As international concern over global warming mounts, the Middle East’s multi-billion-dollar construction industry is beginning to witness a shift towards more sustainable building design as part of wider efforts to decarbonise the economies of the region.
With Gulf states’ per capita CO2 emissions amongst the highest in the world and the Middle East acutely vulnerable to climate change, leading nations in the region are taking action. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 and 2050 respectively, with the greening of the construction industry and a transition to the production and use of more renewable forms of energy seen as key to achieving regional environmental goals.
The construction industry accounts for almost 40 per cent of CO2 emitted globally, the annual production of cement alone, some 4 billion tonnes, amounting to 8 per cent of emissions of the gas worldwide. Once completed, buildings’ energy use compounds the emissions problem. In the Middle East, residential and commercial properties consume more energy than those in other parts of the world, due in large part to the extremely hot weather, the high use of glass exteriors and dependence on air-conditioning, according to the regional environmental think-tank EcoMENA.
To address the building sector’s carbon footprint, construction companies are increasingly being urged to employ sustainable practices. These include the use of renewable and recyclable materials and the reduction of energy consumption and waste in the building process, along with the incorporation of green energy and energy efficiency features, such as solar panels and insulation.
In the Middle East, the building industry has been actively trying to make widespread use of eco-friendly architecture, traditional building methods and sustainable construction practices, with green building design emerging as a top priority in the region, notes EcoMENA. Innovation is high on the agenda, a 3D printing strategy in Dubai, for instance, aims to ensure that by 2030 a quarter of local buildings are erected using the technology, which reduces construction waste and the costs of transporting materials. Saudi Arabia has set similarly ambitious goals to build 1.5 million houses using innovative techniques such as 3D printing and fast-brick robotics by 2030 and has already established over 40 factories for precast buildings.
And while there are concerns over the costs of green building practices, the industry journal Construction Week reports that contractors in the Middle East, such as Spanish firm Acciona and the UAE’s ASGC, are demonstrating that “it is possible to have a socially conscious, environmentally-friendly, and profitable business model that supports sustainable construction”.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have both made strides in the development of sustainable, energy efficient buildings, between them boasting scores of projects certified by the internationally-recognised LEED green design rating system. Some of the projects were last year singled out by the rating system’s developer, the US Green Building Council, notably the King Salman Energy Park in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. An emerging industrial city, covering an area of 50 square kilometres, it was commended by the council for outstanding commitment to advancing sustainable building solutions.
Saudi Arabia recently launched its own green building rating system with a focus on water and energy conservation, following similar codes in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with which all new building projects must comply. To get a sense of the level of compliance, in Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City development, buildings must be constructed using low-carbon cement, 90 per cent recycled aluminium and significantly reduce energy and water consumption.
Arguably the biggest sustainable construction driver in the region is Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 strategy, a hugely ambitious bid to diversify and green the kingdom’s hydrocarbon-based economy. The strategy is advancing a swathe of renewable energy, conservation and environmental projects, as well as promoting green building design in new real estate, infrastructure and urban developments, such as the $500 billion eco-city of Neom, envisaged as the world’s first zero-carbon city, and the Red Sea Project, a tourism enterprise comprising 50 coastal resorts.
Government moves towards more eco-friendly construction across the region will require the backing of local senior executives to really gain momentum, and the signs are good. In a Honeywell-commissioned survey of 300 business leaders and decision-makers in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, 84 per cent of respondents said that energy management and sustainability were important to their organisations and almost as many said their importance had increased in recent years.
One business leader strongly advocating sustainable building practices is Meshaal Bin Omairh, the Group CEO of Abdullah Al Othaim Investment Company. A market-leader in the construction, management and operation of large shopping malls in Saudi Arabia; its complexes draw fifty million visitors annually.
Bin Omairh, who has previously worked with some of the largest companies in the kingdom, strives to make Al Othaim the region’s premier community shopping and entertainment destination for both tenants and shoppers. This approach reflects the company’s commitment to the socio-economic development of the kingdom, in line with Saudi Vision 2030.
Bin Omairh is keen to ensure all existing and new company assets conform to the highest sustainability standards, “Just as we’ve invested in people with some of the most progressive human resources policies in the MENA region, we are prioritising environmental protections and energy efficiencies in our approach to construction and building management,” he said. “The government is rightly determined to achieve climate change goals. And as a corporate entity with family business strong local roots, Al Othaim also wants to play its part in efforts to secure a sustainable future for Saudi Arabia and the region as whole.”
The beginnings of the Middle East’s transition to renewable energy have understandably captured the headlines of late given hydrocarbon production’s dominance of Gulf economies. But the quieter green revolution that is starting to take root in the construction industry is no less important – and, as it builds momentum, could make a significant contribution to reducing the region’s carbon footprint. Sustainable practices in the construction industry must have a central role in the Middle East’s wider environmental ambitions, particularly if the region is to play its part in tackling climate change.