One Planet Consumption Challenge

I love this year’s World Environment Day slogan:

Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care.

I love it because it captures so well what I believe is this century’s biggest challenge: providing for the wellbeing of up to 9 billion people within the finite resources of our planet.  We are currently consuming at 1.5 times Earth’s capacity, according to 2014 Living Planet Report.  And that is with only 7 billion people on the planet, 1.3 billion of which live in extreme poverty and thus are not particularly well and consume far less than their share of Earth’s capacity.

So, for those of us who have the luxury of making lifestyle choices – what can we do?

Buy less

This might not be on the first ‘eco action’ that comes to our mind as we are usually bombarded with messages about buying eco-friendly / recycled / local / organic / fair-trade products.  But what about not buying at all?  Do you really need that new shirt / watch / phone / house?

I am a great believer in the ingenuity of the human race.  Nevertheless, I am not convinced that we can maintain our current levels of consumption and just innovate ourselves out of the One Planet consumption challenge.  The sooner we accept that we have to reduce our consumption, the sooner we can get to a One Planet lifestyle.  Of course, we are unlikely to hear this message from our favourite corporate brands or politicians.

If you are not one of the 4 million people who have watched The Story of Stuff, then I highly recommend you take a few minutes (21 to be exact) to do that:

The video is delivered in a  simple way but don’t let that fool you: its message is extremely powerful.  In fact, a whole movement has started on the back of this movie.  It illustrates why a product (or service) costs significantly more than the figure on the price tag.  Just because we are not currently paying the full price of ‘stuff’, does not mean the real cost will magically disappear.

Buying less (or minimalism as some choose to call it) will not only help us save the planet, but will also save us money and perhaps even allow us to work less and rest more.

If you really must buy, then please do look into eco-friendly / recycled / local / organic / fair-trade products and services.  If you are having a problem finding such goods, then the way around that is to clearly (and politely) request them from your favourite stores.  Or start a business and provide them to yourselves and others!

Waste less

That is, waste less electricity, food, water, materials…even waste!  The resources to help us do this are all around us.

Heroes of the UAE is an award-winning campaign providing tips on energy and water efficiency for individuals, schools, and corporations.  I am sure we can each think of a few lifestyle changes we can make to be more efficient with energy and water, whether it is turning the A/C a few degrees up or not washing our cars every day.

Almost every major city in the region has a recycling program.  It might not be the most convenient or efficient, but that is not an excuse to ignore it.  There are also many charities which will accept used items, from clothes and books to furniture and electronics.  Who needs recycling when someone else can reuse?

Food waste is a big issue in the Gulf; it is typically around 40 – 50% of household waste, which is a much higher percentage than the global average.  For example, food waste forms less than 15% of municipal solid waste in the US.  As a refence  Given that agriculture globally accounts for 92% of the global water footprint, throwing food away is wasting both food and water.

Ramadan challenge

A friend of mine came up with this challenge a few years ago: a “Buy-nothing Ramadan”.  Check it out and if you decide to take it up please let me know how it goes.

May this Ramadan be a time of reflection, moderation, and consciousness for all – Ramadan Kareem!

On sustainable infrastructure

The first time I came across the topic, I was part of a team developing a sustainability framework for a mega transport project in the UAE.  While there were a number emerging local guidelines relating to sustainable buildings and neighbourhoods, there was a void when it came to local guidance on sustainability for infrastructure projects.  Nevertheless, the client had the foresight of introducing the requirement for a comprehensive sustainability framework from the early planning stages. I love a challenge and this was one I learnt a great deal from and thoroughly enjoyed.

Having gone through that project and a few more since then, below are some thoughts on ‘must-haves’ for sustainability frameworks related to infrastructure planning.  I have focused on areas that are of particular relevance to major infrastructure projects, and thus may be overlooked by professionals coming from other backgrounds.  However, that is not to say that the list is exhaustive or that other sustainability topics (e.g. energy, water, waste, materials) are not applicable to the infrastructure scope and scale.

Climate Change Adaptation

Unlike buildings, infrastructure projects are planned to have lifetimes of 50+ years (often 100+ years). Given that time frame, climate change adaptation is a topic which cannot be ignored, even from a pure risk management perspective.

The Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia (ISCA) recognised this and took the bold step of including a credit on climate change adaptation in their IS rating tool released in 2012.

For the Middle East, and particularly the Gulf region, sea level rise, temperature rise, and drought-related water shortages are all risk-drivers to be considered carefully.  Once project-specific climate change risks have been identified, they can be addressed through introducing adaptation measures in the design, construction, and operational stages.  As usual, the key is starting early and planning for change from the outset.

Community impact

Due to their scale, infrastructure projects can be significantly disruptive to their surroundings, during both the construction and operational stages.  It is therefore essential to plan the project on the basis of avoiding and mitigating negative impacts on aspects such as the acoustic and visual environment, traffic, and connectivity.

It is critical to have a strict internal mechanism for checking compliance against sustainability goals and objectives, throughout the project lifetime.  For community impact, this can be undertaken through gathering live feedback from the neighbouring areas and taking action to address any issues which arise.  An environmental assessment at the planning stage can only go so far in predicting impacts, a reality check during construction and operation is necessary.

The CEEQUAL rating scheme includes a whole section focusing on People and Communities, providing useful guidance on aspects to be considered.

Road AD

Articulating the wider benefits

Major infrastructure projects are generally built to fulfil a social purpose, be it providing access to water and electricity or facilitating efficient movement of people and goods.  As such, infrastructure projects will likely have wide socio-economic benefits, many of which could be difficult to capture in a traditional cost-benefit analysis.

Nevertheless, it is important to at least identify these wider benefits, since they will be what justify the project when budgets are scrutinised, as they inevitably will be.

Social Return on Investment (SROI) is a methodology that has gained much attention over the past few years, and has helped organisations and projects assess value in its broadest sense.

Whether your infrastructure project is providing access to employment opportunities, improving health, saving time, reducing pollution, or promoting safety, these are all huge positive impacts that need to be clearly captured and then quantified if possible.

Final thoughts

Just because there does not yet exist a ‘ready-to-use’ infrastructure rating scheme for the Middle East does not mean we can afford to ignore sustainability on infrastructure projects.  I am aware of a few rating schemes being developed, and until they are released there is a growing body of international guidance and best practice from which to draw.

Major infrastructure projects cost a few orders of magnitude more than a typical building, and are built to last twice as long at least.  As such, it seems absurd not to invest some time and effort early on developing meaningful sustainability targets and embedding them into the project.  The returns are definitely worth it.

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.



Thanks for stopping by 🙂

What can you expect to find here?

Weekly posts on the latest idea, books, projects and trends influencing how cities, particularly in the Middle East, are being planned and developed towards sustainability.

Really looking forward to sharing and learning…hope you are too, and if so…ahlan w sahlan!


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