Owing to its significant solar and wind potential, the Middle East and North African (MENA) region has the opportunity to lead the decarbonization of the global steel industry.
Emphasized in a recent report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, the regional steel industry – which currently represents one of the most competitive globally – has already taken significant strides to decarbonize through the application of direct reduced iron-electric arc furnace technology (DRI-EAF).
Now, with new opportunities emerging across the green hydrogen landscape and government objectives to accelerate the transition even further, the MENA region is set to lead the world in the adoption of green hydrogen within the steel industry.
“The MENA region can lead the world if it shifts promptly to renewables and applies green hydrogen in its steel sector. MENA has an established supply of DR-grade iron ore and its iron ore pelletizing plants are among the world’s largest. In 2021, MENA produced just 3% of global crude steel but accounted for nearly 46% of the world’s DRI production,” said Soroush Basirat, author of the Institute for Energy Economies and Financial Analysis report.
With the region offering the highest potential for photovoltaic power globally – with theoretical production estimated at more than 5.8 KWh per m² – converting existing gas-powered generating plants to green hydrogen would create a carbon-free steel industry in the region. Decarbonizing the steel industry aligns with the World Bank’s prediction that by 2050, more than 83GW of wind and 334GW of solar will be added to the regional energy mix, improving the provision of clean energy and making the conversion to green hydrogen-powered steel production that much simpler.
“MENA’s knowledge of this specific steel technology is an invaluable asset. This production knowledge, abetted by further work on iron ore beneficiation, pelletizing and DR plants, is among the most important steel decarbonization pillars, and will greatly assist MENA’s transition. Compared to other regions, MENA’s existing DRI-EAF capacity means that no extra investment is needed for replacing the base technology. All new investment could be focused on expanding production of green hydrogen among other renewables. If it acts fast, MENA has the potential to lead the world in green steel production,” Basirat said.
It’s an essential component of the design process, where spatial ideations are translated into built form – the design of the prototype. Architectural projects, throughout history and in contemporary practice, have been prototyped to carry out both technical and aesthetic tests, where further insight is gained into the integrity of the design. It’s the blurred line between the experimental and the practical.
Antoni Gaudí’s 1:25 and 1:10 scale plaster models of Sagrada Família can be defined as architectural prototypes, and so can the wooden model of Filippo Brunelleschi’s Florence Cathedral dome. But these are investigations conducted on a smaller scale. It can be argued that architectural prototypes are most effective when built out 1:1, from which further architectural interventions based on the prototype have the security of a design attempt that is not a scaled-down version of the finished product.
But the making of these prototypes is a protracted endeavor – necessitating the complex maneuvering of resources, labor, and capital – for a structure that aims to merely lay the foundations for how similar designs should be approached in the future.
When scrutinized from the perspective of the Global South, this dialogue is complicated further – in countries that have been historically over-exploited and are currently under-resourced, are full-scale architectural prototypes wasteful if they don’t immediately function as a working building? Is it right for these prototypes to simply exist as say, explorations of new materials without serving as a structure that will be in constant use from its inception?
In colonial Africa, architectural experimentation was commonplace, from Fry and Drew in West Africa to Guido Ferrazza in Libya. This experimentation included that of French industrial designer and architect Jean Prouvé, who in 1949 developed Maison Tropicales – prefabricated, modular housing prototypes constructed out of aluminum designed to be easily transported, assembled, and disassembled.
The design problem that the Maison Tropicales had to solve was climatic – as France’s African colonies faced a shortage of housing and civic buildings. The prototype was designed for the equatorial climate, including a veranda with an adjustable aluminum sun-screen. Internally, walls were made of a combination of sliding and fixed metal panels – as glass portholes provided protection against UV rays.
But despite this resourceful, ingenious response to the tropical climate, the Maison Tropicale as a prototype failed. It was no less expensive than locally constructed buildings, and the French colonial bureaucrats did not warm to the industrial appearance of the house. The prototype, ultimately, was a colonial project built for French administrators. A prototype built for the colonial class that proved unpopular with them, and that instead of being widely adopted, was resigned to be a traveling object, making frequent appearances in design exhibitions. This prototype of the African Tropics became a design object that to most, was known outside of its intended context.
But contemporary practice in the Global South has offered up more substantial prototypes, where investigations into materials are coupled with substantial usage. Senegalese firm Worofila’s Ecopavillon in Diamniadio, constructed in 2019, is one such example. Commissioned by the Ministry of the Environment of Senegal, it is built with earth and typha – a type of water reed found in the Senegal River. Woven typha panels provide sound insulation, and when mixed with adobe bricks, provide thermal insulation.
As the prototype is part of the Senegalese government’s initiative to build a new city to ease congestion in Dakar, its usage is still in its early stages. The intention, though, is clear. The Ecopavillon will allow the monitoring of how the building’s materials behave, and performance can be assessed. the behavior of materials and to measure the performance of buildings. Furthermore, it can act as a training venue for craftspeople, where local knowledge of energy-efficient materials can be further developed.
The most tangible example of a living prototype in the Global South, however, is arguably found in Bangladesh, in Marina Tabassum Architects’Khudi Bari. It is a modular mobile housing unit, with an area of 128 square feet. Its light footprint and elevated form mimic the architectural vernacular of the Bengal delta, but more pressingly, it responds to climate change.
In an area with high instances of flash flooding, the raised second level acts as shelter for occupants as they await the receding of the water. In the Chars of Bangladesh – low-lying islands naturally formed by silt from rivers – the spaceframe structure is a crucial response, low cost, durable, and easily assembled and disassembled with minimum labor.
The true success of the Khudi Bari project can only be measured by what happens after the housing modules are built. A pilot project initiated by a non-profit organization affiliated with Marina Tabassum Architects in conjunction with private and governmental donors aims to establish at least 80 to 100 “Khudi Bari” modules in the flood-prone communities of Bangladesh by May 2023.
More crucially, March 2021 saw the first three homes built in collaboration with families, with some adapting their modules, with the vision for the future being that people involved in this pilot project will then become part of the training collective as the modules are initiated in other areas.
Perhaps this is how architectural prototypes built in the Global South should function – as bold, inventive assemblages, that are not only for observation and display, but instead examples of architecture that is dynamic, in use, and living.
Standards are a hidden part of the information and communications technology networks and devices that we all use every day. Though rarely perceived by users, they are vital in enabling the interconnection and interoperability of ICT equipment and devices manufactured by hundreds of thousands of different companies around the world.
For example, 95% of internet traffic is on fiber, built on standards from the International Telecommunication Union, a specialized agency of the United Nations for ICT. ITU has also played a leading role in managing the radio spectrum and developing globally applicable standards for 5G cellular networks.
But while technical standards are clearly indispensable for business and society to work in our industrialized world, it is also becoming clear that technical standards have a key role in addressing the Sustainable Development Goals.
Indeed, the focus of the recent ITU Global Standards Symposium, which brought together more than 700 industry leaders and policymakers, was how standards can help address some of the most pressing needs of the planet, such as eradicating poverty or hunger and mitigating climate change.
To address SDGs 1 and 2 on ending poverty and hunger, an ITU focus group on “Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) for Digital Agriculture” is working toward new standards to support global improvements in the precision and sustainability of farming techniques.
Under ITU and the World Health Organization, a focus group on “Artificial Intelligence for Health” aims to establish an “open code” benchmarking platform, highlighting the type of metrics that could help developers and health regulators certify future AI solutions in the same way as is done for medical equipment. Also, standards for medical-grade digital health devices — such as connected blood pressure cuffs, glucose monitors, or weight scales — are helping prevent and manage chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Standards are helping bring broadband to rural communities with lightweight optical cable that can be deployed on the ground’s surface with minimal expense and environmental impact. The installation of ultrahigh-speed optical networks typically comes with a great deal of cost and complexity. Standards can change that equation by providing a solution able to be deployed at low cost with everyday tools.
To address SDG 11 on sustainable cities and communities, more than 150 cities around the world have started evaluating their progress toward smart-city objectives and alignment with the SDGs using so-called key performance indicators based on tech standards. These cities are supported by United for Smart Sustainable Cities, an initiative backed by ITU and 16 other U.N. partners.
International standards, recognized around the world, are essential for making technologies … accessible and useful to everyone, everywhere.
Addressing SDGs related to climate action and green energy, ITU standards for green ICT include sustainable power-feeding solutions for 5G networks, as well as smart energy solutions for telecom sites and data centers that prioritize the intake of power from renewable energy sources. They also cover the use of AI and big data to optimize data center energy efficiency and innovative techniques to reduce energy needs for data center cooling.
Financial inclusion is another key area of action to achieve SDG 1 on ending poverty. Digital channels are bringing life-changing financial services to millions of people for the very first time. Enormous advances have been made within the Financial Inclusion Global Initiative and the associated development of technical standards in support of secure financial applications and services, as well as reliable digital infrastructure and the resulting consumer trust that our money and digital identities are safe.
However, the complexity of global problems requires numerous organizations with different objectives and profiles to work toward common goals. Leading developers of international ICT standards need to work together to address the SDGs, using frameworks such as the World Standards Cooperation, with the support of mechanisms such as the Standards Programme Coordination Group — reviewing activities, identifying standards gaps and opportunities, and ensuring comprehensive standardization solutions to global challenges.
Including a greater variety of voices in standards discussions is crucial. It is particularly important that low- and middle-income countries are heard and that a multistakeholder approach is made a priority to have a successful and inclusive digital transformation.
Uncoordinated and noninclusive standardization can spell lasting harm for countries that already struggle to afford long-term socioeconomic investments. Without global and regional coordination, today’s digital revolution could produce uneven results, making it imperative that all standards bodies work cohesively.
Sustainable digital transformation requires political will. It was notable that last year in Italy for the first time, leaders from the G-20 group of nations used their final communiqué to acknowledge the importance of international consensus-based standards to digital transformation and sustainable development.
This important step could not have been made by one standards body alone.
Cities, governments, and companies face a significant learning curve while adopting new tech as part of low-carbon, sustainable, citizen-centric development strategies to meet the challenge of addressing the SDGs. International standards, recognized around the world, are essential for making technologies in areas like digital health and 5G — combined with bigger and better data use — accessible and useful to everyone, everywhere.
The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex’s editorial views.
About the author
Chaesub Lee is the director of the Telecommunication Standardization Bureau at the International Telecommunication Union, a specialized agency of the United Nations for ICT. Lee has contributed to ICT standardization for over 30 years, specializing in areas such as integrated services digital networks, global information infrastructure, internet protocol, next-generation networks, internet protocol television, and cloud computing.
Desert tech can transform MENA’s agricultural sector
ABU DHABI, Technological innovations being developed and implemented have the potential to alter production, supply chains, and consumption patterns drastically, in the Middle East and Nort Africa’s (MENA) agritech and foodtech sectors.
Also, rapidly growing interest among Venture Capital funds and sovereign funds to invest in desert tech innovation is bound to grow with state-led food security initiatives, writes Zada Haj, CEO of DANA, the Abu-Dhabi based venture builder and investment platform.
The regional agriculture market is projected to grow at a compounded annual rate of 5.7% through 2026 – not the least because the impact of technology promises to deliver new levels of productivity.
Beginning of their growth
MENA’s agritech and foodtech sectors – or, specific to the region, ‘desert tech’ – are just at the beginning of their growth, expanding especially rapid within the UAE, KSA, North Africa, and Israeli markets. Unlike other emerging sectors, like ecommerce or fintech, agritech and foodtech do not yet enjoy a robust ecosystem of regional entrepreneurs and investors.
A main reason for this difference lies in the long history of agriculture. Farming and food production form the basis of the oldest commercial practices of our region. While the agricultural knowledge accumulated over millennia is an invaluable resource, it has also had the side-effect of slowing the speed with which technology penetrates this old market.
Agriculture and food production make up a large percentage of MENA countries’ GDP. For example, 14% of Egypt’s and 16% of Morocco’s GDP rely entirely on the on the agricultural sector.
Desert tech solutions
For these large markets to maintain their significance and sufficient levels of production in the face of climate change-induced water scarcity, there is dire need for desert tech solutions to be implemented at scale.
Agricultural and other food exports also must adjust to increasingly high standards of EU premium markets – a task agritech and foodtech will play a key part in addressing.
Entrepreneurial spirit is met with a welcome regulatory initiative on the part of Mena governments, leading the way for desert tech to become the new standard in agriculture.
Increasing food production
The KSA is implementing the Sustainable Agricultural Rural Development Programme 2018-25, while the UAE has issued the National Food Security Strategy 2051. Both measures are geared to increase local food production through technology, regulation, and investment.
Qatar’s State Food Security Projects 2019-23 includes establishing an integrated food waste programme, and Morocco’s Green Generation 2020-30 initiative strives to create conditions for high-quality agritech innovation.
Sovereign funds and investment vehicles – important facilitators of growth in the region – have also started to invest more in desert tech. The Abu Dhabi Investment Office invested $100 million in four agritech companies in 2020, while the SVC has invested in several funds backing agritech companies.
While these initiatives are indicative of increased sector relevance and value, the regulatory hurdles are still a significant challenge for the agritech, foodtech, and desert tech sectors. Some regulations in place make it difficult to implement new solutions to be approved and technology to be imported.
The private sector is only getting started to follow suit. Between 2014 and 2020, private investment in desert tech startups amounted to $250 million – a sum split between 33 investments.
At the same time, desert tech’s potential is far from being understood well enough to be accurately priced in at this point in time.
Understanding these sector trends, and acting on them, Dana is one of the very few pioneering platforms in Mena focusing exclusively on desert tech solutions for sustainability in arid climates. “We achieve this by emphasising agrifood innovation through offering in-house pilots and proof-of-concept with our network of beta sites and experimental farms, and identifying solutions that are specifically oriented to the needs and technological literacy of MENA farmers, food producers, and supply chains.”
Successful investment in the agrifood space, and therefore the sector’s growth, are directly tied to the availability of technology infrastructure to convert academic research, prototypes, and early stage patents into commercial operations. This is only made possible by opportunities to test and implement in the field.
Setting an example
This process is not only about effective due diligence, but also sets the example for how private sector entities interested in desert tech should set up infrastructure to serve the ecosystem and their portfolio.
Another contributing factor for desert tech sector growth are new environmental standards being on the rise globally. This trend will become especially salient for the region with the upcoming COP27 and COP28 being held in Egypt and Abu Dhabi.
While the GCC’s investment culture has traditionally favoured low risk, the maturing regional startup ecosystem and increased private funding have opened new opportunities for capital and time intensive ventures – like most desert tech innovations. Often having a longer timeline, this is frequently paired with higher and more stable returns. Mena’s sector growth is in line with global trends showing the rise of agritech and foodtech everywhere.
“Get an electric vehicle!” This might be the first idea that comes to mind when considering how to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from transportation at the community level. Fossil fuels are widely recognized as a significant source of emissions due to the large amount of CO2 they produce when burned, but what about the emissions associated with electric vehicles (EVs)?
Globally, people have shifted toward electric cars in an effort to “go green” and support the universal goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, and to limit global warming to no more than 1.5°C, as called for in the United Nations’ Paris Agreement. Additionally, the World Bank Group has advocated for the decarbonization of the energy and transport sectors by halting investments in upstream oil and gas (2019), and pledging to invest 50% of climate finance in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in interventions that help to build resilience, guided by regional and country-specific demand.
In line with these goals, governments in the MENA region have been motivated to encourage their populations to purchase EVs instead of conventional ones that run on gasoline. The UAE, for instance, has launched a regulatory policy for EV charging infrastructure and established the “EV Green Charger Initiative,” a free network of charging stations across the country. As a result, the popularity of EVs in Dubai has risen over the last seven years, with the total number in operation increasing from just 71 to 5,107. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has seen similar growth and is currently ranked in the top 50 countries worldwide according to the AlixPartners Automotive Electrification index, indicating 36% growth in the sale of EVs.
If the increasing popularity and demand for EVs is driven by a consumer and state-level desire to reduce CO2 emissions, it’s important to understand that they store and consume electricity that was generated from other sources, including fossil fuels and natural gas.
The MENA region is actively working on an energy transition plan that shifts away from fossil fuels, oil, and natural gas, all of which still account for the majority of energy generation portfolios for countries across the region. For example, until 2020, renewable energy and low-carbon sources accounted for less than 1% of total energy generation in Saudi Arabia, meaning EVs in the country likely relied overwhelmingly on fossil fuel-generated electricity. This is also the case in Morocco, often regarded as the region’s climate leader, even though renewables account for just two-fifths of the nation’s electricity capacity. So, the question becomes: Are EVs really as “green” and as environmentally friendly as their reputation suggests?
Regional governments are undertaking extensive efforts to shift energy production toward environmentally cleaner technologies for the benefit of both the climate and public health, but how quickly is that initiative progressing? What is a realistic timeline for green and renewable technologies (e.g., wind and solar) to become the dominant source of energy generation? And in the meantime, how should the international community view their environmental credentials?
The “green” reputation of EVs seemingly disregards the environmental impact of producing them, especially the key component that enables them to store electricity: their batteries. These batteries are manufactured from various metals that must be mined. For instance, lithium-ion batteries (Li-ion), considered the top of the line for EVs and used by Tesla, require a number of metals besides lithium, such as cobalt, nickel, manganese, and copper.
The mining of these components comes with environmental concerns. In the long term, does the earth hold enough of these minerals and materials to support a full global shift to EVs? In the short term, the rapid increase in demand for batteries has created a new challenge of ensuring an adequate supply of natural resources. Some of these materials are already in short supply, due to supply chain issues associated with the global pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. This creates an artificial shortage and gives rise to opportunistic price gouging, whereby car dealerships are selling EVs at double their list price while manufacturers are heavily reducing their production.
Putting the price and supply dynamics aside, manufacturing these vehicles creates a tremendous environmental burden, as the process requires digging up and processing around 500,000 pounds of the earth’s crust to produce one battery.
While there is a broad range of lithium extraction methods available, the primary ones —including hard-rock mining and extraction of lithium from brine water — require large amounts of energy. These processes disturb the natural water table, local biodiversity, and the ecosystem of nearby communities. For example, nickel mining and refining practices have already resulted in documented damage to freshwater and marine ecosystems in Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and New Caledonia.
Pollution from these operations not only impacts oceans and ecosystems but also induces environmental hazards throughout the battery lifecycle from mining materials for their production to disposing of old batteries at landfills, creating health risks for workers and affecting nearby communities due to the toxicity of heavy metals such as lithium.
Taking these issues into consideration, just how much do EVs really limit overall emissions? And are they a path to net-zero emissions for the MENA region? Considering the environmental costs of EV production and usage, it might be more prudent for regional governments to first prioritize and achieve sustainable energy transitions before fully advocating for the use of EVs.
Athra Khamis is a Non-Resident Scholar with the Climate and Water Program at the Middle East Institute. Her areas of expertise include climate change scenarios, atmospheric composition, water resource analysis, environmental ecosystems, and sustainability.
The above featured image is a Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images
MEI is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.
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