As COP28 Kicks Off, Why Timber Skyscrapers Could Take Over Dubai!

UAE officials are now looking beyond steel, concrete and glazing to build the cities of the future

Sun 03 Dec 23


As world leaders gather in Dubai for the COP28 summit, the UAE is spending more than US $160 Billion to drive a net-zero agenda amid a rivalry with Saudi Arabia to become the Middle East’s “green power.”

Announced in October 2021, the UAE became the first country in the Middle East and North African region to deliver a plan for net zero, with Israel, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia (also in 2021) and Oman (in 2022) joining as part of a broader push for the region to embrace green technologies.

According to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the vice president, prime minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, the plan cements the Gulf state’s “leadership on climate change within our region and take this key economic opportunity to drive development, growth and new jobs as we pivot our economy and nation to net zero.”

The UAE commitment was made at COP26, along with Israel, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Footage courtesy of @TheEconomist.

Known as the “UAE Net Zero by 2050 Strategic Initiative”, the plan, expected to be updated at COP28, targets power, agriculture, infrastructure, and transportation.

The plan includes a commitment by the UAE to supply 25% of the world’s green hydrogen, establish the world’s largest carbon trading exchange in Abu Dhabi, and plant more than 100 million mangrove seedlings to restore ecosystems and sequester carbon.

It has also seen Dubai and Abu Dhabi beef up Green Building and Sustainability Standards, including Al Sa’fat (Dubai) and Estidama (Abu Dahabi) – both hybrids of Green Star, LEED and BREEAM, which emphasise operational energy over embodied carbon and water consumption.

Over the past decade alone, more than 45,000 projects covering more than 60 million square metres of commercial, industrial, and residential buildings and villas have been constructed to meet these standards.

Whilst new plan calls for more than 2000 buildings to be “retrofitted” to reduce operational emissions.

In November 2015, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of UAE and also the ruler of Dubai, launched the Dubai Clean Energy Strategy program. Footage courtesy of @innovativetechs3044.

In the last two decades, Dubai, in particular, has been the subject of one of the world’s most extensive mass urbanisation projects, leading to a 2.6-fold increase in electricity consumption and a 2.9-fold increase in grid capacity in the years leading up to the plan. 

However, with steel and concrete preferred by UAE developers over timber, officials are now grappling with a new challenge in their push to reduce emissions – the high embodied cost of steel and concrete, which now runs the risk of jeopardising their commitments.

According to the UN, concrete, steel, aluminium and glass – the four most popular construction materials used in Dubai-based developments are collectively responsible for 23% of global emissions, with the UN pushing for bio-based alternatives to replace materials.

UAE now needs to look at embodied carbon emissions from buildings in order to meet their climate commitments. Footage courtesy of @BuilderforClimateAction.

This has led the University of Wollongong in Dubai to host events for UAE officials, developers and builders to seize the initiative and embrace mass timber as a new solution for greenfield construction.

However, the push for the Middle East to embrace mass timber construction systems has been several years in the making.

In October 2019, Michael Obermair, the CEO of the German engineering business Wolf System, claimed that breakthroughs in manufacturing and the push for the green economy meant that it was only a matter of time before “wooden skyscrapers” would take off in the UAE.

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In September 2021, architectural practice URB has unveiled its plans to develop the world’s largest Urban Tech District along the Al Jaddaf Creekside in Dubai, UAEWith innovation and sustainability at its core, the project joins the global transition towards achieving net-zero carbon goals by proposing a host of ‘green’ programs and practices

Wolf System is a family-run contractor and sustainable construction services provider with 3,000 staff worldwide – including in the UAE and the wider region.

“Around the world, especially in Canada, Austria, Australia and Japan, we have seen in the last few years more and more timber high-rise buildings,” he said.

“The tallest ones… result in constructions which were completed significantly quicker than a concrete building of the same height.”

“Following this worldwide trend and commitment [to] sustainability, I do see timber skyscrapers taking off in the Middle East.”

Perhaps Mr Obermair is correct, and the 140,000 square metre Urban Tech District, set to be the world’s largest net-zero tech precinct, can be constructed from mass timber, bamboo, recycled steel and concrete!


  • Jason Ross

    Jason Ross, publisher, is a 15-year professional in building and construction, connecting with more than 400 specifiers. A Gottstein Fellowship recipient, he is passionate about growing the market for wood-based information. Jason is Wood Central's in-house emcee and is available for corporate host and MC services.


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