What Dubai Expo will teach you about sustainability

This will be one of the most sustainable world fairs in history

We are merely days away from seeing what a ‘world of pure imagination’ looks like. The fantastical promo for Expo 2020 Dubai featuring Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth, which takes as its refrain the famous line from Roald Dahl’s classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has whet appetites across the globe to see just what kind of world we could create for future societies.

The world that has been created at the Expo site, however, is not a place of sugar-coated sweets and chocolate treats. Rather, it’s a space that shows what a sustainable future could be. It is set to be a manifestation of the words of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai: “The future belongs to those who can imagine it, design it and execute it.”

That the imagination of the Dubai Expo organisers is focused on how economies can forge a sustainable, green future is nothing but encouraging. Indeed, it’s symptomatic of how the country and its leadership envision the next 50 years of our nationhood: as a creative, diverse, inclusive and sustainable place powered by renewable energy.

Expo 2020 Dubai – the first World Expo to be held in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia – will not just be a catalyst for economic activity and growth in the UAE. It will deliver one of the most sustainable world fairs in history.

A central concern of any major event when it comes to its sustainability is its long-term use. The infrastructure built for many global extravaganzas, from World Cups to tech fairs, are often thought of as "white elephants" – excessive, permanent structures whose long-term costs outweigh their usefulness.

Mindful of this, the Dubai Expo’s International Sustainability team has been working with private and public partners to minimise the environmental impact of the six-month event to preserve the infrastructure that has been developed for it, long after the curtain has fallen. This is in the same vein as the UAE’s long-term vision for its Expo infrastructure.

For instance, the UAE National Pavilion from Milan Expo 2015 is now hosted at Masdar City, repurposed as the headquarters of the UAE Space Agency. And prior to that, the award-winning UAE Pavilion from Shanghai Expo 2010 – designed as parallel sand dunes in tribute of the UAE’s natural desert landscape – has been relocated to Saadiyat Island.

Berklee Abu Dhabi. Courtesy CCI
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Dubai Expo’s International Sustainability team has been working to minimise the environmental impact of the event

Fast-forward to next week, we will see sustainability take centre stage at this year’s once-in-a-lifetime event. The opening week of Expo 2020 is themed Climate and Biodiversity Week, aimed at raising global ambitions for climate action and environmental protection. As another immediate example of reusing infrastructure, the Water, Energy, Technology and Environment Exhibition (Wetex) and Dubai Solar Show will both be held at the Expo 2020 Dubai site, where more than 1,200 companies from 55 countries will convene top showcase the opportunities that come with climate action and the green energy transition.

Then there’s the energy required to run the site and the pavilions. Fifty per cent of it is being generated by renewable sources; all the permanent builds are fitted with solar panels and other clean energy systems with a combined total capacity of 5.5 megawatts. For context, that’s enough energy to do approximately 180,000 round trips from Downtown Dubai to the Abu Dhabi Corniche.

Standout examples of this include the net zero energy and water building, Terra – The Sustainability Pavilion, which is aiming to become a Platinum-certified LEED building.

The Pavilion is surrounded by 18 Energy Trees. These ingenious structures are equipped with more than 4,900 solar panels which are programmed to face the sun and soak up its rays during the daytime, like enormous sunflowers, capable of produce four gigawatt-hours of alternative energy a year.

With innovation like this at the heart of the Expo site, it’s little wonder that the site is on-track to receive LEED certification for more than 120 of its permanent buildings – 95 of which are targeting LEED Gold, while four are targeting LEED Platinum, the highest LEED recognition.

Expo 2020 is also highlighting a major milestone for renewable energy in the region, with the official inauguration of the Middle East and North Africa’s first industrial scale, solar-powered green hydrogen facility, in collaboration with Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa) and Siemens Energy. which is rightly being spotlighted at the Expo as an example of the major socioeconomic advantages that clean energy can unlock.

Located at Dewa Outdoor Testing Facility of the Research and Development Centre at the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, daylight solar power from the park will power the Green Hydrogen Project, which is projected to produce approximately 20.5kg of hydrogen an hour at 1.25 megawatts of peak power.

Sustainability runs throughout the site – from top to bottom, from the towering buildings themselves to getting people to the site and the buildings. As an example, the official logistics partner of Expo 2020 Dubai, UPS will launch zero-emissions delivery solutions like e-quads, e-bikes and an Arrival electric vehicle, which will run on the solar power infrastructure in place at Expo 2020 Dubai site.

This is the critical decade for climate, innovation and partnerships. A decade that demands that we all to come together in the pursuit of a common goal. And this global collaborative effort will be on full show at the Expo, where country pavilions highlight the best of their expertise and knowledge of climate adaptation and mitigation strategies. This is evident from the Singapore Pavilion, themed Nature, Nurture, Future, representing the garden city and the nexus between nature and the built environment. The Netherlands Pavilion is a miniature ecosystem, brimming with sustainable solutions for water, energy and food.

Meanwhile, the Mozambique and Seychelles pavilions will offer visitors glimpses into their quest for accessible energy and the glorious deep-sea treasures that we must preserve at all costs, respectively. The Cuba Pavilion will tell of the country’s evolution in renewables and biotech, while the Comoros Pavilion puts recycling in the spotlight.

The German Pavilion will showcase some of Europe’s cutting-edge sustainability innovations, and the Czech Republic Pavilion displays how to extract water vapour from the air using solar energy – something that will be of keen interest to those of us who live among arid desert climes. And this is just a sample of the great plethora of country pavilions highlighting human ingenuity and innovative ways to support all life on our planet in the years ahead.

Combined, the 200 pavilions at the Expo site – 191 of which represent participating countries – offer a glimpse into a future world powered by clean energy underpinned by sustainability. It really is the stuff of imagination. But this world is not confined purely to the mind, to words in a book or images on a screen. This is a world we are designing collaboratively and collectively. Spurred on by a vision of making tomorrow better, the UAE is moving from a world of pure imagination to a reality at great speed.

Published: September 24th 2021, 4:00 AM
Updated: October 7th 2021, 11:36 AM
Nawal Al-Hosany

Nawal Al-Hosany

Dr Nawal Al-Hosany is a permanent representative of the UAE to the International Renewable Energy Agency