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Gas-guzzling Gulf cities bid to go greener

From Schams Elwazer and Kim Keleita, CNN
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Raising environmental awareness in the UAE
  • The UAE is the world's eighth largest oil producer, according to the CIA World Factbook
  • WWF: Gulf nation has world's highest per capita ecological footprint
  • UAE is new home to International Renewable Energy Association
  • Investment now being directed towards more renewable energy projects in the country

Abu Dhabi, UAE (CNN) -- With the world's highest per capita ecological footprint, the United Arab Emirates is not an obvious green hub.

It is the world's eighth largest oil producer, according to the CIA World Factbook, and came top of the WWF's 2010 Living Planet report on per capita ecological footprint -- mainly due to its high carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels.

However, the country has been chosen to host the new International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), a fact that environmentalists hope may be just what is needed to turn around attitudes to the environment.

The agency will be based in the new low-carbon development, Masdar City in Abu Dhabi.

Burgers and biofuel

Adnan Amin, director general of IRENA, said: "This is really actually becoming quite a hub for discussion of renewable energy."

He added: "Although it's an oil economy they make more money exporting oil than they do subsidizing it and selling it locally.

"Local consumption is increasing quite a lot so it makes economic sense for them to start looking at alternatives and they've invested very ambitiously in renewable energy projects."

Areeba Hanif, a Dubai-based filmmaker, who recently made a documentary about environmental awareness, said: "I realized that our ecological footprint was the largest in the world. That put me in a very disturbed state of mind.

"I also discovered that it was partly due to our petrol consumption and, suddenly, also due to the vast amount of developments that were taking place."

The country is also catching up with other parts of the world through the Middle East's first scheme to recycle cooking oil into biodiesel.

When Karl Feilder, chairman of Neutral Fuels, moved to the United Arab Emirates he decided to try and bring in the practice which has been increasingly used in Europe in recent years.

He said: "When I moved to the UAE I saw there was no biodiesel in the market at all, and yet there was a lot of waste cooking oil.

The recognition of the importance of sustainability is growing tremendously.
--Karl Fielder, Neutral Fuels

"So I thought it's a great opportunity to really show some leadership in the marketplace. I approached McDonald's and asked them if they would work with us on the first biodiesel factory anywhere in the Middle East."

McDonald's agreed to provide all its cooking oil to be converted into biodiesel for all of its vehicles.

"The elegance of the closed loop system is that it's full recycling," said Feilder. "We're taking a 100% of the cooking oil from 100% of the restaurants to provide 100% biodiesel to 100% of the trucks.

"The idea of being the first biodiesel producer in an oil-producing country was something I just set myself as a challenge.

"I became obsessed with the idea, I worked and pummeled everyone I could meet, I pushed government hard, I lobbied, I got everybody on board so I could make this a reality."

Amin said sustainability was moving up the agenda, not only in the United Arab Emirates, but in many Middle Eastern countries.

"The recognition of the importance of sustainability is growing tremendously," he said.

"Throughout the region people have started to talk about sustainability not as an abstract green concept, but as something that makes sense for the way they organize their societies.

"When you live in an environment like this which can be quite inhospitable you have to marshal your resources," he added.

Despite all the green initiatives, there is still some way to go to in changing public perception of environmental issues.

Few young people approached by CNN had heard of IRENA or put green issues high on their agenda.

Hanif said: "UAE is a young country and it has a very educated community, but there's a difference between education and awareness.

"There's no environmental commitment, and I would say one of the major reasons is that this is a transition society.

"When [people] come to this part of the world -- we do not have stringent laws -- yet so then they get relaxed then you find four-wheel drives starting coming and irresponsible use of water and electricity and the wasteful habits."