DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — This Persian Gulf desert nation, one of the world's most environmentally unfriendly with its ubiquitous air conditioning, swimming pools and sport utility vehicles, may be looking to redeem itself. It has begun building what it calls the world's first zero-carbon city.
Environmentalists say the new city -- which will recycle waste and water and be powered mainly by solar energy -- is a nice idea, but the Emirates shouldn't stop there.
"Every little bit helps," said Jonathan Loh, a British biologist who co-authored a 2006 World Wildlife Fund report that measured consumption by nations around the world. "It would be best if the UAE reduced energy consumption throughout the country, not just in one location."
A $1.6-billion World Wildlife Fund project in development in Portugal would build 5,000 zero-carbon, zero-waste homes, hotels and shops. It includes Europe's largest-ever nature restoration plan meant to return 12,000 acres currently occupied by degraded logging plantations and quarries to native Mediterranean woodland.
The United Arab Emirates has the world's largest per-capita ecological footprint, according to the fund's report. That means the average resident uses more resources than people of any other nation.
A glance at Dubai makes it clear why. Nearly every indoor space -- including the sprawling malls and giant villas -- is air conditioned, which is seen as a necessity in a country where the winters are hot and the summers blazing. Extravagances like swimming pools with chilled water, an indoor ski slope that produces snow when it's 120 degrees outside and an all-ice restaurant push up the electricity bill. The usual mode of transport is SUV or Hummer -- there is no public transportation.
According to the fund, the Emirates' ecological footprint measured 11.9 global hectares, or 29.4 acres, per person. A global hectare is a unit measuring the amount of productive land and water a person requires to produce the resources consumed and absorb the waste generated in a year. In contrast, the U.S.' per-capita footprint is 23.7 acres,and the global average is 5.4 acres.
But in Masdar City, where ground was broken early this year, cars will be banned, with a light rail serving residents inside the 1,482-acre city as well as taking them to nearby Abu Dhabi. Organic food will be grown, garbage will be recycled and wastewater will be reused in Masdar. The name is Arabic for "source."
Most of the city's energy is to be generated by solar power, and water will be provided through a solar-run desalination plant.
Masdar City, which is being developed by a state-owned company in Abu Dhabi, is expected to be completed by 2015 at a cost of $22 billion. It is intended to be home to about 50,000 people and host 1,500 companies, developers said.
Khaled Awad, development director for Masdar, insisted that the city was an honest attempt "to curb the trend of being environmentally irresponsible." He said the companies in it would make it a "Silicon Valley for the renewable energy sector," researching clean energy technology.
Under a deal with the Emirates government, the World Wildlife Fund is monitoring to ensure the city keeps its promises. "It's a rigorous process . . . that at the end will prove if Masdar is sustainable or just claims to be such," said Eduardo Goncalves, a London spokesman for the fund's One Planet Living program.
Habib Shuwaikhat, a professor of urban planning and sustainable development at Saudi Arabia's King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, said the eco-city "looks like a good initiative" that should not remain "isolated" from the rest of the country.
"You hear a lot about sustainable development, but to be honest, I don't see it on the ground," Shuwaikhat said. Serious efforts to safeguard the environment amid unprecedented construction in the gulf region have yet to "get into the minds of decision makers," he said.
Last year, the Emirates' government became the first to sign an agreement with the World Wildlife Fund to study the country's ecological footprint and reduce it to a sustainable level, Goncalves said.
People in the Emirates are leading lives that are "absolutely unsustainable," he said. "There is no better place to set an example and show that an ecologically friendly lifestyle is not only better but also commercially successful."