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Can a city be truly sustainable?  In a 2012 paper, ecologist Robbie Burger argues that even Portland, Oregon, widely considered to be the “greenest” city in the United States, falls far short of true sustainability.  Despite the city’s farmers markets, bike trails, and public transportation, Portland’s per capita fossil fuel consumption was not much different than that of the average U.S. citizen.  Portland, like all cities, is intrinsically embedded within the larger, unsustainable, global economy.

Cities are like organisms: materials and energy come in and get processed, and waste products result.  In my Urban Ecosystem Ecology class, we’ve been digging in to studies of urban metabolism.  There are fundamental similarities across these cities, such as major CO2 fluxes generated from transportation and electricity production.

We came across an interesting, and very different, example in Masdar City, a planned sustainable city/research campus on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi.  While the United Arab Emirites is a leading oil producer, Masdar is powered by a massive 100 MW solar array, and built with passive technology to minimize the energy demand for cooling.  It’s also a car-free city, where futuristic driverless cars transport people between underground stations.  Labs in Masdar conduct research on renewable energy.  Masdar City has won accolades from various environmental groups, and is supported in part by the U.S. Department of Energy.

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Masdar City under construction in 2012. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Is Masdar City truly a sustainable city?  Yes, the city’s carbon footprint is remarkably small (although not zero, as initially planned).  Sustainably harvested palmwood is used in construction, and greywater is planned to be used for crop irrigation.  On the other hand, currently the “city” only has around 4,000 residents (plans are for the population to grow to 50,000 in coming years).  There are no gas-burning cars in the city proper, but many workers commute from nearby Abu Dhabi.

What raised the biggest red flag for me, from the video we watched, was seeing the CEO of Masdar, Dr. Sultan Ahmed al Jaber, explain why Abu Dhabi is trying to become a leader in sustainable energy production, despite its oil riches.  He explains that the emirate loses money with every barrel of oil that it uses domestically rather than exporting.

If the ultimate goal of this “sustainable city” is for more Middle Eastern oil to be burned in the United States, that doesn’t bode well.  That’s like a city shutting down its local power plant, and instead importing electricity from a more distant plant, and claiming to have drastically cut its CO2 emissions.  It might look good on paper, but it accomplishes nothing.  Robbie Burger’s argument was that sustainability must be considered in a holistic sense–there is no validity in walling off a city (either figuratively, or, in the case of Masdar City, literally) and proclaiming it to be sustainable.  Climate change is a global problem, and externalizing pollution to achieve local-scale sustainability is little more than a marketing ploy.  On the other hand, if Masdar City’s model of government-owned, profit-driven sustainability research drives innovations that gain traction and become widely accepted, perhaps there are real benefits.