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A leading expert in sustainable engineering has said that even though Qatar has the largest per capita carbon footprint in the world, it has the resources, leadership and vision to become a world leader in sustainable technology.
Keith Clarke, former chief executive of Atkins, the largest engineering consultancy in the UK, told Gulf Times that Qatar’s carbon footprint is not surprising given that energy is effectively free, and is located in a region with a challenging climate. He said the government and industrial sector are looking carefully at what the economy will be “beyond carbon”, and are developing sustainable technologies and the accompanying “ethos and values” that can be exported to other countries facing similar challenges.
Clarke sees a lot of positive developments in the country that will accelerate the “learning cycle” for innovation in engineering. The implementation of the Qatar Sustainability Assessment System (QSAS) codes for construction in Qatar, as well as similar systems in other countries in the region, are a good start. However, nobody knows where the most significant inefficiencies are regarding carbon output, as power and water are effectively free. In most countries, energy conservation is an economic issue as energy is a costly resource. In the Gulf, water and electricity wastage is commonplace, considering that this is a society that traditionally promoted conserving resources.
For older generations, the idea of leaving a tap running or an AC on in winter was unthinkable, and yet to younger generations it is not given a second thought. Water, wastewater, landfill and recycling are only now becoming social responsibility issues.
Clarke said Qatar has reached the point of development where the economy is starting to diversify, and issues like climate change are becoming a more prevalent concern. This stage in societal evolution is witnessing the introduction of sustainable measures, whether it be QSAS, or the Qatar National Food Security Programme. Implementing measures now will initiate a cycle of development and learning for engineers, with technological improvements bringing new possibilities year after year.
Clarke warned, however, that if Qatar is serious about becoming a leader in sustainable development it will need to address its carbon footprint. Such a change will require a change in culture, which is a challenge in a country where energy resources are free for the local population, and relatively cheap for expatriates. Clarke said that such a change in mindset should not be done through raising energy prices, as this is a politically unsustainable solution.
Instead he suggested that meters should be installed in homes that indicate energy and water consumption, so people are aware of their consumption and can compare their usage to acceptable standards. Something as simple as a smiley or sad face, or a red line on the meter can be a powerful learning tool for children, and a guide for adults to understand and possibly amend their behaviour.
For parents it can be an important way for them to teach their children the value of energy and conservation. The fact that this could even become a game might enhance its appeal to users, as they could compare their performance to other users or set challenges for themselves. Such a measure, Clarke believes, could change behaviour in a year.
Such social pressures can be effective, as Clarke gave the example of his house in the UK, where he installed solar panels. At first neighbors thought the idea was absurd, but when they realised how much power he was generating, and how much money he was saving in the long term, they were embarrassed that they themselves had not done it.
The power of leading by example should not be underestimated, and the power of pride and shame are just as effective with nations they are with individuals. Clarke believes that with a little pressure and education, people would start to buy LED light fixtures and building control systems, which would create a market for different energy-saving measures.
“They’ve got the money and soon you’ll have an industry of retrofitting, an industry of playing with water usage, an industry of installing solar panels,” said Clarke. “At some point the institutional culture will not only be accommodating people like us, but will be encouraging people like us.”
Clarke said that it is likely that an industry revolving around retrofitting inefficient buildings of all sizes will develop in the next five to ten years. Qatar is trying to attract major international companies that are increasingly sensitive about environmental issues, not because of economics but because of their centrality to corporate social responsibility.
In the UK, companies like Unilever will no longer rent an inefficient building because it is considered to be antisocial. This is a growing trend, said Clarke, as Unilever also has a programme of making all of their products sustainable, Marks and Spencer’s has a decarbonisation initiative, and Pepsi Co are trying to reduce water use by 50%, among other examples.
“The idea that you’re going to attract global businesses to any developing city and offer them an unsustainable building or infrastructure - you want to be world-class, and you’re not even going to be in the competition.”
Clarke said that the hotel industry is an indicator of this trend, as more people are now citing environmental practices as a factor in their choice of hotel. Hotels are implementing new environmental policies as technology develops and pressure is applied, and while there is an economic benefit, the social responsibility aspect is becoming more marketable and in fact a necessity for staying in business. These standards for being “credible environmentally” are improving, and are a reflection of the learning cycle.
As more countries commit to decarbonisation, different engineering questions will need to be answered. Power grids need to be upgraded to harness the potential of multiple independent energy generation systems such as home solar panels, so that energy can be sold back to the grid.
Dubai is currently implementing a buyback programme for solar generated power in individual buildings and homes, but Bahrain is not yet able to fully use the wind generators that Atkins recently installed at the top of a building. They are in fact turned off most of the time because the power cannot be put back into the system.
Clarke is in Doha to give a lecture hosted by the Qatar Green Building Council on behalf of the Institution of Civil Engineers. The lecture is entitled: “The delivery of a low carbon society: beyond rhetoric”, and is part of the Brunel Lecture Series.
The lecture is designed to spread the message that climate change is real, and that de-carbonising the economy is an imperative for engineers and innovators. For engineers this is a fundamentally different way of running the economy, as the engineering community has to produce things that work, while innovating in a way that has not been done before.
“They cannot just use best practices, they have to use their own insight.” Using energy efficiency as a proxy tackling carbon, he said that “it is time for engineers to come to the front and start to engage in this instead of simply saying it’s too difficult and asking what the standard is.”
The climate change agreement reached in Copenhagen between 126 countries stated that global warming should be capped at 2°, which still requires a fundamentally different way of looking at the economy and its relationship to carbon.
A chartered architect with more than 30 years’ experience in construction and engineering, Clarke is an advisory board member of the Built Environment Innovation Centre at Imperial College, London, a non-executive director of the British Standards Institute, patron of the Environmental Industries Commission and has Honorary Fellowships from the Institution of Structural Engineers and Cardiff University.