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Most significant of all may be Masdar City itself. While Abu Dhabi, like so many hurriedly built cities around the developing world, sprawls with little design and has almost no public transit, Masdar City will be as dense as a circuit board a 2.3-sq.-mi. (6 sq km) walled community designed to be car-free and served by magnetic trains. A desalinization plant for water will run on solar power, and conservation needs will keep water use 60% below the norm; all waste will be composted and recycled a major feat in a world that's increasingly awash in trash. If all goes according to Foster's plan, 50,000 people will be living in the city by 2016, many of them working for the renewable-energy businesses that Al Jaber hopes Masdar's environment and preferential tax scheme will attract. With more than half of the world's population now living in cities, and the pace of urbanization only increasing, how we build cities will decide how we handle the perils of climate change. Masdar offers a holistic model for future urban development, a way to grow cities without choking on our own exhaust. "No one has been presented with the challenge and the opportunities that exist when you [deal with] the scale, the size of this community," says Foster. "The waste systems, the sewage, the transport, the desalinization this has never been done before … [It's] like putting a man on the moon."
Foster's dream won't lack for funding. At the groundbreaking ceremony on Feb. 9, Masdar announced that its new city will have a budget of $22 billion, with $4 billion from the company and the rest through outside investments, including carbon trading that would monetize the greenhouse-gas emissions reduced by the city's creation. Foster is grateful for the canvas that Masdar offers, but he does wonder why the West is merely watching while Abu Dhabi leads the way. "This initiative [is] in urban terms the most progressive, radical thing happening anywhere," he says. "Where is America on this? Where is Europe? Where is the U.K.?"
Which begs another question: Why Abu Dhabi? An accident of geography made the emirate a world leader in the energy industry, but global warming is changing the business, with the market for renewables growing rapidly around the world. "We recognize that the energy market is evolving," says Al Jaber. "What does that mean for us? Does that mean a threat, or an opportunity?" Masdar is Abu Dhabi's way of ensuring it's the latter; the government is using the profits of today to prepare its economy for a future beyond petroleum. That means investing not just in technology, but in human capital. Like many of its gulf neighbors, the U.A.E. spends relatively little on research and development. It has been easy to get away with that in the fossil-fuel era, but the alternative-energy sector requires a more high-tech, highly educated workforce. So together with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Masdar is also building a graduate-level school devoted to sustainability, which will develop homegrown scientific talent for the renewable age.
The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST) will be the first tenant in Foster's city, and Al Jaber hopes the academic-corporate connection will help make Abu Dhabi "the Silicon Valley of renewables." "This is an amazing change of direction for a Middle Eastern country," says Russell Jones, a former president of the University of Delaware in the U.S., who was tapped to lead MIST. "This is how you prepare for the end of oil."
Nonetheless, few of Abu Dhabi's neighbors are following the same path. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) did recently launch a $750 million fund to study climate change, but gulf nations too often remain obstacles to international efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, fearing that cutting carbon means killing their economies. While a few have begun to follow Abu Dhabi's lead Qatar is serious about wind and hydropower, and Dubai has a program to mandate the construction of green buildings most of the Middle East is doing little to address a future beyond petroleum. Egypt is typical high-ranking officials have spoken of the need to develop alternatives, and the country officially targets producing 20% of its power from renewables by 2020, but little real progress has been made. "The future for oil and gas production is bleak," says Hatem Khairy, an Egyptian energy consultant. "We need a national policy decision to have clean energy."
For the foreseeable future, indeed, even Abu Dhabi is convinced that oil and gas will remain the the main driver of wealth creation. As impressive as Masdar is, the initiative is not meant to replace petroleum, just supplement it, and there's little indication that the U.A.E. or any Middle Eastern country is ready for the abrupt shift away from fossil fuels that might be necessary if the world truly wants to fight global warming. In a rare interview, Yousef Omair Bin Yousef, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company which controls the emirate's vast reserves of fossil fuels smiles serenely when asked if he sees the emirate's focus on renewable energy as a threat. "I don't see Masdar as a competitor, or an alternative," he told TIME. "The world will need more energy, and there is room enough for both. These renewables won't happen overnight." You'd be relaxed, too, if you were Bin Yousef. "Our oil is not running out," he says. "It will stay with us for 80, 90 years, and we can improve on that." Masdar may have $15 billion to spend, but the U.A.E. earns $225 million in revenue from petroleum every day.
And that's the catch. What's happening in Abu Dhabi is remarkable and all the more so because it is happening in Abu Dhabi. But like so much of the action underway elsewhere in the green sector, the excitement doesn't yet match the scale of the economic and social sea change needed to stem global warming. Still, Masdar is a great beginning, and it might just help to rouse laggards like the U.S. into action. You certainly won't hear negativity from Al Jaber, who has nothing but the highest expectations for Masdar. "I want to see us developing solar-power plants in Abu Dhabi and elsewhere," he says. "I want to see the city done. I want to see the institute up and running. I want to see us deploying some of the technologies we are researching. And I want to see the returns from the clean-tech fund we are investing. We have a long list of milestones." If he can achieve all that, then Masdar will prove to be much more than just a beautiful mirage in the desert.