Green Living in the Desert: Masdar City and its Place in the World

In the Desert Kingdom of Abu Dhabi a world-famous eco-city is springing up. But does Madīnat Maṣdar point the way forward or is it just a gimmick?

This post first appeared as an article in the SOAS Spirit in December 2014 (print only).

What makes a city sustainable? Something to do with the energy efficiency of its buildings and industry, perhaps? Or maybe an effective public transport system running on clean fuels? What about the materials used to build the city – are they sourced locally or shipped from across the globe following a questionable mining process? Same goes for the food, of course – where does it come from? What does it cost in energy, water and land? And we haven’t even begun to think about the people – surely a truly sustainable city would offer a wide range of fulfilling jobs and lifestyles to a healthy populace free to participate meaningfully in civic life?

Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe we should step back and ask whether the city as a concept is sustainable. Cities certainly have their apologists. Economist Edward Glaeser, for example, whose Triumph of the City reads like a love song to urban life, argues that city living is inherently sustainable. Densely-packed buildings are usually more energy efficient to run than sprawling rural ones, and the proximity of housing to offices, shops and entertainment tends to mean low reliance on personal vehicles. Moreover, cities provide favourable conditions for initiatives like public transport and low energy community heating. But cities also offer ample scope for hedonistic, polluting lifestyles, and even the most frugal citizens are highly unlikely to be self-sufficient in terms of food production.

The whole question becomes ever more relevant as the world’s urban population skyrockets, most estimates agreeing that it has now outstripped the global rural population. What’s more, this urban population is projected to nearly double by 2050. Small wonder, perhaps, that self-consciously “sustainable cities” are being planned and developed all over the globe, from the International Business District in Songdo, South Korea to Auroville, India’s spiritually-inspired township with a sideline in renewable energy. Perhaps the most famous eco-city of all is Madīnat Maṣdar (“Source City”) in the United Arab Emirates.

Masdar City, as it is usually referred to in English, was conceived in the mid 2000’s on a wave of ambition. The UAE’s Sheikh Khalifa, recognising the finite nature of the Emirates’ oil supply decided the economy should diversify by embracing renewable energy. The result was Masdar, or the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, whose mission is to invest in renewable energy and clean technology in Abu Dhabi and worldwide through a business model that encompasses higher education and research and development. At its epicentre would be a carbon neutral, waste-free city of 40,000 sitting amidst a new Silicon Valley for sustainable technology, luring businesses, scientists and students from all over the world. With architect Norman Foster in charge of the design, and the goodwill of global entities from Greenpeace to the US Government, Masdar as an idea shone like a beacon of hope for the future.

Masdar as a real city presents a more complicated picture. Take transport, for example. Initial plans were for a city free of private cars where citizens could move around through a series of shaded walkways or using driverless pods powered by renewable electricity. While the pods are in operation and play well with tourists, their scope has been scaled down and a public transport system including electric buses is proposed alongside an extension of Abu Dhabi’s existing rail networks. Meanwhile, much of the city’s workforce commutes from outside, rather denting Masdar City’s credibility as a sustainable transport hub.

Where energy is concerned, the city boasts impressive credentials – building designs optimise natural light and come with high levels of insulation, efficient lighting and a range of smart systems and appliances. Visitors compliment the pleasant daytime temperatures in the streets achieved, in part, by an entirely passive “wind tower” which sucks up hot air to make way for a cooling breeze and should reduce the need for air conditioning. Masdar City’s electricity is currently provided by a vast array of solar photovoltaic panels but again, this rings a little hollow when we consider the UAE’s carbon footprint as a whole, which ranks 5th or 6th globally in CO2 emissions per capita. More directly, there have been rumours of embarrassing design flaws such as solar panels located on shaded roofs and lights that were difficult to control, but it is to be hoped that these flaws have been rectified with lessons duly learned.

Technicalities aside, how well does Masdar City function as a living, breathing city? Here opinions are divided. Detractors gleefully point out the limited extent to which the original dream has (yet) been realised. A city of 40,000 it certainly isn’t – current projections suggest that it will host 10% of that population by the end of the year – and most current residents are students at the prestigious Masdar Institute for Science and Technology, the Gulf’s answer to MIT. Success in attracting international green technology companies has so far been restricted to Siemens, whose award-winning regional office is open for business and will house 800 employees.

Others argue that its very existence is a testament to a government putting its money where its mouth is, especially when compared to similar projects elsewhere such as Dongtan in China, whose construction is firmly on hold at the moment. By all accounts, visitors come away impressed by the hi-tech, but often lacking any genuine sense of place in what feels more like a project than a city.

Whether a gimmick or a blueprint for the future, Masdar City is clearly a work in progress and a learning experience and it is only fair to judge it as such. Ultimately, I can’t help wondering whether the Masdars and Dongtans are a bit of a distraction when cities like Dhaka, Lagos and Jakarta are still mushrooming and face mounting problems of energy supply, water abstraction and pollution. Whether or not we can build sustainable new cities, surely the most urgent question is how to make our existing cities sustainable and that, I fear, would take more than a newspaper article to answer…



Sustainable futures? Election time in the world’s biggest democracy

For the 16th time in its history the world’s largest democracy is going to the polls. Social cohesion, economic growth and the fight against corruption dominate the headlines but what about the implications for the environment? This article was also posted online by Asian Global Impact at

It has been called ‘jaw-droppingly enormous’ (Washington Post) and the ‘greatest show on earth’ (The Economist). As far as the exercise of the democratic process is concerned, this is no hyperbole. By sheer numbers, India’s 16th general election lords it over the democratic world – an electorate of over 800 million (compare the US’ 200 million in 2012) are choosing from an estimated 15,000 candidates at nearly a million polling stations over the course of five weeks. At the national level, two giant coalitions – the United Progressive Alliance (starring the incumbent Congress Party) and the National Democratic Alliance (dominated by the socially conservative Bharatiya Janata Party) slug it out, joined by a fresh new voice in politics, the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party, or Party of the Common Man.

Big, chunky issues – the economy, corruption, employment, secularism – are under debate, and for many, climate change and sustainable development are way down the list of concerns. While this is understandable, it is also true that India’s cities are polluted, its roads congested and its waterways filthy conduits of disease. Alongside its rise to global prominence the country has become the world’s third biggest carbon emitter but this is rarely mentioned. Here I take a look at the three biggest contestants – the BJP, Congress and Aam Aadmi Party – in an attempt to understand this neglected issue.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)

With origins in Hindu nationalism, the BJP rose to prominence in the 1980s and has so far produced one Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004). Chosen candidate Narendra Modi, a self-described Hindu nationalist and current Chief Minister of Gujarat, has only recently shaken off over years of boycotts by the US and UK following his alleged failure to curb anti-Muslim violence in his state in 2002. Now, with a superstar status and widely tipped to be India’s next PM, “NaMo” is equally famousfor the economic growth model he pioneered in Gujarat – a business-friendly small government which welcomes multi-nationals with a warm neo-liberal handshake and reduced taxes – dubbed “Modinomics”.

Some suggest that a Modinomic government would be bad news for the environment – a recent Hindustan Times article described the prospect as a “development disaster” with growth coming at the expense of air quality, water security and rural livelihoods. Others point to the BJP’s investment in renewable energy, especially in Gujarat, as evidence that Modi’s red-tape-slashing dynamism is just what India needs.

The party’s manifesto lists “Inclusive and Sustainable Development” within their Ek Bharat – Shrestha Bharat (“One India, Best India”) pledge. A more detailed reading reveals a focus on energy security by maximising the potential of coal and oil as well as cleaner fuel sources. It is stated that the “BJP considers energy efficiency and conservation crucial to energy security” and that climate change mitigation will be taken seriously, although according to environmental activist Rishi Aggarwal this means “absolutely nothing” if the track record of the BJP in its existing power bases is anything to go by.

Surprisingly little is made of Modi’s 2010 book, Convenient Action: Gujarat’s Response To Challenges Of Climate Change. Granted, it has not had the impact of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth but kudos nevertheless to Modi for writing on the subject. Predictably, the book seems to have been met with a mix of sycophancy and derision, and has been accused of simply showcasing pet projects – some of dubious environmental benefit such as the ecologically controversial Sardar Sarovar Dam – rather than presenting a coherent argument.

The verdict? A Modi-led government may create the right conditions for the renewables sector to flourish but this gung-ho approach could also result in energy-intensive, ecologically-detrimental and perhaps socially-inequitable development.

Indian National Congress

Congress has dominated Indian politics since Independence with seven Prime Ministers including the incumbent Manmohan Singh as well as three members of India’s premiere political dynasty – Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv. The current party chairperson is Rajiv’s widow, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi while the candidate for PM is his son Rahul.

Traditionally left of centre and pro-poor, many view the party as weakened by bureaucracy and corruption today. Where the environment is concerned they have some form, having created the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). Jairam Ramesh who led the latter from 2009-2011 was noted for his assertive style which included delaying some major construction projects, speaking out against fuel-guzzling cars and, controversially, suggesting at the Cancun climate talks that India might be open to committing to binding emissions cuts.

That said, an expert I spoke to who asked not to be named described Congress’ recent record on the environment as “abysmal”, pointing to the “emasculation” of the MoEF, now headed by Veerappa Moily who also just happens to be the Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas. Manmohan Singh has made it clear that he feels rich nations are responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions and should therefore shoulder the main burden of climate change mitigation. Sonia Gandhi, meanwhile, has stressed the need for women’s voices to be heard in the climate change debate, while her son Rahul is not noted for his public pronouncements on the subject.

Like the BJP, Congress’ manifesto prioritises economic growth and there is promise of regulatory reform including around the issue of environmental clearances for new development projects. The Environment section – more detailed than the BJP’s – pledges to continue implementing the National Action Plan on Climate Change and to introduce a system of “Green National Accounts” whereby the costs of environmental degradation will be reflected in India’s national accounts. While the latter is a laudable aspiration it is not entirely clear how this information will actually be used.

Meanwhile, despite criticism from the BJP that Congress is using environmental clearance regulations to control big business, the evidence on the ground – new airports and coal power stations approved under Congress’ watch – suggests that there is little to choose between the two parties in the way they let economic growth trump environmental protection.

Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)

The newest kid on India’s political block, the Aam Aadmi (“Common Man”) Party launched in late 2012 following activist Arvind Kejriwal’s decision to step into politics. Having quit his job as a civil servant in 2006, Kejriwal set up an NGO to promote transparency in government and has since made corruption claims against high profile establishment figures including Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law. By late 2013 his AAP took control of Delhi’s legislative assembly, only to resign after 49 days after its failure to pass a bill to appoint an independent body to monitor political corruption. Undeterred, Kejriwal is now running head-to-head against Narendra Modi in Varanasi, India’s holiest city.

As might be expected, the AAP manifesto has a strong focus on managing corruption, arguing that true swaraj (self-rule) will not be achieved until India is ruled by its people not by self-interested bureaucrats. There is also an emphasis on decentralisation of power and, as Kejriwal put it in an interview with AGI late last year, a “bottom to top approach” where village and town councils are given untied funds every year. Where the environment is concerned, it is interesting to note that Economy and Ecology are linked in a single section although a large part of the section is devoted (perhaps understandably) to the rural economy. The single “Environment and Natural Resources Policy” does not mention climate change explicitly but stresses the role of local communities in managing natural resources with the support of a reformed Ministry of Environment and Forests. It also calls for a phased shift towards renewable energy (locally-owned, of course) and a priority focus on local water resource management.

Kejriwal has a history with water – as Chief Minister of Delhi he successfully delivered on a promise of 700 litres per day of free water for Delhi householdswith punitive costs for those exceeding this limit. He later announced reductions in electricity tariffs across Delhi and additional bill waivers as a reward for those who had, under his encouragement, refused to pay their electricity bills in 2012-13 in protest over price hikes. This headline-grabbing approach to fuel poverty might spell a golden opportunity to raise awareness of sustainable resource management but Rishi Aggarwal is sceptical, warning that in the fight for votes the AAP can only promote populist policies which may not be in the best interests of sustainable development. Far more effective, he argues in his recent publication The Futility of Aam Aadmi Party versus the Promise of Active Citizenship, would be for individuals to engage with issues at the grassroots level rather than waiting for the elusive dream of political reform.

Sustainable futures?

Let’s not beat about the bush. Modi’s book notwithstanding, India has no Green Messiah among its mainstream politicians. Climate change and sustainable growth are not big ticket issues in this election and it is not hard to sympathise with the view that India has many more pressing concerns. Congress appears to have a (marginally) better track record than the others, but recent performance has hardly been inspiring and Rahul Gandhi has not indicated any great passion for the subject. BJP’s Narendra Modi, generally tipped as the next PM, has a can-do approach to development including renewable energy projects in Gujarat, but there is a risk that his enthusiasm for growth will run roughshod over environmental concerns. And the AAP? Who knows what Arvind Kejriwal’s drive for decentralisation and affordable fuel could mean for the bigger picture of India’s sustainable growth? Definitely a space worth watching. In the meantime, important as the next government could be, equally if not more important are the private and not-for-profit sectors and, above all, India’s billion plus population. If a meaningful approach to climate change and sustainable development is to be achieved, India needs active, engaged citizens more than ever.

Can you tell your K-GBCS from your PRS? Approaches to sustainable construction in Asia

This article was first published in Asian Global Impact Volume 2 Issue 01

America and the UK have paved the way for sustainable building rating systems with LEED and BREEAM, but the rest of the world is catching up fast. Environmental consultant Jonathan Galton investigates building standards from Asia and the Gulf.

Buildings are bad news. They guzzle energy (more than a third of global consumption each year), binge on water, destroy habitats and put a huge strain on natural resources. And that’s just what goes into them. Out the other end come torrents of dirty water, greenhouse gases, toxic waste and, in densely packed cities, waves of hot exhaust air that can raise surrounding temperatures by as much as 5°C.

You could argue, of course, that all this is the fault of the people who occupy the buildings rather than the buildings themselves and, rightly, “behaviour change” is now a well-established principle of environmental reform. That said, a great deal can be achieved by ensuring new buildings are designed with a view to limiting resource consumption (and thus fuel bills) and reducing their adverse environmental impact.

As it happens, recent decades have seen a proliferation of policies and standards to regulate just this. Germany and Scandinavia are generally fêted as years ahead of the rest us, although the UK and the US are starting to catch up and in one respect the UK leads the way, having devised the first holistic method of assessing and rating building sustainability. Scoring the design and construction of buildings against a spectrum of criteria encompassing (amongst others) energy and water use, waste produced and ecological impact, the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) was developed in the late 1980’s and is now ubiquitous in the UK construction sector. Its younger but broadly similar American cousin, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) has caught up fast, and now outranks BREEAM in global popularity.

Despite their international presence, however, BREEAM and LEED aren’t universally admired, and accusations that they don’t translate well into different climates and cultures are common. In response, many countries are developing their own standards and Asia has leapt wholeheartedly onto this bandwagon. Read on for examples from India, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates.


INDIA: Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment (GRIHA)

Griha means “abode” in Sanskrit, and the aptly-named GRIHA rating is the brainchild of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). Like its British equivalent, it is based on quantifying building impacts such as energy consumption, water use and waste generation and awarding efforts to reduce these below nationally accepted benchmarks with a rating of one to five stars. Unlike a BREEAM rating, which is issued on the basis of an assessment conducted straight after construction is complete, GRIHA certification is tied to a one-year post-occupancy energy audit.

Over 330 building developments of varying scale and function are being constructed across India based on GRIHA guidelines. 5-star ratings have been awarded to buildings such as IIT Kanpur’s Centre for Environmental Sciences and Engineering, which has been designed to optimise the use of sunlight and natural ventilation alongside highly energy efficient artificial lighting and cooling, and the corporate headquarters of wind turbine supplier Suzlon in Pune.

GRIHA is not confined to the pioneering elite, however: it has been adopted by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and it is now mandatory for all new government buildings to achieve a 3-star rating. Moreover, municipal councils are beginning to enshrine GRIHA ratings in local policy. Pimpri-Chinchiwad in Maharashtra, for example, is offering discounts in building permissions charges for GRIHA-rated buildings alongside a 10% reduction in property tax for the end user. Meanwhile, a simplified version (SVA GRIHA) has been developed for smaller building projects including domestic dwellings, and a rating system for existing buildings is currently in the pipeline.

As an India-specific rating system, GRIHA has been widely praised, but how it will continue to develop in the face of new pressures, and whether it will retain its edge over international standards like LEED remains to be seen.

ABU DHABI: Estidama and the Pearl Rating System

Estidama, meaning “sustainability” in Arabic, is an initiative developed and promoted by the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council (UPC). Described as “a vision and a desire to achieve a new sustainable way of life in the Arab world”, Estidama adds a fourth pillar of culture to the traditional three-pillar conception of sustainable development: environment, economy and society. Indeed, the luxury of the Emirates seeps into the language of Estidama, which includes a “Pearl” rating system (PRS) with a specific application for villas alongside versions for buildings and communities. While superficially similar to other standards, proponents of PRS are quick to point out its locally-specific features. A huge emphasis is placed on the “Precious Water” category, for example, reducing the need to desalinate water, and among the toolkits created to facilitate Pearl-rated development is a water consumption calculator designed specially for mosques.

Since 2010, all new buildings have been required to achieve a 1 Pearl rating, while all government funded buildings must achieve a minimum 2 Pearls. While this may seem unambitious compared to the GRIHA 3-star rating required for government buildings in India, direct comparisons are difficult and the UPC deserves some kudos for extending the requirement to all new buildings. A Pearl Operational Rating, to be conducted at least two years after construction, is currently under development.

In all, over 40 new developments have achieved a 1-5 Pearl rating and nearly 400 more are in progress. As with GRIHA, the future direction that PRS will take is not clear, but it is to be hoped that, in time, feedback from hundreds of operational assessments will be channelled into improving the rating system further and perhaps stepping up the UPC’s planning requirements. 

SOUTH KOREA: Green Building Certification System (K-GBCS)

Green building makes sense in South Korea, where energy, mostly imported, is pricey, and economic growth is correspondingly energy intensive (twice as much as the UK). The Korean Green Building Certification System (K-GBCS), now enforced by two government ministries, is already in its thirteenth year and been applied to over 1,000 buildings. Alongside the expected issues of energy use, water conservation and recycling (amongst others), assessment criteria unique to K-GBCS include “Access to rivers, mountains and/or forests around apartment complex” – a far cry from Abu Dhabi! – that can be seen as a reflection of the high priority Korea places on human health and connection to nature.

Unsurprisingly for an Asian tiger that has made conscious efforts to rebrand itself as a bastion of environmental innovation, South Korea has its fair share of eco-glamour, such as National Institute of Environmental Research which promotes itself as the first zero carbon office building in the world, and Eco Lab, the main building of SK Chemicals. This building has not only received Korea’s first LEED Platinum rating, but has also achieved the highest score to date under K-GBCS. The lobby features a “wall stream”, an indoor waterfall against a backdrop image of fir trees which reduces cooling load in the summer and assists with humidification in the winter.

In the face of understandable criticism that these examples are one-off publicity stunts with little hope of widespread replication comes some welcome news from a recent study of house values between 2010 and 2012. The study concludes that K-GBCS-certified houses have a higher value than non-certified houses, a marked contrast to the UK where evidence for sustainability credentials boosting house sales is patchy to non-existent, and a glow of hope that green building principles are permeating the mainstream market. The effects of a recent change of government, under which the benefits of “Green Growth” are being questioned, are currently unclear, but with market pressures from the energy sector and house-buyers, not to mention a national predisposition towards the high-tech as well as the natural world, a bright future for Korean green building can plausibly be envisaged.


These examples are by no means the only green rating systems found in Asia and the Middle East: Japan, China, Singapore and Qatar, amongst others, have developed locally-appropriate building standards that are challenging the hegemony of LEED or BREEAM. On the face of it this paints a healthily pluralistic picture of choice and competition, although there is an underlying question of how much “local-specificity“ is genuinely essential for delivering low impact buildings and how much is gratuitous. With the current trend firmly in the direction of localism, it will be interesting to see which, if any, of these standards will spread their wings globally. Qatar’s rating system, GSAS, for example, is also making waves in Kuwait, Jordan and Sudan, while Singapore’s Green Mark award has been used in Malaysia. That said, the recent launch of BREEAM International New Construction 2013, described on its website as “the world’s foremost environmental assessment method” should dispel any doubts that the UK will attempt to maintain its position as a stalwart of the global green building elite.

Green Growth – the magic bullet from South Korea?

This article was first published in Asian Global Impact

In 2008 South Korea adopted a “green growth” model that countries around the world are now trying to emulate with the help of organisations like the Global Green Growth Institute. But has Korea’s story been an unqualified success?

If I asked you to shut your eyes and think of South Korea, I expect a range of images would swim in front of you. Perhaps the yin-yang (or strictly taegeuk) on the national flag, or the bright lights of a tiger economy with global brands such as Samsung and Hyundai to its name. Or maybe you’d mentally reconstruct video fragments of a certain K-pop single that took the world by storm last year.

One image that probably wouldn’t spring to mind is that of a trailblazing leader in the fight against climate change. But that, arguably, is exactly how former president Lee Myung-bak wanted to position Korea when, in a speech commemorating the Republic’s 60th anniversary in 2008, he proclaimed “Low Carbon, Green Growth” as the country’s new vision. The following year saw the launch of the Green New Deal, a £23bn fiscal stimulus package to fund a million environmentally sustainable homes, 2,500 miles of bicycle expressways and a host of other low carbon infrastructure and research projects.  This package formed the business end of Korea’s Green Growth Strategy which included a target for reducing national greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2020 relative to a “business as usual” scenario and stemmed from the philosophy that economic growth and environmental sustainability can – indeed must – be pursued simultaneously.

It was precisely this philosophy that underpinned the foundation of the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI), established as a nonprofit foundation under Korean law in 2010 with the aim of exporting the green growth model to emerging economies worldwide. Based in Korea, but with satellite offices in London, Copenhagen and Abu Dhabi, GGGI’s activities fall under three key strands – Green Growth Planning & Implementation, Public-Private Partnership and Research. Countries with specific needs that GGGI can meet are prioritised and programmes are initiated following a high-level request from the country’s government.

One of the first countries to benefit from GGGI’s green growth planning support in 2010 was Indonesia, with a focus on the provinces of East and Central Kalimantan. Together these provinces enjoy a high rate of economic growth but to date this has relied heavily on exploiting the region’s natural resources. Extensive deforestation has not only damaged habitats but also released vast quantities of carbon dioxide, helping to secure Indonesia’s place in the top ranks of greenhouse gas emitters.

GGGI began work in East Kalimantan in 2010 following Governor Awang Faroek Ishak’s launch of a new green policy setting ambitious carbon reduction targets. Five sectors, including agriculture, forestry and fuel, were identified as having a huge potential green growth impact as they were responsible for more than three quarters of the region’s GDP and nearly 90% of its emissions. GGGI has supported the provincial government in selecting three programmes for detailed research. One of these is reduced Impact Logging (RIL), a suite of timber harvesting practices that aims to minimise the damage caused by tree felling to the forest as a whole and has actually been found to be more financially attractive in the long term than conventional logging. Another programme is to optimise the use of degraded land by planting cash crops such as oil palm. Often a byword for environmental folly due to its association with deforestation, palm oil when harvested from degraded land is a far more sustainable product as it allows forests to be left intact for provisioning and regulating services, as GGGI’s Anna van Paddenburg points out. She notes that there is still more to be done to ensure greener growth in this area, suggesting that the palm oil sector should focus on intensifying land use and managing the use of pesticides and fertilisers.

Since starting work in Indonesia, GGGI has expanded its operations into numerous other countries including Kazakhstan, Cambodia and Peru. Heartening as this is, I find myself wondering why these countries would actively pursue green growth when, in the short term, a business as usual approach is probably more attractive. Another key player in this space, the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), has some answers in a recently published paper dealing specifically with “climate compatible development”, a similar concept to green growth with a strong focus on resilience to the impacts of climate change. A range of possible drivers for climate compatible development is identified, including natural resource scarcity, the need for energy security and the lure of new economic opportunities such as job creation and the stimulus of climate finance.

The paper’s lead author, Karen Ellis, is particularly interested in how the opportunities and threats posed climate change and resource scarcity affect a country’s economic competitiveness. Working for the Overseas Development Institute (a leading UK think tank on international development and a key member of CDKN) she and her colleagues are developing a “Low Carbon Competitiveness Diagnostic”, a resource for policy-makers to make a logical assessment of these opportunities and threats and develop an appropriate policy response. The development of the diagnostic has been informed by ODI’s work in Cambodia, Nepal and Kenya and there are now plans to test out these ideas in a variety of other countries and sectors. Ellis is hopeful that the tool will give policy-makers in low-income countries the coherence of understanding needed to convince their governments of the economic sense in pursuing a climate compatible development model where it is appropriate.

Back in South Korea, on the other hand, the goal of green growth seems to be slipping away as the recently-inaugurated President Park Geun-hye steers the country towards a new culturally-led growth model called the “creative economy”.  In the process, Lee’s Presidential Commission on Green Growth has been scaled down and the word “green” deleted from the names of various divisions of the Environment Ministry, whose head, Yoon Seong-kyu has criticized the green growth initiative for leaning more towards “growth” than towards “green.” This charge is nothing new – from the outset, environmental groups in Korea greeted Lee’s policies with scepticism, dubbing it “old-style fiscal spending with a new label” and pointing to his earlier high-ranking role in the Hyundai Group that stood to benefit significantly from the green stimulus package. The biggest controversy surrounded a multi-billion dollar project to dredge and dam four major rivers in a bid to improve water quality and security while controlling flooding, restoring river ecoystems and promote river-based recreation. Environmental groups have claimed that the project will actually destroy ecosystems and contaminate drinking water, while the Korean media has been filled with reports of broken bridges and flooded farmlands.

Despite this, polls suggest that the vast majority of Koreans feel that the green growth initiative has contributed to addressing climate change and tackling energy crises and think it should be sustained under the new government. Time will tell what Park Geun-hye’s change of stance actually means for Korea’s relationship with the environment and, while GGGI does not comment on Korea’s domestic policy, a representative I spoke to was keen to stress that the organisation enjoys firm support from the new administration. In any case, the global green growth agenda shows no sign of slowing and, challenges and controversies notwithstanding, I cannot help finding this inspiring. This year’s Global Green Growth Summit, focusing on the nexus between finance, innovation and policy, is being held in the Songdo International Business District which, a self-proclaimed Sustainable City boasting green spaces and green buildings but facing criticism from Birds Korea due to fears of habitat destruction resulting from mudflat reclamation, is perhaps a perfect microcosm of the complex journey that South Korea, along with the rest of the world, is taking into a difficult future.

Powering China: keeping the lights on in the world’s biggest country and why it matters to you

Poised on the brink of superpowerdom, questions around China’s energy use matter to all of us. How much is needed and where will it come from? I explored these ideas in this article which was first published in Asian Global Impact (Issue 07: May/June 2013).

Few countries are as confusing to the non-specialist as China.  Unlike neighbouring giant India, the People’s Republic does not seem to wear its soul on its sleeve. Its politics, save the odd spectacular scandal, sit obscurely behind rows of soberly-suited individuals with motives hard for outsiders to fathom, while learning its language has been described in a previous AGI issue as like running a marathon.

Perhaps most confusing of all is China’s position with regard to climate change and sustainable energy. With over a quarter of global carbon emissions to its name, and at least five years of topping charts as the world’s highest emitter (currently followed by the US and India), China’s potential threat to humankind can hardly be ignored. Meanwhile, nearly a third of the world’s existing coal-fired power stations are in China, as are a similar proportion of the 1,200 or so in planning and it is easy to paint China as the big bad wolf.

Easy but lazy. As the world’s most populous country, should its carbon footprint really surprise us? And as a rapidly industrialising economy with over 100 million still living below the international poverty line can we simply condemn it? In any case, when it comes to per capita emissions, China only weighs in at about 70th place, well behind the Gulf states, the US and most of Europe.  China is also a world leader in renewable energy production and manufacture and meets nearly 10% of its overall energy demand from non-fossil fuels. Encouraging though this may be, it is not unalloyed good news: the biggest chunk of this power comes from hydroelectric plants such as the notorious Three Gorges Dam which has required the relocation of over a million people and is associated with landslides and loss of habitats.

The confusion extends to the political sphere. Those who condemn China’s approach to the environment as uniformly disastrous might be disconcerted to discover that its 2007 National Action Plan on Climate Change was the first of its kind in developing world. The plan sets out ambitions to increase renewable energy and nuclear power while improving the efficiency of coal-fired power stations. At the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009, China announced a “carbon intensity reduction target” which means a reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of economic output – in this case a 40-45% reduction by 2020 compared to 2005 levels (compare India’s simultaneously-announced target of 24%). Judging by performance to date, it seems plausible that the target will be achieved by continuing the drive to improve energy efficiency while increasing the proportion of energy demand supplied from renewable sources.

But reducing carbon intensity is not the same as reducing overall carbon emissions: intensity is simply measured in relation to the overall economy, so if the economy grows faster than carbon intensity reduces, overall emissions will increase. Indeed, analysts predict that China’s GDP will triple in the 2005-2020 period meaning that a 45% reduction in carbon intensity will still result in a 65% increase in total emissions.  To date, there have been few signs, if any, that China would be prepared to commit to a legally binding emissions reduction target. In fact, outgoing premier Wen Jibao has repeatedly pointed out that China’s commitment to addressing climate change will need to be balanced against its commitment to economic development and has reminded the industrialised West of its historical responsibility for current global greenhouse gas levels.

What impact China’s new administration will have remains to be seen, but there are already signs of an aggressive boom in hydropower projects such as the Nu River Dam, which Wen Jibao had previously suspended in the face of widespread opposition. His successor, Li Kequiang, announced his support for the solar industry late last year, although it is unclear how this sits with Mr Wen’s earlier statement that China would put an end to the “blind expansion” in this industry and focus more on nuclear power, hydropower and shale gas (in addition to the ubiquitous coal), none of which could be described as entirely uncontroversial.

Maybe, just maybe, our hope must ultimately rest with China’s greatest asset and liability combined – its 1.3 billion strong population.  Unlike in India, environmental activism is not a prominent feature of Chinese public life, although the government policy of wen wei (maintaining stability at all costs, usually by quashing dissent) has occasionally played in protesters’ favour when carrots are judged more effective than sticks. Recent public protests have resulted in the suspension of a new coal plant in Haimen, near Shanghai; the scrapping of a proposed waste water pipeline in nearby Qidong; and the relocation of a chemical plant in Dalian in the north. While it is hard to gauge whether these acts of nimbyism will simply see the same infrastructure imposed on other, less vocal communities, they nevertheless provide a faint but much-needed glow of hope that people power may have a place in Chinese politics.

Amongst all the confusion, perhaps only one thing can be said with any clarity: whatever course China takes in the coming decades – carbon intensity, carbon reduction, energy efficiency, hydropower – it is going to be of the utmost importance to all of us.

Economic Growth and Sustainable Development – Irreconcilable Opposites?

Those wishing to undermine the UK’s climate change mitigation agenda as useless can do so with just one word: China. Or maybe two: China and India. In this article, which first appeared in Asian Global Impact (Issue 06: Feb/Mar 2013) I probe the assumption that economic growth and sustainable development have to be at loggerheads and introduce a new initiative called India: Innovation Nation.

Is it immoral to expect emerging economies to commit to curbing their environmental impact, potentially stifling growth and trapping billions in poverty? Or is it immoral not to, given ever-bleaker climate change projections and the state of the world’s natural resources? Moral or otherwise, views on this subject are unhelpfully polarised: some argue that urban growth, airport expansion and coal-fired power stations are non-negotiable in improving the quality of life in the developing world; others insist that our only hope of saving the planet rests with stringent carbon emissions reduction targets for growing giants like India and China. Among the latter camp, applause for the existing carbon intensity targets announced by both countries at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit is muted at best. Meanwhile, a new global climate deal will not be struck until 2015, and the contribution of the developing world is far from finalised.

But do economic growth and safeguarding the environment have to be incompatible? The Delhi Sustainable Development Summit – now in its 13th year – is based on the conviction that they don’t. The flagship event of Delhi-based TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute), it provides an international platform for a diverse group of state premiers, policy-makers and corporate leaders to debate critical issues relating to energy and the environment. Regular highlights include a special summit for global CEOs and a Sustainable Development Leadership Award (previous recipients have included Ban Ki-moon and Arnold Schwarzenegger). This year’s events are grouped into sub-themes including “Employment and growth potential of a green economy” and “Choices before the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India and China] and a new economic construct”. The latter is framed around the search for a new paradigm of growth with low resource requirement and minimal pollution, and takes its rallying cry from Gandhi: speed is irrelevant if you are going in the wrong direction.

Whatever their value, targets and paradigms can seem offputtingly remote, and practical examples are usually a more inspiring call to action. One new initiative being launched at this year’s summit is dedicated to just that. India: Innovation Nation is a collaboration between TERI and global non-profit Forum for the Future and centres round a special publication celebrating success stories of sustainable innovation in India.

Browsing the publication, it is not difficult to feel enthused by the wealth of examples. Air conditioning, for instance, is responsible for 30-40% of India’s domestic energy consumption, but cooling doesn’t have to be so resource intensive. Technology consultant Infosys’ new Hyderabad campus comprises two identical wings, one with conventional air conditioning, the other with a “radiant cooling” system which draws heat from the room to walls cooled by water. Not only does the wing with radiant cooling consume 38% less energy than its air conditioned neighbour, but its capital spend was fractionally lower and, according to occupant surveys, it is a much more comfortable place to work. Meanwhile, microgrids – local electricity networks powered by renewable sources such as solar and biomass – are springing up over India, providing power cheaply and reliably for the first time to remote communities and casting doubt on the paradigm that fossil-fuels are a pre-requisite for modernizing societies.

India: Innovation Nation tells an inspiring story, but I can’t help wondering how widespread such examples really are across India. Martin Wright, spearheading the initiative from Forum for the Future, stresses its role as a blueprint in demonstrating persuasively that there are practical and profitable alternatives to the dominant model of high-carbon, resource intensive growth. He argues that India is an intrinsically innovative culture and has pedigree in spreading new technologies and ideas. Mobile phones are a classic case, with many remote Indian villages now supporting better networks than parts of rural England! Moreover, so much of what we would label “green living” in the West – recycling, low energy consumption and low car ownership – is commonplace in India, a country well-versed in the art of jugaad, variously translatable as “muddling through”, “quick-fix” or the rather more respectable “frugal innovation”. Unfortunately, the trend among the mushrooming middle class is to move away from this low-impact lifestyle towards more conspicuous patterns of consumption. Part of India’s challenge will be to make sustainable living desirable while putting measures in place to reduce the damage that inevitable new waves of consumerism will cause.

Targets, paradigms, blueprints and a deeply-ingrained flair for jugaad – all of these will be necessary if India is going to embrace a new model of economic growth that doesn’t help destroy the planet. Endeavours like the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit and India: Innovation Nation aren’t the whole solution – especially when we broaden the debate to China, Brazil and other emerging economies – but they provide a vital shred hope that such a model is possible.

The Delhi Sustainable Development Summit was held between January 31st and February 2nd 2013 at Hotel Taj Palace, New Delhi. For more information about Forum for the Future’s work in India, visit: and

Village Development in Rajasthan

This article first appeared in Asian Global Impact (Issue 05: Dec 2012/Jan 2013)

Building roads or feeding cattle? This post looks back on lessons I learnt while working with a rural management NGO in North India.

“In Kuwait?” I asked in disbelief.

“Yes, sir,” said Suresh, leaning on his bullock-plough and laughing. “Four village members are working in Kuwait.”

Coming minutes after the bombshell that Suresh, a tattily-dressed maize farmer, had a degree in History, Politics and Hindi Literature, this was getting too bizarre. While sweating up a mountain-track on foot to get here, I’d formed an image of what a remote tribal village might be like and, needless to say, Bachelors of Arts with friends in the Gulf had not been part of it. Rural India was clearly going to be full of surprises.

I was in Wanibore, a mountain-top hamlet in Rajasthan, North India, with a 600-strong community belonging entirely to the Meena tribe. Once branded by the British as criminals, the Meena are now formally located within the fabric of Indian society as a Scheduled Tribe at the bottom end of the traditional caste hierarchy. I had come as a volunteer with a locally-run NGO called Seva Mandir whose mission is based on rural and tribal development, rooted in the concept of empowerment. Communities, the argument runs, should be empowered to direct their own development from within, rather than relying solely on outside intervention. My role was to work with the community to assess its development needs and set out a plan to meet these needs in a report that Seva Mandir could use to approach state government for funding. Despite my near-total inexperience in this field, Dilip, my affable “in-charge”, seemed alarmingly confident in my abilities, and thus, armed with naïve enthusiasm and a smattering of Hindi, I got down to work.

In the weeks that followed, my eyes were opened to poverty, polygamy and even a poultry sacrifice. I slept on string beds and drank a fearsome local tipple brewed from the flowers of the mahua tree. I was also struck by the warmth and intelligence of Wanibore’s citizenry and developed some strong ideas on what the village needed to bring it to somewhere approaching the twenty-first century. Chief among these was a tarmac road with a regular jeep service, enabling faster delivery of supplies, a less time-consuming school run and vastly more efficient transport of the sick to medical help. What was more, the village was in broad agreement over this, ranking a road even above electricity as a priority.

Back at the headquarters, Dilip had other ideas. He felt I had concentrated too much on infrastructural problems that are outside Seva Mandir’s scope, and the focus should shift towards livelihoods and natural resources. Stall feeding for cattle, for example, or managing drainage. “Stall feeding for cattle?” I echoed derisively, making my disagreement clear. For me, development was about sweeping gestures – building roads, laying on electricity – and we should be focusing our efforts there, not fretting over dining facilities for local farm animals. Patiently, Dilip reminded me that Seva Mandir had its own areas of expertise and a remit based around these. Road-building was not one of them. I conceded that he had a point, dutifully amending my report while attempting to engage the movers and shakers of Wanibore in a petition to the local government for a road. Before long, my time with Seva Mandir was up, and I felt I had only just begun to understand what sustainable development was about.

Two and a half years later, I returned to Wanibore – on a jeep! I take no credit for the rough-surfaced road that now leads right up to the village school, but it was heartening to hear my old friends’ enthusiasm for the changes it had made to their lives: quicker trips to the nearest grain shop for the men and better access to the local secondary school for their children. For Suresh too, now studying for a BEd, it was a great improvement on the tiring climb of days past. He wasn’t entirely happy when I met him, however, as he was missing his brother who had left to work for a construction company in Kuwait…