Desert ski slopes and outdoor aircon: can the scorching emirates really go green?

It is one of Earth’s biggest carbon emitters, a place where SUVs roar from manmade islands to malls with ski slopes. Can an architecture triennial in the UAE really teach us how to go green?

A perfectly manicured lawn lines either side of the eight-lane highway leading into the Gulf city of Sharjah. Punctuated by rows of palm trees and pink-blossomed flowerbeds, it is a lush, implausible vision, sustained by a constant mist of sprinklers beneath the scorching sun. Beyond the green ribbon, expansive gated villas sprout from the sand, giving way to mirrored glass towers, leading to a reconstructed “old town”, where air conditioning is pumped into the alleys of an open-air souk.

It’s not hard to see how the United Arab Emirates, of which Sharjah is the third largest city-state after Abu Dhabi and Dubai, is one of the highest emitters of carbon dioxide and consumers of water per capita in the world. It is a place where souped-up SUVs roar from man-made islands to malls with indoor ski slopes, where water is flushed by the gallon into ornamental gardens, where energy is guzzled with end-of-the-world glee, deaf to the pleas of Greta Thunberg. But before you start sneering, this petroleum-fuelled, water-hungry lifestyle is mostly the doing of British and American conglomerates, the result of an Anglo-centric idea of a city imposed on a desert climate that could never sustain it.

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