Today was such a stark contrast from the extravagance and wealth we saw yesterday in Abu Dhabi. Our day was devoted to learning about Masdar, a government funded initiative that is pursuing various means to increase sustainability and renewable energy technology in the United Arab Emirates. Comprised of five branches (City, Power, Carbon, Institute, and Venture Capital), Masdar's most forward thinking project involves building a zero carbon, zero waste city.
Through a series of presentations by various Masdar folk and a tour of the initial building stages of Masdar, we learned a lot about the initiative. Aiming to be "the city of the future and the role model of the world," Masdar is really taking the first stab at creating an entirely carbon neutral city. Carbon neutrality is being achieved by synthesizing various methods, including sustainable construction techniques (creating close set buildings, maximizing shade, enhancing ventilation through wind towers, etc.), carbon capture and sequestration, and renewable energy technologies. A lot of emphasis is also being placed on using green construction materials, which not only are less carbon intensive than traditional building materials, but also incorporate waste products as a means of recycling and reuse.
One of the integral components of Masdar is the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. The institute, as the physical center of the city, is an integral component of the initiative. Not only does Masdar reflect the desire for sustainability, but the institute illustrates the commitment to continued energy progress.
Masdar itself is very thought provoking. Essentially, it is one massive experiment. Granted, there appear to be some practical issues (such as the reliance of all the tenants of the city to buy into the philosophy of sustainability and resource reduction) and the definition of zero carbon is always blurry. How far upstream do you go to consider the carbon costs of a material/product? Sure, there are no cars in the city, but should you count the carbon emissions from the cars of the 50,000 commuters necessary to get over half the work force to the city? (Masdar's answer to this last question is essentially no. Only the area within the city walls counts, although it is noteworthy that the materials and products used in the city are restricted based on their carbon costs.) Yet such questions can not negate the fact that Masdar is the first penguin when it comes to building sustainable cities - it has taken on the challenge of being the first to test out the waters of carbon neutrality.
What is extremely thought provoking is the fact that the UAE is sponsoring such an effort. For an area built by the wealth of the oil industry to not only recognize the importance of sustainable development, but take a leading role in the path toward innovative energy solutions creates a large statement - and creates a wonderful lead into my song of the day: a Bob Dylan classic, The Times They Are A-Changin'. The juxtaposition of such over-the-top development in Abu Dhabi we witnessed yesterday and the progressive, sustainable oriented Masdar project hint toward a new direction for the country. In many ways, Masdar is a call to the world for change.
Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
While today was largely focused on the science of Masdar, it also sparked some very interesting discussions about motivation. When you look at a project as large and costly as Masdar, you have to wonder what is the drive behind it. I like to hope that it is the internal motivation to do what is right that is powering the project, yet it would seem as though more often than not, our world is built upon the external motivation for money. So is Masdar the UAE's recognition that our current way of life is threatening the place we call home, or is it the realization that the oil industry cannot last forever and an effort to lead the energy sector in order to maintain the high standard of living of the area? In the end, does the motivation matter?
In the evening, we had the opportunity to interact with the students of the Masdar Institute over dinner. The discussions we had varied from the culture of Islam and the region, to the research we have been working on and the message Masdar is sending to the world. It really was an incredible opportunity to meet with others who are as interested in and committed to the issues of energy the world is grappling with as we are. I know the conversations I had this evening are one's I'll remember. For all of us, it is quite apparent: The times they are a-changin'.