How sustainable is a World Expo in the desert?
This was the question posed by the Dutch NOS at the recent opening of Expo 2020 in Dubai. This question is particularly poignant given the sustainability focus of the Expo, which invites people to “Be part of the magic: When the world comes together, we create a better tomorrow”.
Sustainability is certainly a theme of the Expo, which features a Sustainability Pavilion, because “The future of our planet hangs in the balance.” But there is also a Mobility District – including Explore space, where you can “Learn about the latest developments in space exploration, including the UAE National Space Programme and the Emirates Mars Mission.” Presumably the organisers think the future of planet earth is not likely to be very sustainable, so they are giving us opportunities to leave before it is too late.
The Expo itself might well be adding to problems of unsustainability. In spite of the delayed start of the Expo and the effects of Covid-19, the organisers are still expecting 25 million visits – with 17.5 million visits (or 70%) coming from abroad (while current international tourist arrivals in Dubai were under 17 million in 2019, and only 5.5 million in 2020). Many of the foreign visitors will be making long haul trips to get to Dubai. Up to 30,000 visitors a month are expected from the USA, for example. The carbon footprint of international visits to the Expo will be huge. A return flight from New York to Dubai emits 4.55 tonnes of CO2, which is more that the average annual carbon footprint of a US commuter.
No doubt the organisers are hoping that the legacy of the Expo will help Dubai to become more sustainable in the future, which might help offset some of the environmental damage of the event. In terms of legacy, Expo will evolve into District 2020, “a smart and sustainable city centered on the needs of its urban community.” However, as we also learn, District 2020 “will provide a curated innovation-driven business ecosystem that brings together global minds and embraces technology and digital innovation to support industry growth.”
Building the Expo has been a mega investment for Dubai, with a total infrastructure cost alone of $7 billion. The site needed to cater for the influx of visitors covers 4.4 square kilometres or more than 600 soccer pitches. It has dedicated transport infrastructure, as well as a series of landscape lake environments specially constructed to showcase Dubai’s nature. This is apparently based on a ‘build it and they will come’ development model, which seemed to work for Bilbao and Disneyland Paris, but which seems to be more of a gamble in the UAE, which a current population of 2.9 million.
Other aspects of the sustainability of the Expo have also come under the spotlight. With it’s relatively small population, Dubai is heavily reliant on migrant workers from poor countries in Africa and Asia. A total of 200,000 workers were involved in the project, many of whom were housed in very poor conditions. There were also questions about levels of safety during construction. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) also called for a boycott of the event because it arguably aims to "white wash and distract attention" from Israel and the UAE's human rights violations.
Sustainability pavillion at the Expo
It remains to be seen how successful Expo 2020 will be as an event, and if international tourists indeed flock in their millions to Dubai in the next six months. But success in terms of visitor numbers is likely to be a setback for the sustainability goals espoused by the event organisers.