UAE's win at the Venice Biennale can make our cities greener

The use of more sustainable materials will combat carbon emissions

UAE Minister of Culture and Youth Noura Al Kaabi and pavilion curator Wael Al Awar with visitors inside Wetland, the UAE National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture. John Brunton
Powered by automated translation

It is a matter of great pride that the UAE’s Wetland Pavilion of the Venice Architecture Biennale, curated by Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto, won the Golden Lion for Best National Participation this past fortnight.

In its tenth time of participating at the Venice Biennale, the UAE pavilion investigated a substitute for cement that could be produced from salt. The UAE bagged the top prize for drawing attention to the relationship between waste and production, and finding an alternative to the most commonly used type of construction raw material, namely Portland cement.

The UAE’s plans to tackle climate change are among the most ambitious in the world. By 2030, the country aims to achieve a high level of eco-efficiency, primarily by managing its greenhouse emissions and increasing its ability to adapt to climate change.

For a country that is undergoing rapid economic growth, few changes can have more of an effect on reducing carbon emissions than finding a sustainable way around the use of carbon-intensive raw materials.

For the sake of the UAE’s sustainability ambitions, and indeed the region’s, zeroing in on an alternative to concrete should be considered a priority. Perhaps not many people would know that concrete is one of the most used materials in the region, and the second most consumed material on earth, after water. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are, in fact, the top two cement producers in the GCC.

Environmentalists and stakeholders from the UAE's construction sector understand the importance of reimagining the way we think about the future of our cities. So it came as no surprise that the UAE showcased the alternative cement, the glue of concrete, at the Venice Architecture Biennale, and subsequently, that this innovation was recognised. There was a unique engineering challenge in the conception of the pavilion: to match the region’s demand for cement – a component of concrete, which causes 8 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide – and find a workable substitute, namely, reactive magnesia cement, which is a more sustainable product.

We owe it to the next generations to work with sustainable alternatives to cement

The UAE has abundant access to brine as most of the country’s potable water comes from desalination plants. The problem with brine is in returning it to the sea as waste. The process of making magnesium-based cement from desalination brine not only cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions but also avoids dumping the leftover brine into the Gulf’s water, hence protecting marine life.

Simply put, the challenge is to offset the environmental degradation caused by such practices. At the Venice Biennale, this research was put into practice and the spotlight was on the alternative cement that can build sustainable cities in the GCC and in other countries.

Avoiding habitat destruction should be a priority for industries even beyond construction. In today's world, the job of a civil engineer includes looking for ways to avoid habitat destruction and minimise the use polluting materials. Going ahead, engineers need to piece together what we need and at the same time make do with what we have. Balancing these demands is a challenge.

Engineers and researchers are thus trying to create an alternative cement for the growing construction industry. Through this innovation and use of brine – that would have been discharged in the Arabian Gulf – we could offset almost 20 per cent of the total cement production of GCC countries.

The UAE winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale proves that such solutions for carbon reduction have the potential to tackle climate-related issues in the future.

With capital investment and large-scale production, the development of these alternative techniques can be inexpensive and as profitable as modern cement manufacturing. Needless to say, they can also help the UAE reach its 2030 agenda for sustainable development.

Reimagining how we construct cities and our awareness of industrial waste should point us in a direction that is in keeping with the global sustainable development goals in the 2015 UN development agenda to – among other goals – protect the planet.

We should aim for a future where buildings that now come up are designed to help fight climate change. Civil engineers can begin to rectify past mistakes and devise eco-friendly solutions for the future. Which is ultimately why researchers, including research at NYU Abu Dhabi, and industries have been developing more sustainable alternatives to cement.

Proud as civil engineers are of our predecessors’ achievements, we are not always content with our role in the degradation of the environment. And to make good on some of the mistakes from decades ago, we may need to completely rethink how we go forward in the expansion of our cities. Engineers today no longer have the time and luxury of excess. Making environmental mistakes can add to global warming and endanger the planet. We owe it to the next generations to work with sustainable materials so that we can re-imagine our futures, and we can do this by drawing on lessons from the past.

Published: September 13, 2021, 5:00 AM