– Failure – E24

– Failure – E24

Abu Dhabi (E24): One hour from Dubai lies Masdar City – which was supposed to be the world’s first city to be free of greenhouse gas emissions.


A stone’s throw from Abu Dhabi Airport lies what was supposed to be a “climate-friendly” city.

Polluted air hangs like a thick fog over the airport.

Abandoned land, plastic straws left on the ground, and a huge garage for gasoline-powered cars are testimony to the fact that Masdar City did not go as planned.

This zero-emission city is a failure.

Italian researcher Matteo Chiesa works partly at Khalifa University in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and at the Arctic University of Norwegian UiT in Norway.

Italian researcher Matteo Chiesa walks along solar panels outside the heart of the city.

He is a professor of renewable energy, and has worked with the leading Emirati city since its establishment seventeen years ago.

The idea for “Climate City” goes back to Sultan Al Jaber himself, the controversial leader of this year’s climate summit, who also chairs the UAE National Oil Company. This week, all countries participating in the summit agreed to transition away from fossil fuels.

The goal of Masdar City was to create the world’s first city completely free of greenhouse gas emissions. It was supposed to be powered by renewable energy, with a system that produces no waste.

However, the 2008 real estate crisis and technology failure halted large parts of development. Today, only about ten percent of the city is built, and not a single solar power plant covers the needs of residents.

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That’s why the city is connected to the state’s electricity grid, where 95 percent of all energy comes from oil and gas.

The project has become a symbol of the complex ambitions of the UAE, an extremely rich oil-rich country They are trying to establish themselves itself as a climate leader in the transition away from fossil fuels.


A self-driving car transports researchers and tourists from the parking garage, into the desert sun, to a new garage that serves as a research station.

Here, a scale model showing what the city should actually look like.

This is what the city should have actually looked like, with about 10% of the planned city built so far.

– The entire system here was designed without knowing how technology will evolve. “Then you limit yourself to a time frame,” says Ragnhild Patseba-Skogen.

She is a social planner and has worked in urban development, including in the Oslo municipality. She came to Dubai with a research team from the Arctic University of Norway’s UiT University to exchange experiences.

The developers initially envisioned a city of 50,000 permanent residents and 40,000 commuters near the city of Abu Dhabi. Lush gardens, residential buildings with picturesque backyards, and research centers are planned. This is by 2016.

The financial crisis fifteen years ago put an end to dreams. This has caused major disruptions to housing development in the UAE, as in many other countries.

Today, most of the students associated with the university in the city live here. And to their great pleasure: the flight attendants. A national airline has leased an apartment complex in the city.

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Among other things, the financial crisis put an end to Masdar City's high ambitions.  Today, 11 thousand people live in the experimental city.

Now the goal of creating an entire city has been changed to 2030. Emission reduction targets have faded to zero.

Maryam Ali, a postdoctoral researcher at Khalifa University, believes that the experimental city has contributed to a lot of important research. While the buildings and technology have come off the drawing board, students like her have researched how solar energy can be best used in the desert landscape.

-A lot to learn

Proof of this is what was once the largest solar power plant in the Middle East.

The 10-megawatt plant is located on the outskirts of Masdar City.

The solar power plant in Masdar City has been producing electricity for more than fifteen years.  Development in the desert has fewer natural consequences.  Meanwhile, solar energy does not like high temperatures.  Researchers are testing different techniques.

But it does not provide enough electricity to the residents of Masdar City, even though they number just under 11,000 people.

– The city failed, but we also tested renewable energy and developed a research program. Ali points out that many students have now become professors and have obtained important positions.

She herself has realized that she wants to work in renewable energy, researching in particular solar energy, which she hopes will help replace oil and gas in the future.

Maryam Ali, a postdoctoral fellow at Khalifa University, is working to become a professor of renewable energy.  It will contribute to replacing fossil fuels with solar energy in the UAE.

Ali says: There is a lot to learn from this city.

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In total, the UAE replaced five percent of its emissions from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources through the development of nuclear and solar energy. It’s an important step in the right direction, say researchers like Ali and Chiesa.

– A hot day in northern Norway

Within Masdar City itself, the temperature is cold.

The thing that the city’s architects achieved was to create shadows from the strong sun.

The buildings are designed to let the wind in while blocking the sun outside. The interaction between the clay-coloured buildings and trees ensures this.

– It gives a temperature difference that feels like five degrees less, says Matteo Chiesa.

All buildings in Masdar City have solar panels on the roof, and large trees provide shade from the sun.

Social geologist Berit Christopherson, who works closely with Chiesa at UiT, tries to explain this sentiment:

-It feels like a warm day in northern Norway here. “It’s not like a sunny day in the desert,” she says.

In contrast to the city centers of the megacities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where pedestrians have to venture out and navigate under the blazing sun across massive highways and where massive skyscrapers provide surprisingly little shade, Masdar’s urban architecture can provide a clue as to how to create… Cities of the future.

This becomes important, according to Chiesa, in a world that is getting hotter due to climate change.

I try new things

There are big plans ahead for the city of the future. A train will be built diagonally through the residential area. More driverless cars will come. Research buildings must be constructed.

As Chiesa accompanies a group of researchers through the streets, where young women and men in loose clothing wander around with laptops under their arms, he downplays criticism of the project:

– The city is a failure in terms of not achieving its ambitions. At the same time, it showed that the UAE is not afraid to try new things, Chiesa says.

Matteo Chiesa, here with master's student Abdullah Al-Shamili and postdoctoral fellow at Khalifa University, who is researching renewable energy.

When climate negotiations ended on Wednesday of this week, all UN countries agreed on two things of particular importance:

1) The world must transition away from fossil fuels.

2) Renewable energy development must triple by 2030.

Inside the Masdar City Visitor Centre, tourists and others can get a closer look at the ideas behind the Emirates City project.

Going forward, Chiesa and the Renewal researchers hope the project can inspire more countries to invest in similar initiatives.

-The worst thing is to do nothing.

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Hanisi Anenih

Hanisi Anenih

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