Building Green: Navigating Sustainability and Green Regulations in UAE's Construction

18 Jun 2024

The UAE Cabinet approved the Green Building and Sustainable Building standards to be practiced across the country in 2010. The application of these standards was underway in the government buildings in early 2011. It is anticipated that this project will save AED 10 billion by the year 2030 and reduce 30 per cent of the carbon emissions in the country.

A significant progress has been made by the UAE in developing its urban infrastructure as it seeks to diversify from hydrocarbons-focused economy to a knowledge-based economy. The country’s water consumption and per capita energy are among the highest in the world that leads to a heavy carbon footprint. It is one of the world’s most water-scarce nations. The country relies on desalinated seawater to meet its demand for potable water with just limited natural freshwater resources.

The country recognizes that protection of the environment as well as the economic growth can be achieved together. By establishing the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MOCCAE) in 2016 the country has taken steps to address and mitigate negative impacts on the environment. The National Climate Change Plan in the year 2017 was also launched. It was the first Gulf country to sanction and sign the Paris Accord in 2015. There are various strategies and policies adopted that aim at addressing the impacts of climate change, improving air quality, improving water and food security, reducing the emission of greenhouse gases and preserving and protecting the natural resources of the country.

There were ambitious goals set up for the nation to become a leader and a global model in sustainability under the “Green Economy for Sustainable Development” initiative in the UAE vision 2021. 

The key pillars for the Green Plan are City in Nature, Energy Reset, Sustainable Living, Green Economy, and Resilient Future. The basic principles of Green Building Design are Landscaping with native, drought-resistant plants and water-efficient practices. Building quality, durable structures. Reducing and recycling construction and demolition waste. Insulating well and ventilating appropriately.

The involvement of the US Green Buildings Council (USGBC) and the Emirates Green Buildings Council is required in certifying the use of the Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (Leed), the Green Building Rating System - the international benchmark for design, construction and operation of high-performance green buildings.

The chief executive of the Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) regulatory arm of Dubai World Mr. Ahmad Abdul Hussain has made it mandatory for all developers to abide by the regulations wherein the existing buildings will have to be improvised but the new buildings will be a must. There will be a reduction in the UAE's carbon footprint by 50 per cent and water consumption once the regulations are in place with big changes. The founder of Emirates Green Buildings Council Dr Sadek Owainati mentioned that the regulations will have to be followed for all buildings not yet approved from January 2008. 

The components of green building include Energy Efficiency, Renewable Energy Generation, Water Efficiency, Stormwater Management, Superior Indoor Environment. Furthermore, it is an environmentally sustainable computing practice that helps to minimize the energy that is involved in the processing lines of code that in turn helps organizations reduce overall consumption of energy.

The main motive of these regulation in place is to improve the performance of the buildings in Dubai which will reduce the consumption of energy, improving public health and general welfare and water and materials safety. Also, to improve performance by enhancing the planning, design, construction and operation of the buildings to create an excellent city that offers the luxury of living and essence of success. These regulations also intend to support the Strategic Plan in Dubai, create a more sustainable urban environment that extends the ability of the infrastructure of the Emirates infrastructure to meet the needs of future development. It is also the practice of creating structures and using processes that will increase the efficiency of resource use -energy, water, and materials- while also reducing building impacts on human health and the environment.

Buildings can be certified as green when they meet specific criteria such as energy efficiency, water use, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, and innovation in design. The UAE is banning sea dumping, implementing policies and legislations to protect the environment and making efforts towards sustainability and more.

The country is developing waste-to-energy projects in January 2021. The Emirates Water & Electricity Company (EWEC) and Abu Dhabi Waste Management Center (Tadweer) announced plans to construct two of the region’s largest waste-to-energy power plants that aims to reduce waste to landfills and decrease CO2 emissions. Furthermore, the new EWEC plant in Abu Dhabi is anticipated to process up to 900,000 metric tons of waste annually which is enough to generate power to approximately 22,500 homes. The plant aims to divert 300,000 metric tons of waste from landfills annually while displacing almost 450,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions, producing enough electricity to power 28,000 homes.

The country has very limited natural groundwater and freshwater resources wherein the regulations remarkably confine the use of groundwater. In addition to some plants that use reverse osmosis technology, it uses thermal desalination as its main process to make seawater potable. There is an increase in the water and energy consumption due to the process of extraction, desalination, and transportation of water. To enhance the country’s water security agenda, Abu Dhabi’s Department of Energy (DoE) has been working on improving the efficiency of desalination plants. Similarly, to increase the production with lower carbon emissions, EWEC is planning to invest in desalination projects that are energy-efficient and innovative.

The Water Security Strategy 2036 was launched in the UAE to ensure that there is sustainability and continuous access to water in all conditions without any scarcity. This strategy was developed to integrate and implement water resources management, improve water quality by reducing pollution, increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and increase recycling and the safe reuse of treated water.

The UAE also faces challenges with wastewater management and is projected to expand the reuse of water collection and treatment of wastewater outside urban areas. Wastewater is managed and coordinated through individual local authorities and municipalities in each emirate which is similar to waste management.

Therefore, the government is looking for new technologies to recycle wastewater and progress the wastewater treatment. Currently the treated wastewater caters only to the industrial and agricultural requirements of the country. The key aspect to manage scarce water resources is in developing and expanding wastewater collection and treatment networks. The Strategic Tunnel Enhancement Program (STEP) aims to collect and treat wastewater that is discharged from residential, commercial, and industrial buildings in Abu Dhabi so as to increase the capacity for wastewater collection and treatment is one of the crucial projects undertaken by the Abu Dhabi’s Sewerage and Services Company (ADSSC). The waste management is coordinated in each emirate through individual local authorities and municipalities. There is an increase in the waste generation in the UAE that has been increasing rapidly due to the economic progress and population growth amounting to 35.5 million tons in 2019 which includes 5.6 million tons of municipal solid waste and is among the highest per-capita in the world (Emirates News Agency).

The UAE aims to achieve a 75% recovery rate of processed municipal solid waste as a part of its Green Growth Strategy. Federal Law No. 12 of 2018 was issued to focus on implementing an integrated system to manage waste which will boost the private sector engagement and coordinate strategies to reduce significant impacts to the environment. This law covers waste separation, gathering, transportation, storage, recycle, reusing, treatment, and dumping. To help coordinate efforts across the emirates, MOCCAE opened waste collection centers and launched a National Waste Management Database.

In the UAE, recycling is a relatively new concept, and the country is still lacking the infrastructure to segregate and recycle waste. Therefore, there are new law enforcement by MOCCAE wherein retailers are required to install color-coded recycling bins in public areas to ensure that there is proper segregation of waste.

The cities in the UAE have airborne sand and dust from the surrounding desert which makes the quality of the air moderate-to-poor. The increase in air pollution and exacerbate air quality-related health risks are due to high volumes of industrial transportation. 

MoCCAE in 2019 published the UAE’s first National Air Emissions Inventory Report to serve as a baseline for targeted reduction major air pollutants and guide future air quality policies. Indoor and outdoor air pollution remains a global issue with plenty of opportunities in research and development, healthcare cooperation, and technology sharing while the UAE has made significant progress in air quality management in recent years.

The Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM) in 2022 announced its partnership with AirCarbon Exchange (ACX) towards producing the world’s first fully structured carbon trading exchange and carbon clearing house which will be established in the Emirate.

In Abu Dhabi the Al Bahar Towers uses solar shading system to keep the building cool. According to Knight Frank UAE is the only country in the region in the top 30 as it is home to 869 green-rated buildings and the 14th highest national concentration globally.

The construction and operations of green buildings are reducing carbon emissions, energy and waste; conserving water; prioritizing safer materials through sustainable design that is also lowering the exposure to toxins. These benefits may not be easily identifiable to tenants or visitors.

Green specifications are a set of agreements and are recommended for the sustainable building industry. These agreements identify and qualify the specific conditions that must be demonstrated by property developers, designers and builders for sustainable development in practice. These materials are composed of renewable resources, rather than nonrenewable resources. They are environmentally responsible because the impact is considered over the life of the product for eg. Spiegel and Meadows, 1999.

According to a new report, Dubai is placed third in the list of global cities with the highest number of green buildings. According to the 'Sustainability and Wellness in Dubai' report by Core Savills, the Emirate has more than 550 projects under LEED certification.

The local governments in the UAE have began introducing rigorous codes, such as the Estidama Pearl Rating System in Abu Dhabi for buildings within Dubai’s Jurisdiction. These codes assess and rate a building based on pre-defined sustainability criteria that typically includes energy efficiency; water efficiency; site location; indoor environment quality and materials and waste management.

An integrated design process is required for green building rating and certification systems that creates projects that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building's life cycle. In October 2021, the United Arab Emirates announced its plans to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 which will also include a 600-billion-dirham investment in renewable energy. The UAE has enhanced to be the first country to not only release a concrete plan for the sustainability and green regulations but also promised to tackle the carbon emissions.

Abu Dhabi had announced and initiated from 2021 the ban of single-use plastic bags and this move is a part of the capital of the UAE’s larger environmental initiatives that includes cutting down the overall use of plastics to contribute towards the Emirate’s waste management efforts. Also, Dubai has declared a tariff on all single-use bags starting July 1, 2022, with the aim of banning them entirely within two years. Therefore, the region is set to become the crucible of the international climate conversation with Sharm el-Sheikh set to host the COP27 and Dubai to host the COP28.