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Autonomous trains, the housing estate Sustainable City and solar energy in Dubai’s desert have been breathing environmental awareness into the city

When thinking of Dubai, an overgrowth of concrete, glass and steel that has grown out of the hot Arabian sand over the past 30 years may come to mind. Since its financial and economic boom in the 50s, the city has become a symbol of excessive buildings – almost inevitable when cheap energy meets a lack of environmental awareness. In 2010, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) declared the United Arab Emirates (UAE) the country with the world’s largest ecological footprint per capita with Dubai as the front runner among the seven emirates. However, gleaming skyscrapers and multinational companies also attracted diverse talents to move into the city. And lately, Dubai has turned its image upside down: new projects such as autonomous trains, the housing estate Sustainable City and huge solar power plants in Dubai’s desert have been breathing sustainability and environmental awareness into the city. By 2050, Dubai aims to be the most sustainable city in the world by setting the focus on renewable energies, public transport, water extraction and environmentally friendly buildings (National Geographic; dormakaba).

The ambitious and future-oriented world exhibition Expo 2020 also proves that Dubai is keeping an eye on climate change, energy efficiency and smart technology: under the motto “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future”, the Expo will take place in Dubai from October 2021 to March 2022, inspiring the next generation to think more critically about the impact their choices have on the environment. It is the first event in the Middle East and at the same time the largest event ever held in the UAE. Around 200 countries and 25 million visitors from all over the world are expected. Almost every country in the world will be represented with its own pavilion (tma). With its main message of Energiewende (energy transition), the German Pavilion mirrors the country’s aim to be a nuclear-free, low-carbon economy, focusing on renewable energy such as wind, photovoltaics and hydroelectricity (Gulf News).

With topic-specific pavilions divided into countries, partners, organizations and special topics, the Expo 2020 offers a huge range of interactive educational installations throughout the site. In addition to the UAE’s pavilion in the shape of a falcon, there are three spectacular buildings illustrating the topics of opportunities, mobility and sustainability (dubai.de).
The Sustainability District showcases some of the world’s most advanced technologies, state funding programs and ways of living a high-tech future in harmony with nature. The pavilion Terra, designed by UK-based Grimshaw Architects, displays the balance between humanity and nature and pushes visitors to think about their impact on the planet through their actions and consumerism. Sustainable architecture and futuristic tech like solar panels result in a 100 % self-sufficient building in the middle of the desert, showing that sustainability is achievable everywhere and should be necessary for all future buildings. A giant solar canopy on top of the pavilion with over a thousand solar panels and 18 energy trees in the gardens that rotate to follow the path of the sun, harness solar power that fuels the structure, which itself has net-zero energy aspirations. Another technology collects water from the air, which is then recycled in a greywater recycling system and reduces the water use by up to 75 %  (Expo 2020; TimeOutDubai).

Inside the pavilion, the visitors can follow trails under the ocean and through the rainforest in a mesmerising 360-degree sensory view. From whale songs and rolling waves, walls of plastic bottles and hydroponic gardens to dioramas showcasing sustainable living solutions, Terra offers a playful, exploratory experience with engaging, thought provoking content. The exhibition tells the story of humankind’s relationship with nature, while addressing negative environmental impacts – helping visitors to understand their impact on the environment, break the cycle of consumerism, and become agents of change. Post Expo, the site will become a children’s science center in District 2020, a model for a smart and sustainable city that will evolve from the expo site, inspiring sustainable choices for future generations (Expo 2020; TimeOutDubai; designboom).

With an increasing number of zero-energy projects such as the Sustainable City, Terra’s legacy as a science center or the aforementioned solar parks, Dubai is getting closer and closer to its goal of becoming the most sustainable city by 2050 and once again shows that the former desert state is a pioneer in terms of sustainability. 

 by Lena Schrum