Abu Dhabi Aims to Build First Carbon-Neutral City Planners hope to transform an empty stretch of desert into Masdar, a city of 50,000, within a decade. They aim for it to be powered entirely by renewable energy, to reuse water and to recycle even human waste.

Abu Dhabi Aims to Build First Carbon-Neutral City

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It's been a year now since NPR News started a journey around the world. Our series Climate Connections with National Geographic explored how we are changing the planet and how the climate changes us. This morning, the journey is over. It ends in a city that tries to change nothing. It's a city intended to burn no gas or oil so its contribution to greenhouse gases will be minimal. NPR's Joe Palca visited the site near the Abu Dhabi Airport in the Persian Gulf, where the city will be built.

JOE PALCA: You have to have a good imagination to picture what the spot I'm standing in is going to look like in 10 years. I'm at the edge of what will be a six-square-kilometer city housing 50,000 people. Right now, it doesn't look like much except a wind-swept desert.

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Unidentified Man: Imagine?

PALCA: So to help with our imagination, the people building Masdar have produced this promotional video.

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Unidentified Man: The open spaces are shaded and cool, even during the hottest times of the day. The streets are narrow, with high sides and overhangs providing shade within the city.

PALCA: Although the buildings will be thoroughly modern, the architects are trying to capture the flavor of an ancient Arabic city. It turns out that copying those old designs will help them reach their ambitious energy goals.

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Unidentified Man: Masdar will be the first city where carbon emissions are zero, where waste is converted to energy and reduced to zero, and 80 percent of water will be recycled. This is the city of the future.

PALCA: It certainly sounds convincing, at least the way that slick announcer guy says it. But let's take a closer look.

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Unidentified Man: Masdar will be the first city where carbon emissions are zero.

PALCA: How do you bring carbon emissions to zero? Well, some of it's common sense. Narrow streets and shaded walks will reduce the need for air conditioning. That isn't rocket science. Some of it will involve new technologies, such as larger and more efficient solar electricity generators. And finally, cars will be banned from the city. So to replace the cars, the city's designers are turning to something called a PRT System - personal rapid transit.

Mr. SCOTT McGUIGAN (Construction Manager, CH2M Hill Construction firm): And really, all it is is a car.

PALCA: Scott McGuigan is with CH2M Hill, the construction firm that's building Masdar.

Mr. McGUIGAN: It's a simple vehicle, six-passengers, it's designed like a car, but obviously it's powered by solar energy with batteries.

PALCA: These solar-powered cars will run under the city, just like a subway system. But the cars won't run on fixed routes. Basically, they'll take you anywhere you want to go.

Mr. McGUIGAN: So you jump into it. There's about 1,500 stations. You program what station you want to go to, and it will directly take you to that station. You know, if you look at things like "Blade Runner," etc., it's really bringing that to the fore now.

PALCA: And so, PRTs and solar get you part of the way to zero carbon. Now let's look at some of the other claims made by that oh-so slick announcer guy.

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Unidentified Man: And 80 percent of water will be recycled.

PALCA: Saving water is critical because it takes energy to make water in Masdar. You have to convert salty water from the gulf into fresh water. But saving water means changing business as usual.

Mr. PETER SHARRATT (WSP): We have a fairly linear process normally. We take water in through the tap, we use it, and then it goes straight in the drain. So it gets used once.

PALCA: Peter Sharratt is with WSP, a British energy consulting firm. The plan at Masdar will be to reuse water as many times as possible. One idea involves capturing whatever's left after you water adjacent farm fields and parks.

Mr. SHARRATT: So when you put the water onto the ground, when it has gone through the kind of top two, three feet and has actually met the needs and requirements of the plan, there are then collection systems embedded in the below ground to recover that.

PALCA: The water can then be used to irrigate another day or whatever else it's needed for. So that's the plan for conserving water. What about that other claim, no waste at all?

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Unidentified Man: Masdar will be the first city where waste is converted to energy and reduced to zero.

PALCA: When they say reduced to zero, in reality, it'll be reduced to very close to zero since some stuff just can't be converted to energy or recycled. But when it comes to - how can I put this delicately - human waste, Peter Sharratt says that will all be repurposed.

Mr. SHARRATT: To recover those nutrients and actually use them to create soil, which can then be used as part of the landscaping, and also a component of the sewage sludge, we'll again go for a waste-to-power scheme.

PALCA: The strategy to reuse or recycle as much as possible permeates the planning for Masdar. Construction manager Scott McGuigan says it's a bit of a game, always looking for materials that can be reused. Take the fencing around the construction site.

Mr. McGUIGAN: We're looking at recyclable plastic for site fencing. And at the end of that, we can sell that back to the manufacturer. He can recycle that or resell that on again. So it has a useful life at the end of our life that we are using it for.

PALCA: They've even begun to think about how to recycle the concrete used to build Masdar, and that's before the first building is even finished.

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PALCA: Now, remember how we started out exploring the claims of Masdar City?

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Unidentified Man: Masdar will be the first city where carbon emissions are zero.

PALCA: The idea is to build a city that will have no carbon footprint. But obviously, because a lot of construction equipment uses gas, there's going to be some CO2 going into the atmosphere. The planners say they'll offset that by planting trees or planning surplus solar energy back into the Abu Dhabi power grid.

But calculating your carbon footprint is trickier than just measuring how much diesel fuel you burn. Liz Darley is with the British firm Bioregional. Her job is to oversee Masdar's carbon calculations. When my producer Rebecca Davis and I visited her in London, she pointed out there are a lot things you could include in the carbon footprint.

Ms. LIZ DARLEY (Bioregional, British Firm): What they're currently doing is deciding where that boundary is drawn, and that is, in itself, quite a complex thing to decide on as a project team and because it could include all the carbon expenditure of flying between Europe and the Middle East that the design team is incurring. It could go to the extent of you guys coming here to interview us. Once you start peeling back the layers of the onion, it just goes on and on and on forever.

PALCA: So achieving the goal of being a zero-carbon city can be made easy or very, very hard, depending on where you draw your boundaries. Skeptics say reducing Masdar's total carbon footprint to zero will be difficult, if not impossible. And besides, they say, Masdar City is only 50,000 people. The millions of other living in the United Arab Emirates are still guzzling gas like, well, like we are in this country.

Khaled Awad is in charge of turning the plans for Masdar City into a reality. He's heard the skeptics. But to them, he says, bring it on. Tell us where we can make improvements on our plans, and we'll make them.

Mr. KHALED AWAD (Planner for Masdar City): Look, we're serious about this. We're going to put so much resources to do it right, and this is the ideal place where we can demonstrate what you believe in, in a scale that will make - it's a meaningful scale.

PALCA: This is not a single building or just a neighborhood. It's a city of 50,000 people. The plan is to build Masdar City in record time. The first building should be up by the end of the summer. Will it meet its ambitious energy goals? Maybe. But even the skeptics admit it's worth a try.

Joe Palca, NPR News.

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Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: To see a fly-through animation of how city planners envision Masdar City, visit npr.org/climateconnections, where you can also find all the stories in this series and videos from public television's "Wild Chronicles."

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