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Abu Dhabi's Green Revolution

Driving around Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, you can easily see the massive construction sites and melting pot of cultures. What is less evident is that a sustainability revolution is going on, from the most humble corner shop to the highest level of government.

Abu Dhabi may best be known in recent times for a financial bailout of its sister emirate, Dubai, but just as it preserved its oil wealth with a more practical approach than others, it has quietly embraced a suite of measures to make its buildings, businesses, and homes more sustainable.

Upon entering the Environment Agency, for example, a billboard proclaims that the ubiquitous, flimsy plastic grocery bag has been banned as a means to conserve resources and reduce pollution.

That may sound trivial, but if we did the same thing in California, we would eliminate 19 billion plastic bags from landfills every year (yes, just one state uses that many disposable bags!). Even small measures can save a lot of resources and money.

More significantly, I met with members of government and the construction industry and they are all competing to make new projects more energy efficient and use greener building materials.

A new marina boasts docks made of recycled plastic. A new high-rise (that coincidentally houses the city’s major investment authority) has earned the highest green building rating for things like recycled water use and sophisticated lighting and air conditioning controls. Solar projects are sprouting up everywhere, including a massive utility-scale project that is being developed in the desert outside of town.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the leaders you meet here, however, is a commitment to share their experience with the world. Make no mistake—this is not purely altruistic, they hope to invest in companies that make their economy more efficient and sell those technologies globally, but the city is a living laboratory that is open for anyone to see if you look beyond the oil wealth and the apparent contradictions.

In fact, speak to investment managers and you hear a desire to put their money to work in this space—investing in green building materials, LED lighting, fuel cells, bio-fuels, waste-to-energy projects and other low-carbon, sustainable resource plays that will create a regional economy that lasts far longer than oil.

The message in all of this is clear: Abu Dhabi’s leaders understand that if the world continues to consume resources at the same rate—including less visible resources like the climate and public health—we’ll run out of almost everything in a few decades.

Seventy percent of the building stock needed in the U.S. and E.U. between now and 2050 has already been built. By contrast, in China, India, and the Middle East, seventy percent of their needs have yet to be built.

The Carbon Challenge - A CNBC Special Report - See Complete Coverage
The Carbon Challenge - A CNBC Special Report - See Complete Coverage

If Abu Dhabi succeeds, it will become a model for growing economies everywhere—and that may just bail out the world in a much bigger sense than money alone.

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Terry Tamminen, former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is a partner at Pegasus Sustainable Century Merchant Bank and the Cullman Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. (Cracking The Carbon Code is a registered trademark of Terry Tamminen).

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