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Sat 8 Nov 2008 04:00 AM

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Saving the planet through regulations

Developers are certainly willing to talk of going green, but will the financial crisis see them less able?

The WWF's Living Planet Report 2008 saw the UAE retain its top spot in the ecological footprint per capita table. Developers are certainly willing to talk of going green, but will the financial crisis see them less able?

Last week the WWF's biennial Living Planet report was released. The report has sent the issue of sustainable construction back up the industry's agenda.

It confirmed that the UAE, having fought off stiff but spirited competition from the US and Kuwait, had retained its position as the nation with the highest ecological footprint per capita on Earth - an angle that made depressing reading on the surface for UAE conservationists.

If developers fail to meet the regulations what kinds of penalties are they going to face? - Tanzeed Alam, WWF in Dubai climate change and sustainability manager.

But it appeared that there was also positive news. The nation made admirable progress, cutting its ecological footprint from 11.9 to 9.5 global hectares per capita - among the highest cut of any of the nations in the table.

Before everybody got too excited, however, Emirates Wildlife Society - WWF managing director Razan Al Mubarak told Construction Week, "This change is not due to reduction of consumption. It's due to the more robust data that we have used for the report."

WWF international director-general James Leape drew parallels between the global financial crisis and the findings of the report.

"The possibility of financial recession pales in comparison to the looming ecological credit crunch," Leape said.

"Just as reckless spending is causing recession, so reckless consumption is depleting the world's natural capital to a point where we are endangering our future prosperity."

GCC nations are on the back foot from the beginning when it comes to sustainability.

The dry, arid climate means that much energy is dedicated to air-conditioning, from hotels and shopping centres, to the workplace and the home. Water desalination, an energy-intensive process, is also essential to the vitality of the region.Taking this into account, it is therefore very timely that green regulations are due to be announced to the construction industry at the Big 5 exhibition later this month. The regulations, which become effective on January 1, will clarify any misinterpretation over what developers can and cannot do in the eyes of the law.

The directive issued by UAE vice-president and prime minister and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum earlier this year that all new buildings must meet green standards left some in a state of confusion. What exactly were these "green standards" that must be met?

"There is a fair element of confusion at present," Al Gurg Leigh's Paints chief manager Sunil Gudur told CW. "Nobody really knows what amounts to being green. I think it means the UAE now needs to start taking steps towards becoming more environmentally friendly."

The possibility of financial recession pales in comparison to the looming ecological credit crunch. - James Leape, director-general, WWF International.

The government of Dubai will be among the first in the world to impose regulations as opposed to mere guidelines. The new laws will be introduced in four tiers, becoming more stringent at each stage.

The fourth tier is set to be introduced in 2015. With the introduction of tier four, Dubai is expected to become a world leader in sustainability.

WSP was the consultancy charged with advising the Dubai Municipality (DM) with regard to the regulations. "Rating systems are not mandatory, they are voluntary. They are market driven," said Green Building Regulatory project manager Susan Rogers. "Regulations on the other hand are mandatory. They set minimum requirements."

WSP has said that the first tier of regulations will not pose a huge hurdle for developers to clear. It said that many developers will find they are already building to the standards that will be implemented by the first tier.

But over time, by 2015, things should change. And with more stringent guidelines may come a little additional cost - not a subject that developers are fond of talking about in the present financial climate.

The world has grown used to the regional industry operating at full steam ahead, to images of the Palm developments, mammoth man-made islands floating off the coast of Dubai that gave new meaning to the idea of market buoyancy.But the construction sector is now operating from an uncharacteristically cautious standpoint.

While publicising the launch of the Royal Bay project in Waterfront, VIP Waterfront CEO Slava Garin said he was keen to discuss "strategies behind launching a development at this time, given that many developers in the region have now put a hold to every launch."

Speaking at Cityscape, former London mayor Ken Livingstone spoke of the need for effective public transport to assist with cutting back carbon emissions, whatever the cost.

"I know it's expensive, but it's a much better investment than trying to rely on the car and it's much more sustainable," he said.

As cracks in the region's financial armour have started to appear in the shape of falling oil prices and global economic uncertainty, according to some industry leaders, it should not be from the green initiative that cuts are made.

Tanzeed Alam, climate change and sustainability manager at WWF in Dubai, told CW, "In terms of the payback period for the energy-efficiency improvements that developers are able to make, the question is, how are developers incentivised?

"I think it has to be an official process - if developers fail to meet the regulations what kinds of penalties are they going to face? Developers are all at different levels in terms of the efficiency of their construction practices."

The regulations, if stringent enough over time, will ensure that cuts cannot be made from certain green initiatives. The fourth tier, when introduced in 2015, should account for technological advances that may take place in the intervening period.

Whether the regulations will be enough to improve the UAE's standing on the Living Planet Report by 2016, maybe even driving the nation away from the top spot in terms of per capita ecological footprint, remains to be seen.

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