ABU DHABI, U.A.E. — Inhabitants of this oil-rich desert nation have developed a ravenous appetite for luxury and novelty.
They live in oversized villas on man-made islands shaped like palm fronds. They love gas-guzzling SUVs. They play golf on lush courses that can require up to 4 million gallons of water a day to stay green. And when summer temperatures soar over 100 degrees, they bundle up in their winter parkas and ski the snowy slopes of an indoor mountain.
As a result, the U.A.E. owns the distinction of producing the biggest carbon footprint, per-capita, of any country in the world, according to a recent survey by the World Wildlife Fund.
But there are signs of reform, or at least a vague recognition that someday either the oil will run out or the world will find an alternative source of energy.
Abu Dhabi’s response to this reality has been to put up $15 billion in seed money to develop the world’s first carbon neutral, zero-waste city.
First conceived in 2006, the ambitious plan for Masdar City is rapidly taking shape amid a forest of construction cranes on a sun-scorched desert plain about a 20 minute drive from the center of Abu Dhabi.
Masdar City will generate most of its energy from the sun, the wind, recycled waste and whatever else creative technology can come up with. Cars will be banned from its streets, which will be narrow and cooled by the shadows in the traditional manner of a desert habitat. To get around the two square miles of the city, people will rely on an underground system of personal rapid transit pods.
When the project is completed, 40,000 to 50,000 people are expected to live here. They will work for the high-tech energy companies that will be lured to the U.A.E. by the promise of zero taxes and an opportunity to develop their products in a living laboratory. A number of big names have expressed interest.
At the moment, the centerpiece of the project is the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, the Middle East’s first graduate research program dedicated to the development of alternative energy, environmental technologies and sustainability.
Marwan Khraisheh, dean of engineering, described the school as a “focused, research-driven institute” that aims to attract the best and brightest from around the world.
A partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has helped the Masdar Institute recruit an impressive faculty, and this fall the school drew from a pool of more than 1,200 applicants to select its inaugural class of 88 students. All of the students are on full scholarship.
The futuristic campus, designed by London’s Foster + Partners, is on schedule to open this fall. In the meantime, classes are being held at Abu Dhabi’s Petroleum Institute.
The U.A.E.’s commitment to renewable energy was acknowledged in June when the International Renewable Energy Agency, established earlier this year, selected Masdar City over Bonn and Vienna for its new headquarters.
But without a real effort on the part of the U.A.E. to change its consumption habits, is the Masdar project anything more than another showy gesture? Can the U.A.E. have Masdar City and the Tiger Woods Dubai, a gaudy new golf resort that will feature lushly landscaped palaces, mansions and luxury villas.
Khraisheh grimaced only slightly. “Maybe Masdar can come up with better technologies for treating water for golf courses,” he suggested.
He noted that the U.A.E. still relies heavily on the expertise of a large expat workforce, and that these expats “like to play golf.”
He also pointed out that Masdar is more of a developmental project than an attempt to right the environmental wrongs of the U.A.E.’s lifestyle.
“Abu Dhabi is a key player in the global energy market. To maintain this role, Abu Dhabi will have to develop renewable sources of energy and it will have to invest in the renewable energy sector,” he said. “I commend the vision of the leadership here. No other country has dared to try anything like this.”
The Masdar project has also won a nod of approval from the World Wildlife Fund, the same organization that singled out the U.A.E. for its supersize carbon footprint.
"It's the only major oil-producing country that has decided to use some of its petrodollars while it still has them to invest in trying to create a future which could be sustainable," WWF International's One Living Planet director Jean-Paul Jeanrenaud told reporters during a visit here last year.
The U.A.E.’s extravagant lifestyle was an eye-opener for some of the Masdar Institute’s new students, but for Ali Ashgar Poonawala, a graduate of England’s Nottingham University, it only reinforced his sense of purpose.
“Once we have our campus and we show people we can live with less energy, I think they will see the light,” said the 22-year-old from Karachi who is specializing in integrated photovoltaic solar energy at the Masdar Institute.
“And if we can show the U.A.E., then we can show the world that sustainable living is possible, he said.”
Editor's note: This story was updated to correct typos.