World Future Energy Summit

The emirate of Abu Dhabi — one of the world’s leading oil and gas producers — has its focus on the future. A post-oil future. Abu Dhabi has started to put into practice a bold commitment to renewable and sustainable technologies that will enable it to continue as an energy leader after oil has declined.

But when it comes to low-carbon living right now, there’s a long way to go in this part of the world. The United Arab Emirates, or UAE — comprising Abu Dhabi (which accounts for almost 90% of the land area), Dubai and five smaller states —  has per capita emissions of CO2 that dwarf those of Europe and even the United States. (World Bank figures from 2005 put UAE yearly emissions at 30 metric tons per capita, Germany at 9.5 and US at 19.5. UAE neighbor Qatar was calculated at 56 metric tons per capita, per year.)

These high yearly emissions are due in part to transport, which is almost entirely car-based, while cooling of buildings is another big contributor to CO2 emissions. A particular load comes from the mostly fossil power that goes into seawater desalination. In addition, gas flaring may also be included in these figures.  To put it simply, creating comfortable human living conditions in a hot, desert environment is a global challenge. And when financial constraints are minimal, which is the case in this region, then it’s no surprise that energy consumption, and its consequent CO2 emissions, just skyrocket. (The UAE ratified the Kyoto Treaty in 2005, but as a developing country has no obligation under that treaty to reduce its carbon output.)

Though Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City is due to be zero carbon, the wider UAE blueprint for an energy future is not for 100% renewables but for a mix. According to UAE Minister of Energy Mohamed Bin Dhaen Al-Hamil,  “Alternative energy development is a necessity — the world economy is growing and fossil fuel will not be enough to meet that growth.  In the foreseen future, fossil fuel, nuclear and renewable energy will complement each other significantly.”

Pulling Power

Last week saw the third World Future Energy Summit take place in Abu Dhabi. While some commentators thought the glitz and glamour of previous years had been toned down a little, there’s no doubting Abu Dhabi’s remarkable ‘pulling power’ in gathering together heads of state and energy ministers, playing an important role in putting this part of the world firmly on the map as the key forum for clean energy. This year, the opening session saw heads of state and prime ministers from half a dozen countries present their viewpoints and national plans, while the afternoon plenary hosted no fewer than 15 energy or environment ministers in two discussion panels. The first was made up of ministers from China, Egypt, Ghana, India, Japan, Korea, Qatar and UAE, the second of ministers from Alberta (Canada), Germany, Finland, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK.

Post-Copenhagen Perspectives

Coming almost exactly one month since the climate change talks in Copenhagen, the first two days of the World Future Energy Summit provided political leaders and sector experts with the opportunity to review what progress — if any — had been made in Denmark, and in some cases, the chance to express their frustration. There was broad agreement amongst practically all speakers who talked about Copenhagen that while it had — of course — been a disappointment, it wasn’t a disaster. 

Perhaps the severest critic of the Copenhagen conference was Bianca Jagger, calling the Copenhagen Accord ‘a shameful compromise’, and saying that expectations were thrown off course when the United States announced a target that was only 3.5% reduction over 1990 levels. She bemoaned the fact that the fund of $100 billion per year to help developing countries to counter climate change was not a firm commitment, with no mechanisms put in place to raise or deliver it. Other speakers were more positive about the fund, confident that the mechanics would rapidly be put in place. As one speaker put it, Copenhagen was a very important milestone — but not the end of the story.

UAE Minister for Environment and Water, Dr Rashid Ahmed Bin Fahad, was one of the speakers who thought the talks had failed to deliver in part because expectations were so high. He also thought countries’ refusal to agree on reductions, or a timeframe, actually calls into question their seriousness, making it almost impossible to reach a binding decision during conference, or in the near future.

President of the United Nations Foundation, Senator Timothy Wirth  (U.S.) said it should not be underestimated that, thanks to the Copenhagen process, the political leadership from around the world now “know their brief” — they have had to grapple with the issues involved with climate change mitigation, and do understand them. “I think Copenhagen was enormous step forward in terms of political process.”  Several speakers agreed that the Copenhagen process had resulted in a shift in the world’s power balance. In Wirth’s words, no longer would it be G8 leaders, nor white Anglo-Saxon males setting the agenda. With a new political reality comes a new political opportunity.

Certainly there was a general agreement amongst all the policy speakers that international and regional cooperation is needed, and particularly cooperation between developed and developing countries, both in climate negotiations and in implementation of new technologies. China’s Ambassador Wong talked about use of renewable energy to help stem flow of population to cities. In 2008 China invested more than US $20 billion in renewable energy, not including large hydro, and the 2009 figure will be higher. India and Ghana stressed need for technology transfer so their countries can maximize their use of renewable energy.

Investment Follows Policy

One steady message from the conference was the need for stable, long-term policy to encourage renewable energy investment — what speaker Kirsty Hamilton of the Renewable Energy Finance Project called “investment-grade policy.” Chairing a panel that included Suntech Power’s CEO, Zhenrong Shi, the economist Lord Nicholas Stern recognized positive outcomes from Copenhagen — such as the pre-Copenhagen commitments made by many countries. His big concern however, was the “unwillingness to face up to necessary cuts.”

By being unwilling to look the consequences of climate change in the eye, countries are also failing to see the many opportunities. The role of business is essential, and businesses will move its investments to countries where policy is better and stronger, said Stern. Politicians of the world need to get out of the defensive mode they often get into and recognize opportunities. “And it’s up to business to show them how large those opportunities can be.”

Not Just CO2, But H2O

Not surprisingly in this desert environment, the influence of the changing climate on water was an ongoing theme. Dr Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Director General of TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute, India), told the conference that as early as 2020 water scarcity and water stress will affect 75 to 200 million people in Africa. And in the United States, the West and Midwest would also face heatwaves and water shortages. The previous day, Ghana’s environment minister said that reduced water flow there was already impacting output from hydro plants, while India’s minister for New and Renewable Energy, Dr Farooq Abdullah, spoke about the impacts that reduced glacial flow could have in India and Bangladesh.

One of the key points made by Vestas CEO Ditlev Engel was that water consumption must be factored in when new technologies are selected. “CCS [carbon capture and storage] plants as we know them today almost double the water consumption of a coal plant,” he pointed out. In another session, Professor Susan Roaf also urged energy planners — especially in this region — to consider the cooling requirements for nuclear power plants before committing to developments of new nuclear energy.

Into Practice

Outside the policy sessions of the first two days, conference tracks also ranged beyond renewable energy to focus on issues such as transport, sustainable cities, CCS and investment. Alongside, numerous roundtable discussions and showcase sessions catered to specific interests. Out on the show floor a wide range of renewable/clean technology companies exhibited independently and within large national pavilions. The image, left, shows the Fuhrlander booth.

The World Future Energy Summit is a project launched and run by Masdar. Masdar is a government-owned initiative established by Abu Dhabi to prepare the emirate for a future energy industry less reliant on oil and gas, and has four integrated units: Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (developed in cooperation with Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Masdar City (Abu Dhabi’s zero carbon, zero waste city of the future), Masdar Power (a renewable energy power project developer that is developing a 100-MW CSP project — SHAMS — in Abu Dhabi and has overseas interests, such as a share in the UK’s London Array offshore wind project), and Masdar Carbon (working on monetization of carbon and also developing a carbon capture and research network within Abu Dhabi). Abu Dhabi was also successful in attracting the newly formed IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency) to base itself in the emirate, and IRENA will be one of the first occupants of Masdar City.

Sceptics may ask whether Abu Dhabi’s future energy initiative is serious, or merely green posturing on a grand scale. In the end, like any nation, business or individual, Abu Dhabi will be judged on its actions over time, rather than its plans and aspirations. Certainly the signs are promising, with the emirate’s considerable financial resources being directed into building a resource and knowledge center that will be invaluable for the region and beyond. And this annual event, run under the Patronage of His Highness General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan,

Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, has itself raised the clean energy debate to a new level by bringing in heads of state and ministerial-level speakers from around the globe. There’s a way to go, but the blueprint looks impressive, and this leading oil-producing nation is taking remarkable steps in putting into practice its vision for a clean energy future.

Jackie Jones is a consulting editor with Renewable Energy World.  She is the former Editorial Director of Renewable Energy World Magazine and is based in the UK.

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