The curtain lifts this week on the United Nations and Climate Week, and yet Libya still churns, nuclear concerns persist post-Japan and one thing is clear: we can no longer dodge the need for greater global energy coordination that balances both eco-wisdom and consumption. Recent events should serve as a catalyst for the kind of unprecedented energy cooperation I witnessed earlier this year in a counterintuitive venue -- the Middle East.
In the midst of this year's "Arab Spring," approximately 149 countries formalized the creation of the International Renewable Energy Agency called IRENA, a relatively new entity designed to accelerate renewable energy adoption -- but ironically headquartered in oil-plenty Abu Dhabi.
With a UN-like membership roster, IRENA and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are creating a new model for a renewable energy policy framework that positively impacts climate change, transforms economies and assists in long-term energy security.
Fossil fuels in the same neighborhood as renewable energy innovation? The irony is lost on no one. The UAE has 10 percent of the world's oil reserves and ranks fifth in natural gas. Given the constant stream of income that these reserves produce, the Emirates could sustain themselves on oil for decades to come. With an enviable position in the Human Development Index and top quarter GDP ranking per capita in the world, there was no obvious need for change.
But instead, the UAE made a bold and deliberate, long-term commitment years ago to lead the world in clean technologies. They re-imagined their future not as a preeminent oil producer, but as a global pioneer in this sector. They had a simple but critical goal: To transform what might otherwise become an oil curse into an energy cure.
As revolutions roil the energy-rich Middle East and N. Africa regions, the UAE's early pivot to renewable energy now seems prescient -- and could provide an anchor of political stability for the wider region. States everywhere should pay heed to the two insights that drove the thinking of their leadership.
The first was that energy policy undergirds almost all of its government's missions -- to grow and diversify the economy, create jobs for women and youth, ensure national security, safeguard the environment, and build sustainable institutions, among others. In the absence of a smart, holistic approach to energy such as this, states are placing the future of their societies at risk.
The second insight was that developing clean energy technologies requires deep cooperation among nations, innovators, and corporations. Fostering these relationships can pay dividends not only in the form of greener energy and significant profits, but in greater international security as well. Inter-dependence defines the emerging, low-carbon energy era.
The UAE's dedication to renewable energy at home is unmistakably profound. Its signature initiative in this respect is Masdar City, the innovative sustainable community fully powered by renewable energy. A five-stage project, Masdar City is a sustainable, cutting edge urban development that serves as a magnet for clean-tech companies and a test-bed of renewable energy and sustainable technologies. Masdar City is part of the broader Masdar Initiative, a holistic, integrated approach to deploy clean technologies through investment and academic partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Governments and corporations continue to flock to Masdar to become part of the wave of innovation. Masdar's engineering-oriented CEO Dr. Sultan A. Al Jaber, and the U.S. Department of Energy recently announced a collaboration to test the performance of specially coated solar photovoltaic modules designed to avoid the moisture and cementation problems currently faced by PV module producers worldwide. GE, meanwhile, will open its first Ecoimagination Center next to IRENA's anticipated headquarters (which should be noted, will be among the world's rare positive-energy buildings). Siemens will implement in Masdar an innovative power grid combined with advanced building technologies, thus serving as both as an energy-efficient power solution and a living R&D platform. Siemens also is establishing an anchor presence in Masdar City, housing its Middle East Headquarters there as well.
The UAE is under no illusion about how quickly clean-energy technologies will be adopted. Fossil fuels remain absolutely essential -- without them, global economic growth and poverty alleviation would be impossible. But the key is for the world to proactively use the fossil fuels we have as a bridge to a zero-carbon world several generations from now.
It might be a stretch to say that historians will look back on IRENA's debut and the UAE's role promoting renewable energy as being as pivotal for international peace as was the founding of the United Nations in 1945. But perhaps not. The world is living through a necessary energy enlightenment that can form the basis of the next industrial revolution -- and thus be an engine of global development, social justice, and international cooperation. Thus the importance of the work being led by IRENA and the leadership of Emirates should not be underestimated.
Bill Richardson is a former US Energy Secretary, Governor of New Mexico and UN Ambassador
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