Salman, the Saudi energy minister, and found an enthusiastic listener for his ideas.

“I know this was natural to him, it was all intrinsic to his thinking. One of the most elegant parts of the dialogue is that I really enjoy working with him, talking to someone who has thought as deeply about this as he has,” McDonough said of the prince, who made energy efficiency a keystone of the Kingdom’s energy strategy.

Those conversations made him think more about the role of carbon within the circular model, which had three guiding tenets.


BIO

Born: Tokyo, 1951

Education

  • Dartmouth College,  Hanover, NH, US
  • Yale University, New Haven, CT, US

Career

  • Dean of architecture, University of Virginia 
  • Founder, McDonough Innovation
  • William McDonough & Partners
  • Relationships with several leading global universities and the World Economic Forum

Everything is a resource for something else; in nature, the “waste” of one system becomes food for another, either through biological or technical process.

Second, energy should be clean and renewable, with an emphasis on solar sources as well as wind, geothermal and other forms of energy.

Third, celebrate the diversity in local ecosystems in which design is adapted to specific circumstances in an “elegant and efficient” way.

“That is the basis of the ‘cradle to cradle’ approach — waste equals food, celebrate diversity, and use renewables, especially solar. It’s a beautiful thing,” McDonough said.

In a 2016 article in the magazine Nature, he coined the phrase that was picked up by environmental realists around the world, and especially in Saudi Arabia: “Carbon is not the enemy,” which seemed an appropriate rallying cry for a country and an economy that owes its modern development to hydrocarbons in the form of oil.

“I had this revelation when they asked me to work on it, because this is actually super-important. Carbon is actually a material in the circular economy, but it’s also a fuel, which is very unusual, so it deserves special attention. We decided to start working on this with the Saudis,” he said.

The relationship with SABIC went back to 2015, but he found his services much in demand as plans for the megaprojects of the Vision 2030 strategy advanced. He became an adviser to the Red Sea Development Company, the Royal Commission for AlUla, and for the Al-Soudah project run by the Public Investment Fund, as well as a member of the higher council of NEOM, the huge urban development planned for the Kingdom’s northwest.

Earlier this year, McDonough became an adviser and collaborator with the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center in Riyadh, and delivered one of the keynotes for the Kingdom’s Energy Ministry at the G20 energy meeting in March.

His thinking crystallized. “The problem is not carbon — the problem is us. Carbon is an innocent element, and like I pointed out, there is the sun, there is carbon in the atmosphere, and then there is the soil, also carbon. If you say you want to be carbon free, think about it — are you saying to want to decarbonize yourself? Impossible,” he said.

He classes carbon into three kinds, and has an intricate set of slide illustrations to emphasize the point. “Living carbon,” which is an essential ingredient to human life and the basis for all agriculture. “It’s a positive thing to want to make more living carbon,” he said.

Then there is durable carbon, which is also a positive when it is an enduring form, like a building, or a city, or — the example he gave — a piece of paper, which can last for centuries in the form of a book.

Then there is the third kind — “fugitive” carbon — which he called “the big whoops.” This is the form that escapes into the atmosphere during industrial, transportation and manufacturing processes, or is washed up on a shoreline as plastic waste.

“It’s probematic to have durable carbon go fugitive,” he said.

It almost goes without saying that McDonough is a firm believer in the various international accords, especially the Paris agreement on climate change, that seek to limit, and even reverse, environmental damage by controlling output of “fugitive” carbon into the atmosphere, and these limits are built into all his models. “We have to work within those limits,” he said.

The main solution to fugitive is the process known as CCUS — carbon capture, utilization and storage — which has also become a major plank of the Kingdom’s energy strategy. CCUS techniques are implemented by Saudi Aramco and in NEOM. “What’s going on at NEOM is phenomenal and magnificent, because they’re planning on running on 100 percent renewable power,” he said. “All of a sudden they’re going to be making hydrogen with electrolysis. So we’re going to have what we call ‘green hydrogen,’ which is a magnificent prospect for the human future,” he said.

McDonough does not like the term “fossil fuels,” which he says encourages the idea that the only use for hydrocarbons is to burn them; nor does he like the phrase “hydrocarbon resources.” “Let’s just call them sources that we get from nature,” he said.

Just as important, fugitive carbon can be transformed into a variety of materials, like plastics and polymers, that are essential for human life. 

McDonough said that the work of SABIC, the Saudi petrochemical group now owned by Aramco, in this regard was “especially important.” 

Nor is McDonough a fan of those on the extreme wing of the environmental movement who say the world should stop using hydrocarbon fuels completely.

“I think the big picture for all of us in terms of social benefit, and intelligent behavior and design is that we do want inexpensive energy for everyone so they can make their lives better. We just don’t want to destroy the atmosphere,” he said.

The challenge is to meet the environmental standards most countries agree are necessary to prevent the warming of the Earth by more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the middle of the century, and McDonough believes there has to be a unified commitment on the part of humanity to meet this essential target.

McDonough has worked with the US space agency NASA on building design, producing some of the most advanced and environmentally friendly constructions in the world. “President Kennedy famously said we were going to do a moonshot, and within 10 years man was walking on the moon. I’d like to do an Earth shot. 

Let’s put Mars off for a little bit. Before I go to work on the red planet, can I come back to the blue one?” he said.

Does he think humanity can get there by 2050 and pull itself back from the brink of climate catastrophe? “I think so. I think we  have to,” he said.


Egypt has given $9.87bn to low-income families

Egypt has given $9.87bn to low-income families
Updated 57 min 8 sec ago

Egypt has given $9.87bn to low-income families

Egypt has given $9.87bn to low-income families
  • The National Bank of Egypt topped the list of banks that provided the most funding for low-income people

CAIRO: Egyptian banks and mortgage finance companies have provided a total of EGP37.02 billion ($9.87 billion) in real estate financing to 364,900 low-income customers since the government launched the initiative seven years ago.

The Central Bank of Egypt launched a mortgage finance initiative in February 2014, offering subsidized low-interest mortgages to low-income citizens. Interest ranged from 5 to 7 percent, with the price of the homes provided to customers set by the Mortgage Finance Fund.

In total, EGP35.2 billion was provided by 22 banks to 348,700 customers, and EGP1.83 billion was given by eight mortgage finance companies to around 16,200 customers.

The National Bank of Egypt topped the list of banks that provided the most funding for low-income people, with a total of EGP9.85 billion given to 95,900 customers. Second on the list was Banque Misr with total financing amounting to EGP7.7 billion given to around 74,800 clients.

In third place was the Housing and Development Bank with EGP5.74 billion given to 63,700 customers, followed by Banque du Caire in fourth place with total financings amounting to EGP2.7 billion and 30,900 customers. Rounding out the top five was the Commercial International Bank with EGP2.04 billion and 17,700 customers. The Industrial Development Bank came in sixth, with total financing of EGP1.48 billion and around 14,000 customers, followed by the United Bank of Egypt with EGP967.5 million for about 7,900 customers and the Arab African Bank with EGP939.2 million for about 8,600 customers.

Qatar National Bank Al-Ahli contributed funds amounting to EGP881.8 million for 7,800 customers, followed by BLOM Bank Egypt in 10th place with total funds of EGP483.9 million provided to more than 4,600 customers.


Saudi Arabia’s female-only rival to Uber sees growth in first year of operations

Saudi Arabia’s female-only rival to Uber sees growth in first year of operations
Updated 14 June 2021

Saudi Arabia’s female-only rival to Uber sees growth in first year of operations

Saudi Arabia’s female-only rival to Uber sees growth in first year of operations
  • Leena started business June 2020 and has already seen average monthly growth of 25 percent

JEDDAH: June 24, 2018 was a changing point in Saudi Arabia. As the ban on women driving was lifted, and female drivers got behind the wheel, it was one of the standout moments for the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 program.

Female-only car showrooms followed; thousands of women signed up for lessons and driving licenses, Saudi women competed in professional racing competitions and American carmaker General Motors told Arab News last month that 65 percent of the buyers for one of its models were all women.

Therefore, with the advent of disruptive digital platforms like Uber and Careem, it was only a matter of time before a female-only version, with female drivers for passengers, was born.

Leena was officially granted a license by the Saudi government in April 2019 and began operations in June last year.

The company provides taxi services for women, and the drivers — named “Captainahs” — are, like global rival Uber, all freelance operators. However, the difference here is the passengers are all exclusively women as well.

Despite launching at the height of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, demand has been high, with the company reporting average month-on-month growth of over 25 percent.

Leena was founded by a small group of young colleagues whose primary objective was to offer women a comfortable alternative, while also maintaining their independence. 

“We came up with the idea in 2018, around the time women were granted the right to drive,” the CEO and co-founder of Leena, Mohammed Al-Aqeel, told Arab News. “We were debating all the pros and cons of creating an organization centered around women and driving, and found an overwhelming amount of pros — one of which would be to contribute in decreasing the percentage of unemployment among women.”

Despite all the positives, Al-Aqeel’s research found that common negatives from women were complaints about harassment, a lack of privacy and, at worst, even violence, when they took regular taxis.

While everything was ready to launch in 2019, Al-Aqeel said the pandemic did create a lot challenges, but the team has addressed them.

“Every registered ‘Captainah’ is immediately informed of the new regulations and terms related to COVID-19 that they must adhere to,” he said, adding that while the authorities have not made it mandatory for drivers to be vaccinated, Leena has encouraged all “Captainahs” to do so, and the majority have had their injections.

HIGHLIGHT

Leena provides taxi services for women, and the drivers — named ‘Captainahs’ — are, like global rival Uber, all freelance operators. However, the difference here is the passengers are all exclusively women as well.

Initial demand has proved positive, to the extent that the company often does not have enough drivers to meet the number of ride requests. “Our demographic of drivers are women and we have to understand that a lot of them have familial responsibilities which they will prioritize, and since ‘Captainahs’ are freelance workers, they have the freedom to choose their own working hours to help accommodate their personal lives,” Al-Aqeel said, adding that the company is working on this issue, and has a backlog of new drivers waiting approval to receive their licenses and join the team.

Leena is also planning to launch a marketing recruitment campaign soon to attract more drivers. “We expected to do well just based on the surveys and studies we did when Leena was only an idea, and we found an overwhelming majority of people like the idea and are in support of it,” Al-Aqeel said.

Leena has been self-financed but in order to expand to the next level it will need to look at external options. “As of today, all finances that have gone into Leena are from our own initial capital. The team and I are about to embark on an investment round to find investors to sell shares to,” Al-Aqeel said.

Looking to the future, regional rival Careem was bought by Uber for $3.1 billion. Al-Aqeel said he would be interested in an approach, but he is reluctant to sell Leena outright.

“Of course, if we had an offer we would consider it and discuss it as a team, but we won’t compromise or dispense Leena’s initial mission and cause.

We will have conditions, one of them being that Leena stays exclusive to women,” he said. “We have thought of an exit strategy, but we will preserve some shares in the company. We won’t sell the entire company.”


UAE’s RAW Coffee Co. expands to Saudi Arabia

UAE’s RAW Coffee Co. expands to Saudi Arabia
Updated 14 June 2021

UAE’s RAW Coffee Co. expands to Saudi Arabia

UAE’s RAW Coffee Co. expands to Saudi Arabia
  • The company is not planning to distribute through supermarkets but instead plans to replicate its business model in the UAE

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia is the fastest-growing coffee market in the Middle East, expanding at an annual rate of 9.6 percent, according to research in late 2019 carried out by the organizers of the Middle East Coffee Conference held in Riyadh.

As a result, UAE-based RAW Coffee Co. has expanded its distribution network to Saudi Arabia and is eventually hoping to set up a physical presence in the Kingdom.

“We would say that the KSA specialty coffee scene is catching up to the more established UAE industry both in quality and knowledge, which is a very exciting time,” Kim Thompson, the co-owner and managing director of RAW Coffee Co., told Arab News. The company has teamed up with DHL to process its orders in the Kingdom.

“We have completed establishing our KSA business licensing and are currently exploring opportunities based out of Riyadh. At the moment, we roast and deliver fresh from our roastery in Dubai to the commercial customers in KSA that we supply, one of which is L’ETO Cafe, which has branches in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam,” Thompson said.

The company is not planning to distribute through supermarkets but instead plans to replicate its business model in the UAE, where it will distribute directly to customers and through third-party cafes, before eventually setting up its own operations in the Kingdom and potentially a chain of branded cafes.

RAW is not the first UAE-based coffee brand to announce expansion plans in the Kingdom this year. Emirati Coffee in April told Arab News it plans to open its first Saudi branch in July. CEO Mohammed Ali Al-Madfai reported that the company had seen a 3,135 percent increase in online sales in 2020.


Startup of the Week: Botola Meals offers healthy diets

Startup of the Week: Botola Meals offers healthy diets
Updated 14 June 2021

Startup of the Week: Botola Meals offers healthy diets

Startup of the Week: Botola Meals offers healthy diets

JEDDAH: Obesity is a growing issue in Saudi Arabia. A study by the Sharik Association for Health Research found that the rate of obesity among Saudi adults totaled 35.6 percent in 2020.

Besides health issues, another study by the US-based University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in collaboration with Saudi Health Council and the World Bank, found that obesity increases the risk of death by COVID-19 by 48 percent, and may make vaccines against the disease less effective.

In a bid to help those suffering with their weight, entrepreneurs Mohammad Faden, Nofal Al-Jefri and Mohammad Al-Harthi in November 2019 set up Botola Meals, a healthy meal-prepping service. 

Botola is the Arabic word for heroism. “It may directly symbolize athletes and achievements, but in fact it is a deep philosophy,” Faden told Arab News. “Whatever the individual’s ambition to reach that goal is, it is in itself an achievement and a mark of heroism,” he added. Al-Jefri highlighted the fact that consumers are prone to purchasing meals that are quick to prepare. “We believe that the market needs and lacks this type of project specialized in healthy fast food, and when you specialize in a particular field, it enhances consumer confidence in your product,” Al-Jefri said. “Clean Eating Matters” is the restaurant’s slogan. Al-Harthi said that Botola Meals offers healthy diets that are not about depriving yourself, but about balance. “We also want to educate people about the importance of investing in themselves and their health in an easy and convenient way,” he said. Botola Meals also prepares customized plans to cater to the specific needs of customers, such as monitoring ingredients that cause allergies and eliminating carbohydrates if a customer is following a paleo diet.

“We sit down with the customer and cooperate as much as possible in providing what suits them,” Faden said.

The startup meal service sold about 45,000 meals in 2020 — roughly 120 meals a day.Botola Meals has one branch in Jeddah’s Al-Salama district, and is planning to open a second branch in Riyadh in 2023. The startup’s long-term plan is to expand across the Gulf and beyond.


Saudi Arabia aims to be Egypt’s top trading partner

Saudi Arabia aims to be Egypt’s top trading partner
Updated 14 June 2021

Saudi Arabia aims to be Egypt’s top trading partner

Saudi Arabia aims to be Egypt’s top trading partner
  • Saudi investors are especially interested in the water desalination and water treatment sector, says Egyptian Trade Minister

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia plans to be Egypt’s top trading partner within five years, said Saudi Commerce Minister Majid Al-Qasabi.

He made the pledge at the Egyptian-Saudi Joint Trade Committee on Monday.

The minister highlighted the presence of 6,225 Saudi companies operating in Egypt with investments amounting to some $30 billion.

At the same time, 518 Egyptian are estimated to operate in the Saudi market, with 285 Egyptian brands in the Kingdom.

Saudi investors are especially interested in the water desalination and water treatment sector, Egyptian Trade Minister Nevine Gamea told Asharq Business.

She added that the cooperation between the two countries was reflected in the trade volume, which exceeded $5.5 billion in 2020.

The volume of Egyptian investments in the Kingdom reached $1.4 billion at the end of last year, she added.