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The Elkington Report

Is Dubai the capital of the green economy?

A city known for oil and social iniquity is becoming a juggernaut in the realm of clean energy and sustainable development.

It was hot, it was Earth Day 2015, and I was poised to walk on stage at the Dubai World Trade Center.

The occasion: the second World Green Economy Summit.

In the spirit of transparency, I was happy because I was about to participate in a "Green Visionaries" session with a real hero, solar adventurer Raphael Domjan. Among other things, he has sailed around the world in a PlanetSolar catamaran powered by 38,000 photovoltaic cells. Next, for him at least, will be a trip to the edge of space in a solar plane (French).

Amid that backstage excitement, I got a ping on my phone. I had received an email from Hazel Henderson on the Green Transition Scoreboard with a jarring figure; by Earth Day, she said, a total of $6.22 trillion had been invested in the global green economy since 2007.

That’s a huge number. And when I dropped it into my presentation, the statistic helped bring our grand green visions down to earth, placing them in a broader market context. Interestingly, Hazel also noted that the scoreboard, which projects $10 trillion of private investment in the green economy by 2020, is on track to reach that goal.

Perhaps more telling, though, is the group's new emphasis on "Breakdowns Driving Breakthroughs," which introduces a new sector to the Scoreboard called "Life Systems." The focus is on systemwide interconnections, with efficiency, information and digitization, energy, water, food, education and health accounting for 14 percent of the total value of investments captured by the scoreboard.

My host city of Dubai was singled out in the report for innovations in the fields of green building design and urban planning — no doubt conferences and summits also will help boost Dubai’s position on the scoreboard over time.

But the emirate has ambitions above and beyond having the world’s tallest skyscraper, the 830-meter Burj Khalifa, and running major Green Economy events. Its publicly stated goal is to be recognized as the “Capital of the Green Economy” by 2021.

As I said at the end of my presentation that day, Dubai's ascent would be no small feat. Indeed, I wondered aloud whether it would even be possible.

Reasonable doubt

There is no doubting the serious intent underlying Dubai's audacious sustainability goals.

Among the city’s immediate priorities are developing a regulatory framework to incentivize green infrastructure investments, ensuring diversification of energy sources and evolving a carbon abatement strategy in alignment with the objectives of its Integrated Energy Strategy for 2030 (PDF).

All good, but this is still a patriarchal and economically stratified society, despite frequent talk about engaging young people. A bigger cultural shift is needed.

Plus, Dubai’s economy is basically built on fossil fuels.

According to sometimes-reliable Wikipedia, Dubai is sitting on 4 billion barrels of the stuff, out of a total for the United Arab Emirates of almost 100 billion barrels — on a par with Kuwait’s reserves. Again, fine, but if strict climate controls were to be imposed, Dubai could become the ultimate stranded asset.

No wonder the city’s government is beginning to invest heavily in major solar farms.

Dubai Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park
Earlier this year, the Dubai Electricity & Water Authority (DEWA) launched a tender for a 100 MW solar plant as part of the second phase of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum solar park. The 40-square-kilometer park south of Dubai is already home to a 13 MW solar park, built in 2013.

To make a much larger 1,000 MW plant a reality by the end of 2017, DEWA called on solar developers to submit bids for a fixed tariff, over 25 years, under a build-own-operate model.

All great, but my point was that any self-respecting world capital of the green economy — particularly one with its tap-root suckling on oil — would need to meet a number of other criteria.

For example, Dubai would need not just to convene and celebrate leading green economy players but also to challenge them, holding them to account. It also would be a leader in the incubation of breakthrough science and technology. It would spur leading-edge business model experimentation. It would provide capital for green economy innovators and entrepreneurs. It would collaborate as often as it competed.

Critically, it would offer an attractive, sustainable model for a future world of between 9 and 11 billion people.

Connecting the dots

Money can buy many things, and I don’t doubt that Dubai’s investment in a number of these areas will grow mightily, particularly as Dubai moves towards Expo 2020. This will feature sustainability as a key theme, alongside mobility and opportunity.

But Dubai will need to stretch energetically to meet some of these criteria.

Intriguingly, Dubai’s Arabic name, al Wasl, means "the connection," and the city increasingly aims to become a hub between East and West. With an anticipated 25 million visits to the Expo, and 70 percent of visitors predicted to come from overseas, it could turn out to be the most globally inclusive event in Expo history.

The man behind the World Green Economy Summit is André Schneider, now Chairman of World Climate Ltd but for many years at the World Economic Forum, where he was responsible for running the Forum’s Davos summits. He chaired the session I did with Domjan and, a key factor for me, made both sessions we were both involved in great fun.

But why, you may ask, is fun important?

Well, experience suggests that when people are having fun it signals that they are both emotionally engaged and at least moderately confident that real progress is possible. Other people may use more grown-up metrics and indicators, but for me the 2015 World Green Economy Summit ticked that key box.

As a result, I came away confused — and that was progress because I had flown for my second visit believing there was little, if any, chance that Dubai would achieve green capital status. Having now met a number of the people whose job it is to make this a reality, I can at least now imagine the possibility.

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