Masdar City: a global model for sustainable urban development
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, president of the UAE, recently announced 2023 as the Year of Sustainability. This call to action should inspire people across the UAE — whether engaged in government, civil society or the private sector — to participate in a collective campaign for a sustainable future.
This approach is consistent with how the UAE’s story of transformational progress has unfolded over the last 50 years. Enshrined by its founder, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the UAE’s ethic of inclusive cooperation has enabled our rise as a dynamic country, capable of extraordinary accomplishments.
At Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, Dr. Sultan Al-Jaber, the president-designate of UN climate conference COP28, reminded us that the UAE was the first Arab nation to place climate action at the heart of its development strategy. Before anyone in the region saw an economic future in renewable energy, the UAE saw renewable energy as the future.
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic and the corporate shift to environmental, social and governance approaches to sustainability, the UAE understood the importance of creating urban public spaces that protect our collective well-being. And despite operating within a region heavily reliant on energy-intensive cooling, the UAE also saw a future in sustainable urban development, well before there was a business case for it.
The UAE became the first country in the region to deploy industrial-scale carbon capture technology, the first to deploy zero-emission nuclear energy and the first to invest in new zero-carbon energies such as hydrogen.
Pursuing sustainability and progress means never settling. It requires both vision and perseverance, and there are few better examples of this than Masdar City.
Inspired by the UAE leadership’s legacy of innovation, at Masdar City, we have been working with our partners toward net zero since we broke ground 15 years ago, with each project more ambitious than the last.
When Masdar City first installed 10 megawatts of solar panels in 2009 at the direction of Masdar’s leadership, the solar energy produced cost approximately 40 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour, making it among the most expensive energy in the world. Masdar put its stake in the ground anyway, vowing to find a way to make solar energy economically sustainable.
Today, the cost of solar energy at Masdar City has broken several records and is among the cheapest in the world at 1.35 cents per kWh.
In 2017, Masdar City completed the Eco-Villa, the first net-zero energy home in Abu Dhabi. It uses about 72 percent less energy and 35 percent less water than a conventional home of the same size in Abu Dhabi and displaces about 63 tons of carbon dioxide annually. The property consumes just 97 kWh of electricity per square meter, and while construction costs were comparable to those of a conventional home of the same size, its energy and water efficiency led to lower operating costs.
In 2024, we will complete construction on Masdar City Square, which will include the first net-zero energy commercial headquarters building in Abu Dhabi. A net-zero energy construction was always our plan. But even after our success with the Eco-Villa, there was a fair degree of skepticism when we began the design process that such a large, complex construction could also be financially self-sustaining. However, our net-zero energy headquarters building has defied expectations and is on track to be both environmentally and commercially viable.
Masdar City has proven time and again that sustainable urban development is not only good for the environment; it is also good for the economy. This point is vital — because financial sustainability is a non-negotiable for climate change action to be attainable for every country, and for innovation to continue.
Our next development, The Link, which broke ground on Feb. 2, will produce substantially more power than it requires upon completion. In short, it will go well beyond net-zero energy, bringing Abu Dhabi one step closer to delivering its first net-zero carbon building — our vision since Masdar City’s inception, and a key milestone on the path to achieving UAE Net Zero 2050.
Just last month, Dr. Al-Jaber remarked that “the road to net-zero represents the greatest market transformation, with the greatest economic promise, since the First Industrial Revolution.”
Is achieving net zero by 2050 an ambitious goal? Of course. But that has never stopped either Masdar City or the UAE before. We do not settle for the status quo, but rather strive for what we know can be.
The UAE is a center for energy and industry; a hub for commerce, business and technology; and a global crossroads for logistics, transportation and tourism. It is a truly global country, with residents hailing from more than 200 nationalities.
This puts us in a unique position to build bridges, highlight underrepresented communities and perspectives, and help others harness the economic opportunities that will help win the fight against climate change.
The selection of the UAE as the host of COP28 in November 2023 demonstrates the international community’s recognition of our accomplishments in innovation and sustainability efforts at the multilateral level.
Ultimately, the action taken beyond our borders will be more important than the progress made inside them. Our road to net zero will help countries around the world deliver on the goals of the Paris Agreement.
In this sense, the UAE is a global case study for the successful adoption of sustainable urban development practices. As we approach November, it is our hope that the knowledge and progress that we share will inspire others to rise to the challenge, look to the future and transform vision and rhetoric into results.
• Abdulla Balalaa is chairman of Masdar City.