CITIES in the Arab region should introduce stronger standards for green building and promote sustainable communities if they are to have a chance of tackling climate change, experts said.
The United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN-Habitat) estimates that 56 per cent of the Arab world’s population already lives in cities and urban centres, a proportion that more than quadrupled between 1990 and 2010.
It is expected to shoot up to 75 per cent by 2050. The speed of the urbanisation process has put additional stress on social services and infrastructure in a region already deeply vulnerable to climate change.
“Climate change forces upon us all a serious discussion on green building and the promotion of sustainability,” Egypt’s Minister of Housing and Urban Development Mostafa Madbouly told the Arab world’s first Forum for Sustainable Communities and Green Building last month in Cairo. “This is no longer a luxury.”
The buildings sector is responsible for more than 40 per cent of global energy use and one third of global greenhouse gas emissions, the UN estimates. A bigger challenge to sustainable cities rests in inefficient, high-intensity energy use across the industrial and service sectors, both concentrated in urban areas.
Across the region, industry is the most energy-hungry sector, accounting for around 45 per cent of consumption. In absolute terms, eight of the world’s 10 most energy-intensive economies are Arab countries, according to research for the 2012 Arab Human Development Report.
“Energy efficiency is the solution to solving energy crises,” said Kurt Wiesegart, team leader of an EU-financed energy-efficiency project for the construction sector in the Mediterranean.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects hotter, drier and less predictable climate patterns across the region, which could reduce water run-off by 20 to 30 per cent in most countries in the Middle East and North Africa by 2050.
Water and food shortages, particularly in urban centres, are expected to be among the most defining challenges.
The Arab world already suffers disproportionately from extreme heat. A recent World Bank study, Turn Down the Heat, found that if the global temperature rises by 4 deg C, the average number of hot days is forecast to exceed 115 per year in the region’s cities. But experts say stronger governance and planning could help reduce this vulnerability. “We need to change our approach to urbanisation. Instead of talking about problems, we must see urbanisation as an instrument,” UN-Habitat executive director Joan Clos told the forum.
One response is to improve green infrastructure. Several cities across the Arab region, like Beirut (Lebanon), Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), and Dubai and Abu Dhabi (UAE), have started to adopt green building codes.