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“Be sustainable!” How often do you hear of these two words in your lives? In school, at our workplace, while shopping and even while travelling. But what does sustainability mean? Is it wasting less water while having a bath, or riding a bike to work rather than taking the car, refusing to use a plastic cup or a straw, or enjoying a staycation rather than hopping onto an air plane for a holiday abroad?

Karim El-Jisr, chief sustainability officer-social of Dubai Sustainable City, has a simple explanation. “Sustainability is about reducing our ecological footprint on the planet. How can we live well by using minimal resources? Sustainability can be defined in terms of social, environmental, and economic outcomes. We need to optimise all three outcomes, to promote well-being, minimise our carbon footprint, and achieve financial security.”

Sustainability therefore is a global concern as enshrined in the much-talked about United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs).

Why have the UNSDGs been set up?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a universal call to action to tackle some of the most pressing issues confronting mankind: poverty, preservation of the planet and bringing about an improvement in the lives and prospects of everyone in the world.

There are 17 SDGs

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The 17 SDGs were adopted by all UN Member States in 2015, as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which set out a 15-year plan to achieve the Goals.

Ivano Ianelli, CEO of the Dubai Carbon Centre of Excellence, likens the operating principle of the UNSDGs to the way countries launch initiatives and encourage its people to rally behind them.

“[An] initiative is meant to converge the population towards very specific goals,” says Ianelli. “It is the same way in which His Highness Shaiklh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of UAE and Ruler of Dubai, launches campaigns [for the UAE] and encourages us to follow and make them work. Whether it is 2030, 2050 or 2071, the long-term strategies of the UAE get everyone, residents and Emiratis alike, to follow them. The strategies are always structured in very determined pathways, wherein every body behind them aggregate and conform to the overall long-term strategy.”

The UAE and the UNSDGs: How all 17 are relevant

“In the context of the UAE, the SDGs are obviously all relevant,” says Ianelli. But they are relevant in different contexts. For example, in the instance of SDG 1, No Poverty, it may not be an issue in the UAE but the UAE can help other countries in eradicating poverty. Similarly, for SDG 2, Zero Hunger. The UAE’s status as a top donor of humanitarian aid is all about helping tackle hunger in regions where it is prevalent. It’s all about a collaboration of intent. “[The SDGs] are relevant to foreign policy, international cooperation, economic development, to human rights ...,” says Ianelli. “Obviously there is an element to it that is linked to something the UAE does or is doing, or has done; some of them might be priority this year, others a priority in the future years.”

For example, says Ianelli, in SDG17, which is about Partnerships, the Dubai Supreme Council of Energy is a participant.

“We believe that the UAE is clearly better positioned than any other country in the world for private sector to take the lead in sustainable development. We can show them how it is done because there is a very big spirit of entrepreneurship in the country. We are very capable of quickly accessing opportunities [which in other countries may take a long time].”

Four key sustainability issues in the UAE, according to El-Jisr:

  1. High energy required for cooling: The weather in the UAE is very challenging — long periods of extreme heat means that 70 per cent of our electricity consumption is destined for cooling.
  2. High energy required for desalination: The UAE also has limited water resources. It relies on desalination to generate electricity to power the city, and to produce water for survival and recreation. But desalination is energy intensive.
  3. High fuel consumption: In the UAE residents prefer to drive long distances to reach their destinations. Families usually have more than one vehicle. This too increases our fuel consumption and energy footprint.
  4. High import of food: Dubai and the wider UAE import up to 90 per cent of its food, with significant wastage along the way. Indoor vertical and precision farming can help increase food security while minimising water resource use, and pesticides.

Being sustainable

What works to the UAE’s advantage is that it has unlimited renewable energy resources. As solar uptake increases (thanks to the Mohammad Bin Rashid Solar Park), Dubai’s energy mix shifts away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy (zero emission). Dubai aims to become the city with the lowest carbon footprint by 2050.

Other examples of how the UAE is actively pursuing SDGs

“Take SDG No 7: Clean Water and Sanitation,” says Ianelli. “In the UAE itself, this goal is not a concern because we all have access to clean drinking water and sanitation. However, the UAE has launched Suqia, the Water Aid Foundation that focuses on international requirements for clean drinking water. It’s the similar principle with other SDGs. Take Good Health and Well-being, Sustainable Development Goal No 3. We have recently seen the appointment of Commissioner Generals to oversee the growth and qualitative reach of sectors such as health, education, human resources, community development ...

“Take Sustainable Development Goal No 12: Responsible Consumption and Production. This is part of Dewa’s project on behavioural sciences that it has implemented within their catchment area under the DSM Demand Site Management Strategy. So Dewa has actually launched programmes and activities to monitor how to influence consumption reduction in terms of water and electricity for the benefit of the end user and the benefit of the country.”

In this way, every single SDG, says Ianelli, part of a strategy.

Sustainable Development Goal No 2: Zero Hunger

“As we said, this is not specifically relevant here because in the UAE, there is food for all. It’s relevant for the UAE as an external reach for it. It acts as a role model in the region, from both the cultural and geographic perspective so the way we see them participating is to see them aid in helping communities eradicate hunger. But SDG 2 and SDG 3: Good Health and Well Being, are closely related. The UAE, for example, has imposed specific taxes on sugary drinks and tobacco. These are a result of implementing SDG 3.”

What happens if the SDG is delayed? “We will see inequalities continue to grow in the world. It will not effect the UAE but it will affect the areas where the UAE interacts,” says Ianelli.

Sustainable Development Goal No 3: Good Health and Well Being

“As part of the Charter of 4 January, we have seen the appointment of the Commissioner Generals to look at the development. This country aims to become a model for well-being, happiness.

If the goal is delayed: We will not have access to good health, we will not be happier and the UAE will no longer be in a position to attract top talent and people to reside it and be a part of this monumental undertaking. National health agenda; medical tourism.

If I don feel my kids don’t have access to the best health care, I will go elsewhere. Here I would stress on the UAE’s mission to be the happiest country because happiness is a surrogate for well-being.

Sustainable Development Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

“Dubai is a fantastic example of the push for a sustainable city,” says Ianelli. “Dubai looks at large-scale efficiency with an eye on growth. When they expanded Al Garhoud Bridge, it didn’t go from 2 lanes to 3. It went many, many lanes more.” And there was a dramatic reduction in traffic congestion. “They have used the same model of progressive and efficient solutions, large-scale solutions in all areas; power, infrastructure, for example, and in going for such effective development, Dubai reduced its carbon emission from 40 tons to 15 tons,” says Ianelli.

The defining feature of how Dubai works, he says, is that its investment in infrastructure is not because it wants only the best, the largest, the tallest but Dubai does it with the intent of becoming more sustainable in the long run. “Dubai is a positive of how cities can become sustainable,” says Ianelli.

OK, the government is doing its bit. What about people? What can we do to become a part of Sustainable Development Goals?

“A lot!” says El Jisr. “Residents must first recognise the fact that there is a problem, and that we are surrounded by opportunities and solutions. For example, through behaviour change and small retrofits, we need to reduce our water consumption to about 150 litres per person per day. Also through behaviour change and adequate maintenance, we need to reduce AC consumption and the overall energy use intensity of our homes. We need to be wiser when we go shopping by avoiding unnecessary packaging such as single use plastics. We also need to drive less and walk more, or commute in Dubai’s public transport network. We should downsize our cars (SUVs are bad), and consider switching to electric vehicles which are becoming cheaper. Finally, if we want to reduce or carbon footprint, we should also install photovoltaic panels on our rooftops and garages.”

“There are two elements to this,” says Ianelli. “First of all, ask yourself: how do these elements impact me as an individual? Second: what is important to me as part of the community? All the SDGs are meant to get an individual in a position where he understands that he needs to get out of his comfort zone for the benefit of the global community, global good.

“[The change] does not start with the government. The change starts with us,” he says.

An example of how a sustainability strategy can become a change-maker

“If petrol subsidies were to be removed, it would be expected that the price of petrol will go up,” says Ianelli. “Because of the removal of fuel subsides, its consumption in the UAE has declined dramatically which has reduced the country’s CO2 emissions.

“So, how does it impact people when the government launches an economic growth strategy even if its meant to touch us in the way of making services more expensive? It is actually shaping us to look at the alternatives. Because we as individuals are lazy, we are unwilling to change our conventional practices. We need a push and the push happens through these strategies.

“The moment the subsidy is removed, the moment we realise that it will cost us more [for the product or service], people will go, ‘Hey, maybe I don’t need to use the car every day. I can use the metro. This is how we begin to participate in the implementation of the goal, which is a part of working towards a SDG,” says Ianelli.

OK, that was an external stimuli. What about a change from within? How can we go from responsibility to response?

Pick a specific goal for yourself and work towards it, advises Ianelli. “My personal approach is to pick one specific goal and work on it. What is it that you can contribute? Where can you make a difference? Pick a SDG that aligns with it.” And in that moment of commitment, you become a part of the change.

For Ianelli, his pick is SDG No. 17: Economic Partnership. How does he make it work?

“I have witnessed in my numerous years of experience with UN and private sector, that private sector-led strategies have great acceleration. So every decision I make is a participator in the private sector,” says Ianelli. “Take SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises); they are great crucibles for change. And SMEs do drive the bulk of our economy. They are speedy catalysts.”

The real change makers, according to Ianelli, are the SME innovators. They challenge the traditional business practices and usher in change, efficiency. “Who knew Tesla some years ago? Look at the disruption they have caused,” he says.

Another sustainable best practice: Support innovation; be a partner in changing the world for the better

Buy a product, a service that supports innovation, efficiency and contributes to sustainability. Whether it is a T-shirt made from banana fibre or cutlery that is compostable, make it a part of your habits. You will be the collaborator in the big change that needs to happen. And then spread the word on it.

“I will do it with the tools available at my disposal: social media, the choices I make at work, my discussion with family and friends; so I am influencing decisions left, right and centre,” says Ianelli. “As CEO of Dubai Carbon, I might have more tools at my disposal. But as an individual also, I am contributing.”

This will apply to any of the SDGs. Every single SDG can be pared down to such participation, he says.

One more example of how you can be the change the world needs

Let’s look at food waste:

“Take an occasion when you have to invite many people for a meal,” says Ianelli. “There is a clear gap between resource consumption and hospitality.” Should you invite friends to a sparse table in the name of sustainability? How do you find the balance between little and excess?

Sizing portions and numerical approach, suggests Ianelli.

“Create a calculator,” he advises. “If you have invited 10 people and want to serve 15 dishes, the sample size of the dish should be X. If you are looking at cooking pasta for 10 people, the average portion size per person is 80 grams but if you are cooking more than 3 dishes, bring that portion size per person to half. It’s a numerical approach. We can’t influence commercial entities but as individuals, we can all be aware of this numerical contribution,” he says.

Role of communities

In Dubai, communities have actively started to embrace sustainability measures. Residents of The Sustainable City, Dubai Silicon Oasis and Al Barari have successfully made changes in their lifestyle to become more sustainable.

Dubai Silicon Oasis

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Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal

Residents here enjoy community farming on plots of land provided by the Dubai Silicon Oasis Authorities. Every year around 400 plots of land spanning a total of 8,000 square meters are assigned to residents to try their hand at sustainable organic farming between September and May. It’s a unique and fun experience where families regularly gather in the open to look after their allotments. The initiative also involves a friendly competition for the best farmer, best landscaped plot, and best organic produce. By growing their own produce in such a community farm, residents are investing directly in their food system and helping create sources of healthy local-produced food and vegetables.

The Sustainable City

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This community was designed to achieve zero energy, which means that all operational electricity is generated on-site from renewables (solar photovoltaic). The community encourages residents to have solar panels on their roofs which have resulted in lower electricity bills, and to walk more and grow their share of vegetables and herbs either in the biodomes that run along its green spine or by leasing a plot of land.

There is an animal sanctuary here to re-home goats and donkeys, free range hens and ducks and beehives (the community has 250 hives as part of it’s My Hive programme that provides residents with organic honey and raises awareness of the important ecological role of bees), an equestrian club and a dog park. The vegetation in The Sustainable City have been chosen for their ability to create shade, fix nitrogen in the soil, clean the air, create habitats and a cooler microclimate. Most households in the community have adopted an electric vehicle. There is now a smart autonomous shuttle to help ferry passengers to different points of the community. To eliminate the use of single-use plastics, water fountains have been set up in common areas and the gym — and restaurants are requested to offer filtered water to their guests and remove plastic bottled water from their menus.

Al Barari

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Themed gardens, naturally landscaped lakes, freshwater streams, cascades and waterways make Al Barari the lowest density development in the UAE. The landscape’s high density planting keeps the ground cooler and reduces evaporation, enabling the use of less water.

Each home supports its own energy-efficiency home system and residents are encouraged to recycle through the underground waste system that separates organic from inorganic waste, while remaining both invisible and odourless. Walking around the community, one notices homes that have installed solar panels on the roof, electrical vehicles or scooters inside the community and a more active lifestyle on the walking tracks. All the water in Al Barari that is used for the irrigation of the landscape and waterways is recycled water that is then cleaned and polished in the on-site polishing plant. The irrigation system is controlled by a central computerised system which constantly communicates with irrigation controllers and weather stations installed in the field. This ensures application of precise quantity of water with no wastage. The waterways have aquatic plants that have helped nearly extinct native species of fish thrive here which in turn clean the water and control the population of mosquitoes and water insects.

How is Expo 2020 Dubai supporting sustainability?

Expo 2020 Dubai’s Global Best Practice Programme showcases projects that have provided tangible solutions to the world’s biggest challenges. It highlights simple but effective initiatives, which localise the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and can be adapted, replicated, and scaled to achieve an enhanced global impact. Almost half of the 25 selected best practice projects deal with pressing sustainability challenges. For example, the Land Life Company which builds ‘green’ refugee camps (providing environmentally sustainable shelters while protecting the environment through reforestation), Seacology, a Sri Lankan community-led mangrove conservation project; and Empower, an innovative plastic waste deposit and tracking system from Norway that is having an impact in around 10 countries from Iceland to India.

Besides this the Expo Live programme finds, funds and supports social innovators and entrepreneurs whose innovative, creative solutions seek to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges. The programme look for solutions across 14 different sectors, including agriculture, education, environment, employment, energy and health care — providing grants of up to USD 100,000. Desert Control, a Norwegian company with operations in Dubai, have been chosen to be an Expo Live Global Innovator. Its patented ‘liquid nanoclay’ transforms dry, sandy soil into lucrative arable land — reducing water irrigation needs by more than 50 per cent, while also increasing yields. Other examples of Expo Live-backed projects that work to reduce plastic usage, include The Plastic Bank, which converts plastic waste into currency in Haiti; Paptic, which creates wood-based alternatives to plastic packaging; and CleaPl, which is developing more environmentally-friendly versions of disposable single-use items such as straws, cups, films and bags, these items are biodegradable, non-toxic and edible.