Global warming and climate change seem to have become quite a popular trend of talks lately, between scandals in governments, the many strikes all over the globe and the Greta Thunberg phenomenon. But despite all the talks not much has been achieved yet – let’s just hope that ‘we-are-killing-the-world-with-our-pollution’ theme will not simply fade away like any other fashion trend too old for tomorrow…
Even though many would be the actions that could be taken by any of us at a grassroots level – from avoiding single-use plastic items to taking more public transportations instead of our private cars, from closing the water tap while washing the teeth to planting a tree in the garden nearby – we perfectly know how humans love to preach what they do not do themselves. This is why, in my opinion, sometimes a top-to-bottom approach is necessary to solve the issue, and now more than ever we need a diligent political (but also social) class able to face with a stretched arm the ongoing reality that our world is slowly dying.
Do not get me wrong, what is being done by the people flooding the streets in protest could be, and indeed is, a great input to change the approach the governments all around have long ago adopted – a big carelessness. Nonetheless, we have already proven ourselves to be able to operate in a much larger scale than the four walls of our house and to reach goals much higher than the non-use of small plastic water bottles.
Thanks to the big improvements in technology, many are projects that have been developed, and are being developed right now, aimed at cutting pollution to a minimum and recycling as much as possible. One of these projects in particular left me quite surprised, not only for its futurist venue but also and especially because it came from one of the biggest producers and users of petroleum: The United Arab Emirates. It puzzled me how such a Country so deeply rooted in a not-so-eco-friendly source of energy was willing to invest so much in a project of estimated US$ 18-22 billion for renewable energy and sustainable development – maybe, however, it is for this exact reason (the strong dependence form petroleum) that the EAU have realised the importance of moving forward and adapt to a new incumbent situation…
The project is called ‘Masdar,’ a green city and hub for cleantech companies with an almost net-zero carbon emissions but totally alimented by renewable energy. Its construction started in 2008 and is still ongoing – with a deadline set for 2030 (delays were due to the financial global crisis cutting down part of the funds), but many are the facilities already operating with a small international community living permanently there.
In particular, Masdar city hosts the ‘Masdar Institute of Science and Technology’ – a graduate-level research university focused on alternative energy, environmental sustainability and clean technology – and the headquarter of the International Renewable Energy Agency IRENA. The former welcomes more than 800 students, 58% of the which coming from abroad and a 35% of women in the remaining 42% of UAE students; and is at the heart of numerous funded projects with private enterprises, governmental agencies and the academia itself. Both facilities are built according to specific engineering techniques, stipulated in accordance with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, making it possible to use 51% less of electricity and 54% less of potable water – another plus comes from the recycling materials used and the innovative ‘natural’ cooling system.
Transportation happens through 100% electric vehicles and even if the Personal Rapid Transport Project (PRT) is probably not to be completed due to the excessively high costs of technology the city still enjoys a more than efficient transport system between auto-pilot public cars, light rail and metro lines connecting the city with the capital Abu Dhabi. The entire city’s energy, on the other hand, is totally provided by a 22-hectare field of 87.777 solar panels right outside the city with additional panels on roofs.
Besides photovoltaic, also other sources of energy are being explored – such as ‘beam-down’ concentrated solar power or CSP, the first of its type in the world able to reflect the sunlight twice: first from the heliostats to the central tower and then from the tower down to a collection platform at the system’s base. In such a way, they had been able to focus sunlight at a very small area achieving great heat. The plant is currently only 100kW, concentrating energy up to 1100 degrees, but scientists say there is a big margin of improvement.
Also from the point of view of water management many improvements have been made: approximately the 80% of water used is being recycled while the rest is used for crops’ irrigation or other similar purposes. Even the beautiful arabesque architecture has a practical function: small streets with relatively high terracotta buildings close together create a more functional pattern for the spreading of fresh air coming from the 45-meter-high wind tower through which it is possible to maintain a temperature of 15-20° degrees Celsius instead of the surrounding hot desert weather.
Whit all these hopefully-not-so-boring technical details, my point is that we as humans have at our disposal so much potential and so much helpful technology – and Masdar city is the proof – that we could employ in order to save this world but instead we prefer to cover our eyes from the horrible path that we are undertaking… Masdar city could be criticised for different reasons – ‘it is just another formless ghettoes expressing the alienation of the high-ranking class from the real world’ or ‘it would have been better to improve what’s already there instead of building an entirely new highly expensive city’ – but what I really care about is the idea behind the city: not only the proof of human capabilities but also, and especially, the willingness to invest on something not strictly short term profitable knowing that it is necessary if we want to keep breathing on this world.