Kevin Bell, Fleishman-Hillard: A future beyond fossil fuels

New projects in Abu Dhabi could point the way to sustainable living for the world at large.

Kevin Bell, Fleishman-Hillard: A future beyond fossil fuels
Kevin Bell, Fleishman-Hillard: A future beyond fossil fuels

Rich in oil and gas, the Middle East is not the first place that springs to mind when considering environmental responsibility, but plans are in place there that could change the world.

Environmentalism, sustainability and responsibility have become watchwords of politicians across the globe. In recent years, the environment has set the global agenda, thanks to decades of activism and lobbying. In the West, protest movements have created widespread awareness of environmental issues through high-profile activist campaigns. This grass-roots activism has never been a driving force in the Middle East, which has meant that the environmental debate in the region has not received anything like the level of prominence or support from local leaders that it has elsewhere.

Yet while politicians in the West tin-ker with targets, debate future energies and implement regulations to try to bring about change, plans are in place in many Gulf states, particularly in Abu Dhabi, that are both ambitious and far-reaching in scope.

Abu Dhabi's Masdar City project will be the largest carbon-free development of its kind in the world. The city, which will offer residential and commercial buildings, a university and facilities for light manufacturing, will accommodate 90,000 people. A team of hundreds of planners, architects and engineers are looking for cutting-edge solutions to reduce the amount of energy used. It is thought that Masdar buildings will require 70 per cent less energy than traditional structures. The planners are also looking at state-of-the-art water and waste recycling projects and expect the city to be car-free; residents will rely on an electric rapid-transit system.

Even more amazing are the plans for carbon capture. This unprecedented plan would initially involve 300km of pipeline to link a hydrogen power plant and facilities to collect and store carbon dioxide. In January this year, plans were announced for a multibillion-dollar scheme to separate natural gas into carbon dioxide and hydrogen through a chemical process and use the latter to power a 420-megawatt plant.

These projects demonstrate a major change in policy direction and a willingness to embrace environmentally sustainable technologies. In short, Middle Eastern states are thinking seriously about a world beyond oil. Abu Dhabi is the one area in the region that has made environmental sustainability a coherent strategic priority fundamental to policy planning and national development. While the Middle East has largely fuelled the world on oil and gas, it now has the opportunity and the resources to develop new technologies.

Public awareness of and interest in environmental and sustainability issues in the Middle East remain relatively low compared with other countries. The challenge for Middle Eastern states is to capture the imaginations of their own populations with these projects. This is where we, as communications professionals, can help.

While governments engage in ambitious, world-changing projects, they also need to consider how to capture the mood of the public through creative and engaging campaigns. If the general population in Middle Eastern countries can become as engaged in the environment debate as populations in other parts of the world, these states could become powerful, if unlikely, allies to those across the globe who have fought long and hard to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and develop new and innovative solutions to the problems of climate change.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

- What would improve the practice of PR in the region?

Global PR firms must work in partnership with local practitioners to build an indigenous, robust industry. New tools, practices, disciplines and innovations must be introduced to take the PR industry into the region far beyond conventional media relations activities. Finally, every PR firm must become an ambassador for public relations in order to build a successful industry.

- Which Middle East brand will have global recognition in five years?

Abu Dhabi promises to be a leading global brand. The government has been approaching the communications process with very well-conceived planning.

Kevin Bell is regional president, UK, Africa, and the Middle East, executive vice-president and senior partner at Fleishman-Hillard.

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