Is a zero-carbon, zero-waste, zero-car city on the horizon?

This is an artist's rendering of what Masdar will look like from an aerial view.
Foster + Partners

Looking to reduce your "carbon footprint?" You're not alone. These days, many people are thinking about the amount of energy they use and the harmful carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. But if you're like many people, your carbon consciousness may begin and end with your passing interest in purchasing a hybrid vehicle.

Not so for Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the fourth largest source of oil in the world. The city is raising the bar for environmental stewardship. Given the fact that it has the fourth largest carbon footprint in the world, Abu Dhabi and its government have big shoes to fill, so to speak. The city's environmental efforts have resulted in grand plans to build a nearby city that will be entirely carbon neutral and will produce no waste. Ironically, the affluent Abu Dhabi government plans to build Masdar City essentially on money it earned fuelling carbon emissions all over the world. To attain this zero-carbon and zero-waste goal, it plans to use the cutting-edge technology of sustainable design, which strives to reduce harmful environmental impact as much as possible.


As part of their Masdar Initiative (masdar meaning "the source" in Arabic), an effort to further the research and implementation of sustainable construction, the Abu Dhabi government will build this city on a nearby 2.3 square-mile site (six square kilometers), adjacent to its international airport at an estimated cost of $22 billion [source: Revkin, Masdar]. The Abu Dhabi government unveiled this plan in January 2008. It projected the city will eventually be able to sustain 50,000 residents and more than 1,000 businesses [source: Walsh]. Less than a month later, it broke ground in construction of the city and hopes to complete the project by 2016.

But keeping the city sustainable will be a difficult challenge for the British architects Foster + Partners, as the climate in this designated area is not exactly mild. Temperatures can get as high as 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius), and structures will need to cool themselves without reliance on energy from fossil fuel. And what kind of transportation will be put in place so that people can get around without cars? Read the next page to learn about the grand plan.


How Masdar City Will Work

When completed, Masdar City will be a bustling and productive city. Notice the futuristic PRTs on the elevated track that will replace cars as personal transporation.
Foster + Partners

Although the climate for the site of the future city is hot, it's also sunny, which architects see as the biggest source of energy for the city. They plan to build a solar thermal power plant [source: Walsh, Gunther]. The city will be skyscraper-free, and photovoltaic (PV) arrays on building rooftops will also collect sunlight for power. A desalination plant that will provide fresh water to the city will use solar power as well. The city will also use energy from a $2 billion hydrogen power plant. Hydrogen, a clean source of energy, produces much fewer carbon dioxide emissions than most fossil fuel processes used today.

To keep energy needs low and the city cool, designers plan to orient the city and its structures to take full advantage of natural sea breezes. A wall encompassing the city and wind towers for buildings will contribute to protecting the population from the harsh desert climate. In addition, taller buildings will shade the city's narrow walking streets. If the city's structures use sustainable technologies, and energy demand is reduced 70 percent because of those technologies, then it will be easier for the city to survive on alternative energy resources. The city hopes to save $2 billion in oil after 25 years [source: New York Times, Masdar].


Efforts to conserve water in the city involve plans to recycle at least 80 percent of the water used [source: New York Times]. Recycled gray water, such as water from sinks and showers, and treated wastewater will irrigate the landscape. Through these processes, the city planners hope to reduce water consumption by 60 percent [source: BBC].

How does a community of 50,000 people produce no waste? The answer lies in composting and recycling materials. To keep trash from ending up in a landfill, much of the waste will end up in a compost pile, where bacteria will decompose the material. Otherwise, recycling will be a high priority for the city.

There will be no cars in Masdar City to contribute to the release of carbon dioxide. Supposedly, people living and working in Masdar City will never be farther than 656 feet (200 meters) from transportation [source: Wordsworth]. An electric-powered light rail on elevated tracks will allow easy transport between Masdar City and Abu Dhabi. To get around the city, people can utilize personal rapid transit pods, or PRTs. These vehicles will run on magnetic tracks using electric power.

If you're excited to see how this city will turn out, remember it won't be completed until 2016. However, builders hope to finish the first of the seven phases of the project, the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, as soon as 2009. To learn more about sustainable building techniques, investigate the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • "A Virtual Tour of Masdar City." The New York Times. (March 28, 2008)
  • "Abu Dhabi's Masdar Initiative Breaks Ground." Masdar. Feb. 9, 2008. (March 28, 2008)
  • "Work starts on Gulf 'green city.'" BBC News. Feb 10, 2008. (March 28, 2008)
  • Gunther, Marc. "Building the world's cleanest city." CNN Money. (March 7, 2008. March 28, 2008)
  • Revkin, Andrew C. "Car-Free, Solar City in the Gulf Could Set a New Standard for Green Design." The New York Times. Feb. 5, 2008.
  • Walsh, Bryan. "An Oil Giant's Green Dream." TIME. Jan.21, 2008. (March 28, 2008),8599,1705616,00.html?imw=Y
  • Wordsworth, Araminta. "Abu Dhabi unveils zero-waste city." National Post. Jan. 22, 2008.(March 28, 2008)