Greening the urban jungle
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Greening the urban jungle – how the UAE can lead the way

Greening the urban jungle – how the UAE can lead the way

How the UAE can be a global leader in sustainable ways to cool our cities

Second only to the aptly-named Death Valley in California, most countries in the Middle East and North African region are home to the hottest temperatures on Earth, reaching extremes of up to 54 degrees Celsius (129.2 degrees Fahrenheit). While many have found ways to make some of the hotter months liveable, we have to always be asking, “at what cost?”

While climate experts have been sounding the horn for years on the irreversibility of the effects of climate change, extreme weather has reinvigorated the debate. In 2015, the leaders of nearly all the world’s nations came together to sign the landmark Paris Agreement, which stipulated a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per country. The success of the agreement resulted in 185 countries acceding or ratifying the agreement as parties to the treaty, and another 11 signing on. Proportionate to its output, in 2016, the United Arab Emirates committed to reducing its carbon emissions – of which it contributes about 0.53 per cent of the global total – dramatically in the coming years.

While environmental concerns range from global warming to rising sea levels that threaten numerous communities, one of the most challenging and threatening issues is the quality of the air we breathe. According to the United Nations, air pollution is the single greatest environmental threat to health in the world, with nine in ten people breathing air that exceeds acceptable levels set by the World Health Organization (WHO).

In the UAE, we are fortunate to live under a government that has put sustainability front and centre when it comes to various government agendas. Under the United Arab Emirates Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, the UAE National Vision 2021 plan aims to reduce air pollution by about 10 per cent from their current levels by 2021. Practically speaking, in order to achieve – and even overachieve – on that goal, we require the buy-in from all the relevant stakeholders, both in the private and the public sector.

When looking at the temperatures in the UAE during the month of August for each year from 2009 to the present, it has averaged between 32 to 39 degrees Celsius. However, there is a marked difference in warmth, and as a result, the air quality in Dubai has suffered over the years. Due to increased levels of urbanisation around the globe (people moving from rural areas to city centres), and the construction activities that come with cities trying to keep apace of growing populations, cities are hotter than the countryside.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, cities are one to three degrees Celsius (1.8 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer on average, and up to 12 degrees Celsius (22 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer at night than rural parts. The inherent traits of what makes a place a city – the lack of greenery, lakes and ponds coupled with denser populations, construction and more pavement – is what causes these temperatures to rise.

Due to human activities that have gone unabated, we have created what are called Urban Heat Islands (UHIs), which become especially unbearable for the youngest and oldest residents of a city during the summer months.

Considering that the skyscrapers and streets that make up our urban jungles are largely made of concrete, which retain heat, as opposed to plants which release it, it does not seem like there would be a solution unless we stop building or find alternative materials.

When it comes to Dubai, building should occur in line with net population growth so the city does not have more buildings than what is necessary to house residents. Furthermore, immediate heat-reducing measures can be taken that do not require a government mandate or intervention. Housing authorities can agree to paint the roofs white to reflect some of the heat back and also plant many more trees and plants, both on our roofs and in the surrounding areas. More difficult measures include morphing city planning to immediately include completely green measures and technology that includes alternative construction materials and air conditioning units that do not emit heat to cool.

We would all breathe a little bit easier – literally – if we could adopt at least some of these measures today. With all that Dubai has to offer to the world, it is a good sign that clean, breathable air is receiving the attention it deserves.

Carla Maria Issa is a senior research analyst at Property Finder


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