Arab Climate Urbanism: An Ecological Fix?

Deen Sharp, London School of Economics and Political Science

The climate emergency is an urban emergency. Cities, and the processes of urbanization, have been identified by scientists as significant sites of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. The rapid extended urbanization around the globe has accelerated increases in emissions in recent years. However, while cities and urban infrastructure are a central vector of GHG emissions, they also offer a critical opportunity for adaptation and mitigation of climate change. There are indications, even if insufficient and laggard, that governments across the world are moving to “enact proactive socioeconomic reconfigurations” targeted toward cities that “help write the new rules of the ecological game” in response to the climate crisis (Castree and Christophers 2015, 378). Castree and Christophers (2015) hope for the possibility of an “ecological fix” that switches capital on a massive scale toward an ecologically and socially progressive reconfiguration of infrastructure and the built environment in a way that sustains the long-term viability of biophysical goods and services. They are cautiously optimistic that governments can provide the right incentives for financers to craft investment vehicles to help decarbonize the world’s current infrastructure assets and to realize its profound potential to “remake the [urban] arteries through which capital flows” (Castree and Christophers 2015, 385). We live in hope.

The recognition by scholars and policymakers of the importance of cities and urbanization to adaptation and mitigation strategies, and the possibility of an ecological fix, has resulted in the formation of the field and domain of practice conceived as “climate urbanism.” In this paper, I outline what climate urbanism is, explain how it is distinct from, but overlaps with, ideas of sustainable urbanism, and unpack its key ideas of “urban climate change resilience” (UCCR) and “low carbon cities.” Within the climate urbanism scholarship, there is significant attention to how UCCR and low carbon strategies are actually frameworks for “greenwashing,” a branding exercise proclaiming ecological responsibility rather than active material practices to mitigate and adapt to climate change. While scholars do dispute how meaningful climate urbanism is to the actual material practices of contemporary cities and urbanization, few contest that it is a rapidly expanding urban policy field with ever greater financial resources directed toward it. This growing scholarly and policy field of climate urbanism is global in scope, but the Arab world has largely been ignored. The Arab world is part of this global urban and financial restructuring under the rubric of climate urbanism, with implications for urban politics, finance, and governance to which we as scholars and policymakers should be attentive.

In this paper, I consider the complex implications of climate urbanism for the Arab world and outline the distinctive features of an Arab climate urbanism: it is notably top-down, financialized, plagued by greenwashing, and framed around infrastructure and urban mega projects. Greenwashing is, as I detail, pervasive in what I identify as “Arab climate urbanism.” But there are also indications that climate urbanism – its concepts, practices, and the finance that is attached to them – is beginning to change how the urban is thought about and materialized in the region. I highlight the important large scale transport infrastructure that has been built across the region in recent years, the continued expansion in localized building standards, and “green” financial innovations. I do not argue here that Arab climate urbanism is a driver of new models of urbanism. There is no evidence of an “ecological fix” in the Arab world to adapt or mitigate climate change. Whether or not an “ecological fix” is possible will be a question for the history books. My argument here is that climate urbanism is a growing trend in the region, worthy of greater scholarly attention, and one that should be put in conversation with the climate urbanisms that have emerged around the world.

Climate Urbanism

Climate urbanism is defined by the recognition that urban areas and the processes of urbanization are key sites in relation to the causes and consequences of climate change, as well as mitigation and adaptation. Cities and the processes of urbanization (i.e. basic urban services; food, energy, water, and waste systems; transport infrastructure) are understood as crucial drivers of GHG emissions. Reconfiguring urban contexts is therefore critical to reducing human induced GHG emissions in order to keep the goal of 1.5C alive.[1] Urban climate action consists of a myriad of actors reconfiguring urban transport, energy, water, waste, housing, and sanitation, as well as green space (Robin and Broto 2020).

Climate urbanism is a distinct urban paradigm from “sustainable urbanism,” with an intersecting but separate historico-geographical formation (for an overview see, Bulkeley 2021; Long and Rice 2019; Hodson and Marvin 2017). Climate urbanism is rooted in municipal politics. Bulkeley (2021) notes that the seeds for climate urbanism were sown in the 1980s as local authorities (predominantly located in EuroAmerica) began setting their own targets for taking action to combat GHGs. Notably, these early efforts by municipalities focused on mitigating climate change through the reduction of GHGs rather than on adaptation. In the 1990s, Bulkeley (2021) argues, these voluntary municipal efforts were taken up by transnational organizations providing international visibility and in turn, “a new host of new actors, networks and forms of finance came into the urban arena in pursuit of climate change goals” (267).[2] In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis that was accompanied by an intensification of the climate crisis, climate urbanism began to form as a clear force in urban politics, practice, and thought.  

Resilience has been a key concept within climate urbanism. Urban climate change resilience (UCCR) is now at the heart of a growing scientific and policy literature, and many cities around the world have UCCR frameworks (Wardekker 2021).[3] UCCR is a wide-ranging concept that is framed and interpreted in highly variegated ways. Arjan Wardekker (2021) has explored four typical framings of UCCR: urban shock proofing; resilience planning; community disaster resilience; and resilience community development. Broadly UCCR is associated with helping cities plan for extreme weather events and worsening air quality and entails investing in infrastructure updates and “climate-smart” planning. UCCR is focused on adaptation to climate change. The climate urbanism concept focused on mitigation has been the idea of the “low carbon city.”[4] Plans to achieve “low carbon cities” broadly focus on “green” energy, investing in public and low emission transport, waste management, and building efficiency (“green” buildings). The policy approach for low carbon cities has typically been marked by a narrow framework focused on accounting and monitory systems to build complex models of the circulation of carbon through urban environments (Hodson and Marvin 2017, 16). This focus on carbon is driven in part by the rise of carbon markets that operate in some form across the world (in the EU, Canada, China, New Zealand, South Korea, Switzerland, and the US).

Arab Climate Urbanism

The language of climate change, and even climate urbanism, is now mainstream. No region or country can ignore the global shift in discourse and finance around climate change. Indeed, there has been over the past decade, as Mari Luomi (2021) has detailed, a move in the Arab countries at the policy level from an almost non-existent engagement with climate change, to a context in which nearly all countries in the region now have some level of policy development in relation to mitigation and adaptation. Another sign that the Arab region is increasing its engagement with climate change is signalled by the fact that COP27 is scheduled to be held in Egypt in 2022, followed by COP28 in the United Arab Emirates in 2023.[5] As part of this policy turn, I argue that the contours of climate urbanism are beginning to become visible in the Arab world which have implications for our understanding of the social process of urbanization in the region. Increased attention across countries, from Egypt to Kuwait, is evident in relation to public transport, building standards, energy use, and the urban hazards climate change poses.

In the Arab world, the energy intensive and nominally market-led urbanization over the past thirty years has been central to the region’s rapidly rising GHG emissions. It has also resulted in a significant increase in the number of people in the region exposed to hazards associated with climate change. Climate hazards are increasing in both frequency and severity. It is expected that more than 90 percent of the 300 million people exposed to super- and ultra-extreme heatwaves will live in urban centres in the Arab countries (Zittis et al. 2021). In 2016, the Kuwait Mitribah weather station recorded a temperature of 53.9 degrees Celsius, the uppermost temperature ever recorded in Asia and among the highest recorded on Earth. But climate change not only brings the challenge of ultra-extreme heat to the Arab region and its predominately urban inhabitants. The Arabian desert, one of the driest places on earth, is having to increasingly content with the consequences of floods in its expanding urban centres and ever more severe dust storms. Rising sea levels threaten the region’s coastal cities. The densely settled coastlines along the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, and the Mediterranean, as well as those who rely on the Nile Basin (an estimated 238 million people), are all at risk.

It has been money, rather than the hazards climate change poses, that has been the prime motivator for those in power in the region to attend to the issue of climate change.   The financial and economic stakes of climate urbanism, and its attendant concepts of UCCR (adaptation) and low carbon cities (mitigation), are vast. Trillions are required and will have to be reallocated –what Castree and Christophers (2015) identify as an “ecological switch” – from fossil fuel-intensive sectors, to build the required solar panels, wind farms, green building standards, and transport systems. The State of Cities Climate Finance estimates that between $11-20 billion per year will be required for adaptation alone and that in 2017-2018, an average of $384 billion was invested in urban climate finance. The report details that most of the urban climate finance is concentrated in OECD countries (Western Europe, $85 billion; North America, $47 billion and East Asia and the Pacific, $85 billion annually) and China. In the Arab world urban climate finance remains minimal to date. The State of Cities Climate Finance reports that urban climate finance in the MENA region accounted for $11 billion in 2017-2018. The IFC estimates that there is the potential for $142 billion in urban climate finance private sector opportunities annually.

It is becoming clear in financial centres around the world, including in the Arab region, that to tap into global capital markets you have to engage the field of green bonds. In 2020, Egypt launched a US$750 million sovereign “green” bond that was five times oversubscribed (and followed by a US$100 million bond in 2021 by the Commercial International Bank of Egypt). This was the first sovereign green bond in the region and much of these funds will be directed at urban contexts for “green recovery” projects. Many other countries in the region are preparing to raise capital through the issuance of green bonds. Saudi Arabia, through its sovereign wealth fund (PIF), is reportedly currently preparing to issue its first sovereign green bond. Abu Dhabi has announced that it is to launch the first regulated carbon credit trading exchange and clearing house in the world.

Green finance, mainly targeted at the built environment, is making its presence felt in the Arab world. Islamic finance has also developed instruments that utilize ideas of “sustainable finance” and “green finance.” Islamic green sukuk (understood as Islamic-compliant green bonds) have emerged following the world’s first green sukuk that was issued in 2017 by a Malaysian solar photovoltaic company (Liu and Lai 2021). These green sukuk are now becoming a Malaysian “innovation export” that are being adopted and acknowledged internationally (Liu and Lai 2021, 1909). In 2019, Majid Al Futtaim Holding issued the first Green sukuk by a GCC corporate for $600 million. A green finance sector has now formed across the Arab region. What constitutes “green” finance or a green project, the supervision of this financing, and the extent that this is all “greenwashing,” are all issues that need to be analysed and debated. But over the past decade, a green finance field has emerged in the region that has notably social and urban implications that needs further analytical interrogation.

The emergence of green finance has not meant that climate urbanism is a dominant framework in the Arab region. While more and more cities around the world have established at the very least adaptation plans (even if only a limited number have been implemented), most cities in the Arab world still have not. The weak municipal power in the region has likely contributed to the minimal presence of Arab cities in major climate urbanism networks, like C40 Cities. The Arab climate urbanism that has emerged has not been led or initiated by municipalities but by central government and is predominately pursued through private-public partnerships. This has resulted in the formation of many large scale urban mega projects that are clear and rather crude illustrations of “greenwashing.” It has created a “luxury” climate urbanism that is embedded in the urban projects of the rich and disconnected from the everyday realities of the majority of the region’s urban inhabitants.

The UAE’s model Masdar City (which has been the subject of a vast scholarly literature[6]), received great publicity as a zero-carbon, zero-waste, smart-, eco-city that would have 40,000 residents and 50,000 commuters and cost US$22 billion. According to Griffiths and Sovacool (2020), by 2019 about 10 percent of Masdar had been completed, few residents live there, and officially, rather than US$ 22 billion, it now has a budget of reportedly US$10billion (what has been spent and by whom, is not public information). It was never clear to those engaged in Masdar what “zero-carbon” meant (Günel 2019, 123). The greenwashing spectacle that Masdar City achieved has been repeated throughout the region. Dubai Sustainable City, for instance, the first “Net Zero Energy Development,” is a high-end real estate development that features 500 villas grouped into five residential clusters, it also includes a farm and an equestrian centre. In Egypt, the luxury tourist enclave of El Gouna has announced that it aims to be Africa’s first carbon-neutral city. In Saudi Arabia, the fantastical US$500 billion NEOM project announced that its first development – a city known as “The Line” – will be a “zero-carbon” city, extend over 170 km and house a million people, and plans include no cars or streets. While these projects are merely crude examples of greenwashing, they simultaneously articulate how Arab governments and key actors in the region see it as being important to signify their climate credentials and ecological consciousness. These urban spectacles, however, should not lead us to dismiss climate urbanism as a real material force or urban development logic in the region.

The more prosaic forms of Arab climate urbanism can be seen in transportation, a sector that has a large share of global GHG emissions. There has been a notable expansion and awareness of the need for greater public transport across the Arab region. Several cities have built or expanded existing metro and bus systems. Most notably, Saudi Arabia has recently established a mass transportation system plan for all its major cities. In Riyadh, a metro system is due to be opened very soon – with testing currently underway – that consists of six main lines, 85 stations, and covers 176 km. A bus network has also been launched along with it. The media reports that the metro system cost $22 billion. In Egypt, the third metro line is soon to open (expected to be June 2022) in Cairo and construction has begun on a fourth line with further lines planned. In Alexandria, there is significant investment being undertaken on expanding and rehabilitating the tram system. The train system across Egypt has also received notable investment in recent years. It is this type of large-scale concentrated diversions of investment that Castree and Christophers (2015) are pointing to in their hope that financers can achieve a massive “capital switch” along more eco-friendly lines. Of course, these initiatives are not enough to stem GHG emissions in the region or address the climate emergency. Equally, they are substantive material achievements that cannot be dismissed as “greenwashing.”

Less visible and flashy urban initiatives have also been developed and are growing in the region regarding climate urbanism but have not received the same scholarly attention as urban mega or infrastructure projects. Green building codes and standards are one notable example. While only the UAE and Jordan have established green building councils registered with the World Green Building Council, several councils across the region are being actively formed. Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Qatar all have “emerging” status for their councils and Bahrain and Palestine “prospective.” Most notably, Abu Dhabi has developed its own sustainable certification system for sustainable design. The Estidama program (similar to BREEAM and LEED) has a “Pearl Building Rating System (PBRS)” that encourages water, energy, and waste minimization, local material use, and aims to improve supply chains for sustainable and recycled materials and products. In 2010 an order was issued that all new buildings in Abu Dhabi must meet Estidama requirements. Saudi Arabia has also recently developed Mostadam (based on LEED). There has been a notable shift in attention toward “green” building regulations and their importance.


Arab climate urbanism is still in its infancy. The region’s major cities do not have urban climate change resilience (UCCR) strategies or climate action plans more broadly. Those projects that are framed as zero or low carbon urban initiatives are overwhelmingly crude examples of greenwashing, utilized to merely add an extra polish to luxury real estate developments. Furthermore, unlike climate urbanisms in other global regions, Arab climate urbanism is notably led by central governments rather than by municipalities (top-down) and is intensely financialized. The result of this is a distinctive Arab climate urbanism characterized almost entirely by large-scale infrastructure and urban mega-projects. These transformations in public transport, energy, building codes, and the rise of green finance are worthy of scholarly attention. But they are not an “ecological switch,” nor do they constitute “new rules of the ecological game.” This top-down financialized Arab climate urbanism also produces a profound disconnect between the inhabitants of the region’s cities, climate urbanism initiatives, and the significance of mitigation and adaptation efforts more broadly (see for example, Sharp et alia. 2021).

This paper seeks to be among the first to identify Arab climate urbanism as a field of policy and practice to encourage further scholarly and policy conversations to assist in the effort to forge the required socioeconomic reconfigurations into being. As the next two COPs bring the conversation around climate change to the region, I hope that this can create an opening for a more substantive conversation over the critical role urban contexts in the Arab world can have to mitigate the climate emergency, as well as their need to adapt to it. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made clear that climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet and that there remains a brief but rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future. An ecological fix remains possible, and inaction increasingly impossible.




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[1] The Paris Agreement agreed to the goal to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees and preferably 1.5 degrees. stands for the goal of trying to limit future warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has detailed that global warming of 1.5C – that we are on track to breach within two decades – will result in increases in the frequency and intensity of hot extremes, marine heatwaves, heavy precipitation, agricultural and ecological droughts, more intense tropical cyclones and reductions in Arctic Sea ice and permafrost. The IPCC has also stressed that a 2C increase would result in a notably worse outcome.

[2] “Networks” constituted mainly by municipal actors have been notable actors in the formation of low carbon urban policies. In the 2000s a range of networks emerged – such as the Cities for Climate Protection programme, Energy Cities, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, the European Covenant of Mayors, and the Asian Cities Climate Resilience Network – that made a significant impact on the scale and scope of municipal responses to climate change. These networks have continued to grow and solidify. The C40 Cities Group is now a network of mayors across 97 cities that seeks to “halve the collective carbon emissions of member cities within a decade, while promoting equity, building resilience”.

[3] Indeed, as part of COP26 a “race to resilience” initiative was launched as part of the climate adaptation summit. The Rockefeller Foundation, the major corporate engineering firm Arup and associations like the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network have been key in creating the normative templates for UCCR.

[4] This is not to suggest, however, that what constitutes a low carbon city is not a site of intense scholarly and policy debate (for an overview see, Luque-Ayala, Marvin and Bulkeley 2018).

[5] The Arab region has hosted two COPs previously both in Morocco (COP7 in 2001 and COP22 in 2016). Morocco is a notable exception regarding climate change in the Arab region and is seen as an international leader on climate change; it has sought international climate financing actively. But as Luomi (2021) outlines Morocco while the most active Arab country in terms of climate action, it has done this mainly orientated toward Africa and Europe and sought little regional cooperation with its Arab peers (318-319).

[6] The fact that Masdar City that is in its final physical form is an inconsequential architectural and urban project has attracted such a vast scholarship, should be cause for concern amongst urban scholars (see for instance: Günel (2019); Caprotti and Romanowicz (2013); Crot (2013); Cugurullo (2013, 2016); Cugurullo and Ponzini (2019); Evans, Schliwa and Katherine (2018); Griffiths and Sovacool (2020))