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How Mena is moving to sustainable construction

Partanna carbon negative concrete, rick fox, green concrete, low carbon concrete Ronnie Archer
Rick Fox of carbon-negative concrete company Partanna says developers and governments are watching the sustainable construction market 'in a very aggressive way right now'
  • Tech is quickly progressing
  • Emissions could fall 75% by 2030
  • Carbon-negative concrete in Saudi

The year is 2065 and humans are living in space, in villas of celestial materials mined from asteroids and equipped with infinity pools. 

Far-fetched? Perhaps, but this model was one of dozens featured last month in an exhibition on the past, present and future of sustainable design in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena).

The exhibition spotlighted how existing and planned projects in the region heed to their surroundings. Examples included Expo 2020 buildings in Dubai, Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, a ‘probiotic’ tower in Cairo, and the metro in Qatar’s capital of Doha.

Andy Shaw, chair of the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Gulf chapter, which organised the event with Dubai Design District, says discussions about eco-friendly construction were high on the agenda.

Sustainable construction remains expensive, Shaw says, but given the pace of technological progress, he believes that what are now cutting-edge materials and techniques could become adopted more widely in the region within a decade. 

Examples of efforts in the region include research on low carbon concrete, exploring the use of 3D printing and green steel, and various projects using prefabricated construction techniques.

“There needs to be a bit of a leap in technology to make things truly sustainable, but there is a clear trajectory and a strong will to get there,” Shaw says.

Sustainable construction Mena Dubai ExpoRIBA
Inside the Sustainability Pavilion at Expo Dubai, which aims to change the way people understand their world
Super-high emissions

The global built environment – our cities and their infrastructure – produces nearly 40 percent of CO2 emissions, according to a November report by PWC’s Strategy& and independent consultancy Dar.

Countries in Mena plan to pour some $2 trillion into new development over the next 12 years, including Neom in Saudi Arabia and DP World and Emaar Properties’ Mina Rashid port redevelopment in Dubai. 

The Strategy& report estimates that adopting sustainable approaches to such construction has the potential to decrease its life-cycle emissions by 50-60 percent. 

This would secure more than half the emission cuts these countries need to meet their targets to become net zero by 2050 or 2060. 

Photovoltaics, artificial intelligence and other technologies necessary for this revolution exist and are deployable at scale in the short term, according to Strategy&. 

Others, like emission-reduction technologies for steel and concrete, will take more time. 

District at Expo Dubai sustainable construction MenaRIBA
Districts at Expo Dubai were awarded gold in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system
Very ambitious pledges

Mena is under special pressure to decarbonise its construction industry after hosting two back-to-back Cop conferences, in Egypt last year and Cop28 in Dubai, says Amr Nader, the chief executive of Dubai cement advisory company A³&Co. 

This spotlight has prompted governments in the region to make very ambitious pledges, starting with a hard look at steel, concrete and cement, which are major contributors to emissions and something of a low-hanging fruit, according to Nader.

A³&Co has recently signed an agreement with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to help local company Arabian Cement Company transition to net zero in Egypt.

Nader believes that the cement industry can reduce emissions by 50-75 percent by 2030, sufficient to maintain the 1.5°C trajectory set out by the UN, and by 2060 it “could reach net zero targets”.

He says about half of the total cut in emissions in the cement industry can be achieved with already scaled-up technologies, and another 25 percent by adapting other existing products. 

“The other part requires easier carbon capture utilisation or direct capture, which are both very expensive solutions – and have a lot of other problems,” he says. 

Reaching net zero for cement will also require regional governments to promote stronger legal frameworks that require decarbonisation; industry standards that incorporate the most innovative materials; and far greater investment.   

Carbon-negative concrete 

Authorities in Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular are already moving at “warp-speed” in this direction, according to Rick Fox, chief executive of Caribbean start-up Partanna. 

Partanna specialises in carbon-negative concrete products and recently signed a deal with Red Sea Global for its giga-projects in the kingdom.

“In other parts of the globe we found ourselves fighting an uphill battle to get people to understand the importance of this today, not tomorrow,” the ex-Los Angeles Lakers pro said during a visit to Dubai.

“We slowly learned here that we had better pick up our pace and learn how to sprint, because they are on a 100-yard dash to get it right.” 

The Gulf’s sprawling construction industry and local expertise also makes for an audience capable of discriminating fact from fiction amid the noise of “greenwashing”, Fox tells AGBI.

“The sophisticated developers, builders and governments are watching this sustainability market of building materials bubble to the surface in a very aggressive way right now,” he says. 

“And so weeding them out … we’ve seen that done in different industries over the course of history where the cream always rises to the top.”

While it might be a while before we dip our toes into Martian pools, the future of sustainable construction is already here, amid abundant promise and challenges, and just a little bit of hype.

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