Sustainability, UAE-style.

Why the rest of the world would do well to look at the sustainability challenges of living in the desert.

When I speak with sustainability professionals outside of the UAE, many chuckle at the idea of the UAE trying to be sustainable.

How can country dependent on oil exports be “sustainable”?

How can country with no natural water resources be “sustainable”?

How can a place in the desert be “sustainable”?

Those are the first three questions I usually get. I have your answers below!

What these questions usually show is how little people understand about the global economy, but more worryingly, how little even sustainability professionals understand about the coming global shifts due to climate change.

To understand what the real reason behind the scoffing is, its interesting to compare UAE to Norway, often considered one of the most sustainable countries on earth.

If you have a problem with the UAE’s dependence on oil, ask yourself: when was the last time you complained about Norway?

The “oil complaint” is always the number one question. It is almost always spoke with full snark, a sort of argumentative trump card if you will, as if to say, “you fool”.

Norway and UAE are interesting comparison countries for a number of reasons.

First, they both began exporting oil at around the same time (1960s and 70s).

Second, oil exports are a large percentage of the GDP for both countries (between 15 and 25%) and a similarly large percentage of total exports (between 25 and 40%). Ranges change based on global oil prices over a given year.

Third, they are both relatively small in terms of landmass and population as compared to the other major oil-producing countries, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman being the other small countries among the top 25 countries with the largest proven oil reserves.

Fourth, both countries control the vast majority of revenue from their oil resources, meaning that it is one of the main sources of government revenue for the annual budget. This means that in both countries the bulk of the money goes back into public services.

Fifth, they are both very generous in terms of foreign development aid, each contributing about $4 billion last year.

Sixth, they are both remarkably peaceful and stable places with very high rates of personal safety and low levels of violence.

And finally both countries have over $1 trillion in their sovereign wealth funds (Norway has one big one, while the UAE has broken up its sovereign wealth funds).

Yet one of the largest differences remains: a massive gulf (pun totally intended) between global perceptions of the two countries in terms of sustainability.

The facts above indicate that oil dependence is definitely NOT the reason people for the perceptual differences.

Oil and Wealth between UAE and Norway are largely same. Here are the differences.

The similarities in oil and wealth mean that these can’t be the issue for the perception gap.

The differences between the countries might help.

Around 25% of the UAE’s GDP comes from oil exports. Almost all of that is from the emirate of Abu Dhabi and almost all of the oil goes to Asia. Japan is the largest purchaser at 62% of the total).

The UAE is located at the edge of the largest contiguous sand desert in the world, Rub al-Khali (aka the “Empty Quarter”). It has remarkably little fresh water. Though it is naturally beautiful, it is greatly limited in terms of natural resources other than oil.

About 15% of Norway’s GDP comes from oil exports. Most of its exports go to Britain and continental Europe.

But Norway has a few things that the UAE does not: it is a part of the European Economic Area (though not the EU), the largest common market in the world;

Norway has abundant non-oil natural resources such as fresh water, forests, fisheries, even reindeer; AND,

Norway is almost FIVE times the size of the UAE with HALF of its population.

Even more striking were their relative positions when oil was discovered. The population of Norway in 1962 when the first of the largest discoveries were made in the North Sea Shelf by Philips Petroleum was 3.6 million people.

Today it is 5.2 million.

When the massive Abu Dhabi plots were found in 1958, the UAE was not its own country, it was still a colonial tie-in to the UK. The earliest UAE wide census results happen to be from 1962 (yay!) and the UAE’s population was…

500,000 people. Or roughly 15 percent of the population of Norway at the time.

Today’s population? 9.5 million. Roughly double Norway’s current population.

It’s relatively easy to sustain yourself on all your natural resources when they are abundant. It is a bit more difficult (understatement) when you have NO OTHER NATURAL RESOURCES.

The earliest GDP numbers for the UAE are from when it first became a united country in 1971. By 1971, the UAE had been exporting oil for about 10 years. Norway was just starting to export so the percentage contribution was very small.

UAE GDP was $1.77 billion, while Norway’s was $14.5 billion in 1971. Today, both countries’ GDPs are roughly $400 billion.

Maybe it’s about electricity generation from renewables?

When the smug international sustainability professional tells me, “Norway is so great because 98% of its electricity comes from renewable sources,” here’s my reply: almost all of that is from hydropower.

They have dammed up river upon river, fjord upon fjord (which they have lots of) to provide this energy. They UAE does not have these things.

Now comes my favorite reply to this from our smug, international sustainability professional.

“Doesn’t the UAE have as much sun as Norway has water?”

My reply: “Yes and hydroelectric power is cheaper, does not need storage, and provides power 24 hours a day. Solar does not.”

Why isn’t all of the UAE’s energy from solar? Because solar power doesn’t work that way.

To understand why the UAE does not generate more solar power, you have to understand how solar power works.

First, you need the sun. Duh. The UAE year-round gets between 12 and 15 hours of sunlight a day. Why so little? Because we are just at the edge of the tropics, relatively close to the equator. How do you keep the lights on at night?

By storage. Storage means batteries. Massive batteries. Between the cost of the solar cells themselves and the cost of the batteries, you have a very expensive proposition. Even worse from an environmental perspective is that the raw materials and production of both solar cells and most batteries are pretty terrible for the environment.

Is this about the UAE being a desert?

Yeah, that’s mostly it. People — at least not millions of people — are not meant to live in deserts. This is true.

But here’s the rub: climate change is likely to double the amount of desert on earth! It’s also, you may have heard, going to make most of the earth substantial warmer.

Put differently, if you think that the UAE is uninhabitable, your home town might fit the bill within your lifetime.

Does that mean people should only live in areas that are deemed “habitable”? That will become increasingly untenable given that global population is increasing while “livable” space is decreasing.

What can living in the UAE teach us about how much of humanity will have to live going forward?

One solution is the one that UAE has shown can work: try to live in places that have previously been deemed “uninhabitable”.

This has a number of implications. But the three most obvious requirements to make a very hot place livable:

Air-conditioning. Everywhere. Including in transport.

Filtered sea water for every water use, including drinking water.

Green and public spaces that are usable at night and in cooler (but not cold) months.

These three things make the UAE not just livable, but downright amazing to live in. But it also means greatly increased energy needs that will need to be supplied by more than just oil.

Notice: oil will still have to be a part of the energy mix. But its role will necessarily decline in favor of hydroelectric (which doesn’t work when you have no water — but that won’t stop us from trying!), solar, wind, and nuclear, each of which (other than hydro) the UAE is pursuing more aggressively than almost any other country on earth.

Most places, in terms of climate, will become more like the UAE and less like Norway.

So who would you rather build your model off of: the future or the past?

Professor. Lawyer. Researcher. Writer. I help people learn to run better, more sustainable businesses and be better humans. Opinions my own.

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