May 2015 archive

Looking to start a career in environmental / sustainability consulting?

Congratulations to all those who will be finishing up their university degrees in the coming few weeks.  You are probably looking forward to applying your hard-earned knowledge and skills in the real world.

I am regularly approached for advice on starting a career in environmental and sustainability consulting, given that it is a relatively new field in the region.  My answer always revolves around three key points, which I’ve summarised below.

1. Practical knowledge

I am often surprised by how little graduates know about the local context, particularly in terms of regulations, permitting processes, and technical guidelines.  To be fair, this information is not always readily available, and I do realise that most university degrees in the region focus primarily on theory and international practice.

If you’re interested in becoming an environmental consultant, make sure you have a good understanding of who the environmental authorities are in the cities in which you are intending to work, and what the regulations and permitting processes apply.  The good news is that the processes are similar for most cities in the region.  In addition, it is a lot easier to find this information online today, and it can generally be found in English.

On the sustainability front, I highly recommend getting certified under at least one of the relevant rating schemes (Estidama, GSAS, LEED).  Also, it is important to develop an understanding of how and when these schemes are applied throughout the development process (design, construction, operation).

While a strong academic background is important, it is unlikely to be what impresses your next interviewer.  

2. Networking

One of the easiest ways to develop the practical knowledge above is to have a circle of contacts in the professional world who can provide insights based on experience.  And one of the easiest ways to develop these contacts is to participate in industry events.

You don’t have to spend $2000+ on attending a conference; most good networking events are actually very affordable ($0 – $50) and generally offer discounts for students.  Your local green building council is usually a good place to start; green building councils typically organise monthly seminars and trainings open to the public.

Many environmental NGOs do the same as well.  Make a list of relevant organisations in your location and register yourself as a member or at least sign up to their newsletter.

Volunteering with local organisations is also a fantastic way to broaden your network, even if it is only a part-time or short-term opportunity.

And of course there is the online world.  While definitely not a substitute for in-person presence and interaction (don’t fall into that trap!), linking up with people online can help expand your network.  Put some thought into determining your priority contacts and then find an appropriate way to get in touch with them.

As your network broadens, you will develop a much clearer understanding of the market and players: who are your potential employers/clients/competitors, what services are most sought after, and what are the key business opportunities and challenges.

3. Patience and positivity

Landing a job takes time.  Even after you have figured out what you want to do and have approached the relevant people and organisations, going from interview to signed contract can easily take 3 – 6 months.

Be patient and stay positive.  Use the time to refine your skills and expand your network. Make the most of your free time while it lasts!

Air quality…easily the greatest threat

The current main concerns with air quality in Abu Dhabi are the high ambient concentrations of particulate matter (PM10) and ground level ozone (O3)… Abu Dhabi’s annual average concentrations of PM10 were seven times higher than the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline of 20µg/m3 with peaks during dust storms reaching 14 , times the guideline. The main contributors for high PM10 levels are natural sources, transportation and combustion processes

Source: Enhancing Air Quality in Abu Dhabi, 2014 – EAD

In 2008, The Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD) sponsored a study led by the University of North Carolina to identify the top environmental public health risks in the UAE.  Outdoor air quality was “easily the greatest threat“, primarily due to high levels of particulate matter (PM) and ground-level ozone (O3).

The study informed the development of a National Strategy and Action Plan for Environmental Health (2010) which set out actions and indicators for addressing the key risks identified.  Five years later, how are we doing?

It can be difficult to tell as there is little published data on air quality in the UAE, or anywhere else in the Arab world for that matter (I would love to be corrected on this!).

Visual evidence of smog in Dubai

Smog in Dubai


The good news is that there is definitely a wider air quality monitoring network now, particularly in Abu Dhabi. We are also now measuring more parameters, including the  fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which are particles of diameter up to 25 microns.  Given their smaller size (compared to PM10), PM2.5 can travel further into the human respiratory system and thus are a stronger risk factor for mortality. In other words, PM2.5 is more dangerous to human health.

More importantly, PM2.5 is primarily caused by human activities (e.g. transport and industrial activities).  This is the case generally and has been shown to be the case in the UAE, where 54% – 67% of PM2.5 in Abu Dhabi is thought to come from man-made sources. That’s right: man-made sources, not sand storms.

Air Quality Index is identified as one of the KPIs in recently released UAE Vision 2021. Notably, the index does not take into account particulate matter, but does include ozone.  There has also been a recent announcement about a national air quality monitoring network, which should provide more consistent data across the country.

Outside the UAE, there are a number of air quality monitoring and research projects underway in the region (e.g. Doha, Riyadh, Kuwait, Beirut).  Many of these are linked to prestigious academic institutions and will hopefully provide more high quality scientific data and analysis specific to the regional context.

Nevertheless, there is still a need for local and national authorities to cooperate and invest in air quality monitoring and reporting. The South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) in Southern California provides an excellent example of a government authority which has and continues to successfully tackle air pollution in urban areas and provide relevant data and health advisories to the public.

Air quality is the number one environmental health risk in the UAE. Let us not hide our heads in the dust.  Let us address the issue proactively and pragmatically.

Green space in the desert?

I had the pleasure of attending the MESL conference this week.  There was one message which came across loud and clear: we need to do better, particularly in the Middle East, when it comes to designing landscapes with place in mind.

As Dr. James Hitchmough bluntly put it, landscapes in the Middle East are being designed based on an American 70’s model, when there was no concept of water conservation.  While this may be visually appealing to residents and visitors, it is completely unsustainable and can lead to disastrous consequences (as California is finding out). The current landscaping model in desert cities such as Phoenix provides a much better model to follow, bearing in mind that even Phoenix gets roughly double the rainfall Dubai does.  In fact, many of the Phoneix examples Dr. Hichmough shared were of non-irrigated (that’s right, zero irrigation) landscapes, and they looked stunning!

There are of course a number of initiatives promoting sustainable landscaping in the region.  Local planning guidelines and rating systems are introducing requirements for limiting water use and promoting native species in the public realm.  There have already been some successful examples of implementing these concepts on highway interchanges outside the city, and in public parks. The research on native flora species is also growing, with upcoming projects such as the Oman Botanic Garden promising to provide a valuable resource in terms of information and seed banks.

Developers are still slow to embrace such concepts though.  Lush ‘green’ developments and golf courses are still being branded as ‘sustainable’.  In some cases, the argument is that they will be irrigated by treated water and hence not contribute to the depletion of natural resources. Even if this does turn out to be the case, treated water is still a valuable resource which could potentially be put to better use.  Ultimately, it will take a shift in perceptions and preferences of the buyers to shift the market, particularly when it comes to private developers.

There is of course a need and a place for green [as in the colour green] spaces, particularly in the heart of cities where their benefits can be fully utilised. As we continue to grow, develop and improve our cities and the public areas with them, the challenge is to do so with place and purpose in mind.