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Decarbonising through sustainable design

17 January 2024

This article has been created by AESG in collaboration with the World Green Building Council (WorldGBC) and its Middle East North Africa Regional Partners and Net Zero Collaborators through interviews and surveys from industry experts. It is the third of four articles that highlight the achievements of advancing net zero in the built environment.


The Progress

Sustainability is being integrated into the design practices

The UAE is embracing visionary architectural and engineering practices, which champion energy efficient designs seamlessly merging form and function to intricately optimise energy utilisation and significantly curtail emissions. Companies have started implementing Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs), passive design principles, harnessing the power of natural light, ventilation, low carbon materials, advanced insulation systems, and more innovative technologies.


Sustainability Certifications are becoming mainstream

The UAE’s construction industry embraces globally recognised green building standards like LEED, BREAM, International Living Future Institute (ILFI) and Al Safat/Estidama. Businesses are showcasing a strong commitment by: 

  • Using resources wisely 
  • Ensuring clean indoor air 
  • Incorporating solar panels and wind turbines 
  • Using low carbon materials in structures

Top levels of certifications like LEED Platinum and Gold are becoming a common practice.

Companies are developing design guidelines, surpassing local requirements and working towards integrating sustainability in the early design practices and deployment of innovative technologies to revitalise existing buildings. By taking these measures, businesses are aligning with modern energy standards and breathing new life into the urban environment while significantly reducing emissions.


Developers are increasingly using low-carbon materials

In terms of embodied carbon, UAE developers are setting internal requirements through procurement systems to promote the use of low carbon materials and equipment for key building components like steel, concrete and aluminium. Specifications for the materials are written in the construction contract and sent to the contractor. This leads to high embodied carbon emissions savings and in some cases from 500-700 kgCO2e/m2. 

The UAE’s focus on innovation in the construction sector becomes evident in the adoption of alternative techniques and using locally sourced and recyclable construction materials. Incorporating greener technologies like low carbon concrete, steel, engineered wood, and innovative insulation materials, the region is showcasing a commitment to reducing embodied carbon without compromising structural integrity. Collaboration across sectors is a key takeaway from construction decarbonisation efforts. It is crucial to engage across the value chain of construction, with architects, engineers, contractors, and material suppliers in a holistic dialogue that fosters an ecosystem of shared knowledge and best practices. 


The learnings

We need to prioritise sustainability in early design stages across project portfolios instead of focusing on showcasing projects.

Clear standards and guidelines set the stage for responsible decision making and encourage the adoption of low carbon practices throughout construction projects. Ensuring that there is a CAPEX plan and value chain stakeholder buy-in early in design stages of construction projects provides a clear roadmap for enhancing the efforts in preventing and reducing embodied carbon emissions. It also helps achieve a positive impact on OPEX from reduced consumption and operation and maintenance efforts.

The opportunity

Low carbon material

The three main points that are considered a high source of carbon emissions in construction are the materials used, the construction approach, and the layout of the building. 

In terms of materials used, cement and steel are considered the highest carbon emitters in the construction industry, an industry which is considered the second highest economic activity in the UAE.

From a country perspective, the UAE is the 2nd biggest producer of cement in The Gulf Corporation Council (GCC), 8th in the Middle East, and in the top 25 globally. Despite the low population, the UAE is the leading country in the world in terms of CO2 emissions per capita for cement. 

Understanding the availability of low carbon materials in the market is considered a challenge to the sustainable design practice. Companies have an increasing need to be aware of the low carbon materials options available. 

The UAE has an opportunity to focus on the production of low carbon cement or steel alternatives to get on track to achieving net zero status in the construction sector.

Local manufacturing of low carbon materials

The UAE market is driven by developers and their interest is to keep materials economically viable. Most cement producers in the market are international companies from developing countries which are setting a barrier to local low carbon material manufacturing improvement. There is an opportunity for improvement in the national regulatory framework to drive local production and support the local economy and decarbonisation. A suggestion of a starting point in this area is mandating scope 3 reporting on developers and improving local sourcing. It should also be looked at in terms of cost and circularity perspectives and increasing public reporting to showcase more examples in the UAE industry.

Impact assessment of construction projects

Companies have started to look into Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs), but they still aren’t an everyday practice. There is an opportunity to increase the understanding of passive design and optimise energy use without the need for add on technologies. The value of Life Cycle Assessments is the opportunity to measure the impact of a project on carbon across the life cycle and enable businesses to make informed decisions on their construction practices.

Impact assessment in the early design stages is crucial to ensure decisions on the project design and adoption of low carbon technologies.


We’d like to thank our MENA Regional Partners and Net Zero Collaborators for contributing to this collaborative thought leadership series:

Dubai Holding Corporate | Dubai Holding Real Estate | Masdar | Department of Energy, Abu Dhabi | A³&Co | Bee’ah Group | ICD Brookfield Place | Majid Al Futtaim | AD Ports Group | Linxion/Bartec Group | Expo City Dubai | Dar Group | Saint Gobain | Benchmark Gensuite | AESG