Masdar City: A Zero Carbon, Zero Waste Myth

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Not only in popular media but also on serious scientific fora1–3 the up-and-coming ‘Masdar City’ near Abu Dhabi is being projected as a ‘carbon neutral, zero waste’ urban cluster. It is being repeatedly claimed that Masdar City would
serve as a model for carbon neutral, zero waste urbanization of the future2.

There is no reason to doubt the noble intentions of the Government of Abu
Dhabi in funding this expensive venture – estimated to cost upward of US$22billion – but it is difficult to see that Masdar City will manage to be a ‘low carbon, low waste’ city, let alone a ‘carbon neutral, zero waste’ one.

The city is envisaged to be powered by solar panels of 130 MW capacity, backed
up by 20 MW wind turbines4. To this mix will be added geothermal and hydrogen power in the future. No cars driven by fossil fuels will be allowed inside Masdar City; instead a battery-powered, auto-piloted ‘personal transit system’ (PRT) would take those across who would not, instead, prefer to walk through Masdar’s long, narrow, shaded streets designed to reduce outdoor heat4.

All this will insulate Masdar City from anthropogenic CO2 emissions if we ignore
the CO2 contributed by the respiration of the city’s envisaged 50,000–90,000
population. But it would not stop Masdar City from leaving a massive carbon footprint somewhere close by, a footprint which will grow larger and larger with time.

In fact before the first resident moves into Masdar City, the city would have incurred a massive carbon debt in the form of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
entailed in planning, designing and commissioning of the city. From then on this debt will increase by the minute as the city’s main source of power, solar electricity, is far from carbon neutral5. Nor is the wind, geothermal or ‘hydrogen’ energy it proposes to use6. Battery-operated vehicles (of the type PRT would consist of) are arguably bigger net GHG emitters than fuel-efficient, gas-driven cars. Masdar City will be zero carbon only in the sense that the GHGs generated due to its construction and functioning will not be emitted in its premises, but some distance away from it.

As for waste management, Masdar City intends to do waste incineration,
plastic reuse, metal recycling, composting, etc. Each of these processes is either
a net energy consumer or leaves one or the other pollutant to contend with5. Masdar’s business-houses and residents will use cell phones, computers and all other gadgets that are used in commercial establishments. The resulting e-waste would enhance energy consumption of Masdar City substantially if the city chooses to fully ‘clean’ and reuse its entire e-waste. This will add substantially to the carbon debt of the city. Hence Masdar City can be ‘zero waste’ only by exporting its waste as it would be exporting its GHG emissions.

Masdar City may set an example worth emulating if it puts up its infrastructure
with materials that are low in embedded energy and functions in a way that minimizes consumption of energy and materials. That would not make it 100% eco-friendly, but a lot more eco-friendly than it is presently set to become. Touting Masdar as a zero carbon, zero waste city is, in fact, harmful to the cause of environmental protection because it makes the world believe that it can continue with its present consumerist lifestyle and yet contain global warming.


Centre for Pollution Control and
Environmental Engineering,
Pondicherry University,
Puducherry 605 014, India
*e-mail: prof.s.a.abbasi AT

1. Nader, S., Energy Procedia, 2009, 1, 3951–3958.
2. Menichetti, D. and van Vuren, T., Proc. Ins. Civ. Eng.: Transp., 2011, 3, 141–151.
3. Reiche, D., Energy Policy, 2010, 38, 2395–2403.
4. Taylor, J., Altern. J., 2009, 5, 18.
5. Abbasi, T. and Abbasi, S. A., Crit. Rev. Environ. Sci. Technol., 2012, 42, 99–154.
6. Abbasi, T. and Abbasi, S. A., Renew. Sustain. Energy Rev., 2011, 15, 3034–3040.

And less than 2 years later, the white elephant is being buried by the sands of the desert.

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