Looking back for energy efficiency
The steps toward fiscal consolidation across the Gulf region in recent years have made energy efficiency a hot topic by putting an increasing price on waste. At the same, the growing popular concern with climate change has begun to translate into increasingly ambitious national targets for cutting carbon dioxide emissions.
It is likely that this debate, still at its relative early stages, will evolve further in the coming years and begin to modify behavior and expectations in important ways.
The residential sector must be a particularly important focus area when countries fashion their plans for a more sustainable future. It is the main consumer of power globally, even more so in the Gulf where the extreme climate creates strong demand for cooling. Households have routinely claimed more than half the power generated in the region.
Problematically, the Gulf housing stock was for the most part constructed at a time when neither energy prices nor efficiency were major concerns on most people’s minds. The Gulf region was — and still is — rich in energy, and distributing it at minimal cost to the population was a common way of sharing the wealth.
This began to matter much more as people moved into cities. Building designs, technology and urban planning were for the most part imported from parts of the world with different climatic realities. There was next to no incentive to conserve energy or consider sustainability in building or infrastructure design. Why invest in conservation when this delivers no measurable financial return?
It was not always thus. Before the advent of modern cooling technologies and the oil stores that could finance them, human ingenuity was the tool applied to tackle the challenges posed by the harsh climate in the Gulf region. Over the millennia, people developed various effective ways of managing the heat and building livable communities. In other words, they were energy-efficient! So-called passive design measures — building orientation, insulation, access to light and measures to benefit from natural ventilation opportunities — were naturally incorporated in residential development.
Today, visitors to pre-modern urban communities in the region can marvel at the thick walls, heat-reflective color choices, interior courtyards, attached buildings and burjeels that capture wind for the purpose of cooling. But it is just as evident that these vernacular design principles were happily jettisoned, some occasional cosmetic concessions notwithstanding, when the Gulf region “embraced modernity.”
Now, the global conversation has changed and even the Gulf countries have made efforts to combat climate change central to their economic policy. The region is courting global fame through its massive solar parks but often doing so as a consumer of products and solutions developed elsewhere.
Moreover, there is growing acceptance that this problem cannot be solved through more clean energy generation alone. Even the International Energy Agency recently warned of a “looming mismatch between the world’s strengthened climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals that are essential to realizing those ambitions.” By contrast, high energy consumption in the residential sector creates an opportunity for substantial savings if adequate energy efficiency measures are put in place. There is an opportunity for planners and developers in the Gulf to re-embrace some of the vernacular design principles of yesteryear, not just for cultural and aesthetic reasons, but because they make no less economic sense now than they did back then.
Looking back, synthesizing the old with the new could also create the basis for the Gulf countries to become proactive producers and innovators in this area, instead of merely importing solutions from elsewhere. While it is true that energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies have been championed outside of the Gulf and thus tend to be more cheaply imported than produced, an exceptional strategic opportunity now exists.
In fairness, vernacular building designs have attracted growing attention among architects and developers and the Gulf is now home to a growing number of smart buildings that synthesize modern technology with traditional techniques. However, these remain the exception rather than the norm even as green building codes and better energy efficiency standards are being introduced.
Among others, two important issues will require focused attention. Firstly, developing smart buildings one at a time is not efficient as synergies are lost. Incorporating these ideas in community and urban development is growing in urgency, as it should be at a time when the regional demographics are still driving massive investments in residential real estate. Today, the residential infrastructure is being put in place for generations to come.
Secondly, and especially after a period of weaker demand growth, cost considerations by private developers risk delaying or watering down meaningful change. Incorporating some of the desired changes in regulation and guidelines is growing in urgency, especially because this will likely be needed to incentivize cost-effective innovation.
• Jarmo Kotilaine is an economist and strategist focusing on the Gulf region. He writes on issues ranging from economic development to changes within the corporate sector.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view