01/18/2013 01:11 pm ET Updated Mar 20, 2013

Fault Lines in the Desert

This is a confoundingly contradictory place. It boasts an unusual national narrative rooted in sustainability, handed down by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founder of the United Arab Emirates and probably the first environmentally conscious head of state in history. It is the fifth largest hydrocarbon power on the planet and probably the largest investor in renewable energy. It sits next to Saudi Arabia where women cannot drive, but 37 percent of the engineering students at its top technical institute, Masdar, are women.

Its spectacular Grand Mosque boasts the world's largest carpet, whose green background is bordered with the sandy color of the desert, symbolizing the battle against the desert that is the heart of life here. But while this is a major center for desalinization of water, and reclaimed sewage is carefully used to irrigate the date palms that make this a garden city, the sheer impacts of oil wealth -- even spent within an environmental ethos -- drops the water table 5 meters a year. (One of the major projects of the Ministry of the Environment is solar pumping of water to sustain wildlife. )

The annual World Energy Future Summit has been linked this year to an International Water Summit. The head of Masdar, Abu Dhabi's environmental investment authority and research initiative, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, is his usual direct self in explaining why:

"We are confronted with a shared responsibility to balance between our growing economies and our limited resources. That balance rests on two deeply linked realities -- energy and water. While the UAE has the 5th largest reserves of oil, the UAE believes water is more important than oil. No longer we address energy without considering the water needed, nor water without considering the energy needed. After all, 50 percent of water is used to produce energy, while 7 percent of energy is used to pump water. This drives us to two key principals: reduce demand and improve technology -- through an integrated strategy. The place is here and the time is now."

But forceful as Al Jaber is, the whole landscape of these linked conferences is a mass of contradictions.

There are, to begin with, the dissenting voices. Suleiman Jasir Al-Herbish, a representative of OPEC sends a warning: "There is an opportunity cost here. If you tell us that you are not going to need our oil in twenty years, we won't spend billions of dollars that new oil fields require -- and when you need the oil, it won't be there."

Then there is the biggest social challenge posed by oil -- its uneven distribution within the region, the heart of Queen Rania of Jordan's concerns:

"The Arab world is at a critical juncture. There is a huge disparity within the region in access to energy. This stark disparity is evident in countries that share boundaries -- my country Jordan relies on imports to cover 96 percent of our energy needs. Let's begin with energy access. The most crippling effect of energy poverty is felt by children. Light at home to study by ought to be easy. Yet in Yemen [bordering Saudi Arabia] some days there is less than 1 hour of electricity -- and sitting under a street lamp to study is not an option for girls. So Injaz Yemen founded a solar company led by women. In the Sudan, midwives pray that mothers will give birth at daylight. One midwife told me of a delivery in which 'a very strong wind blew out the kerosene lamp. I was forced to continue in the darkness by feel.' Jordan is rich in our young population. But we are poor in the opportunities we offer them. This frustrated energy was spilling over into the Arab streets over the last two years. Finding a job the number one priority of Arab youth. With new energy we could fuel a solar revolution, build green energy and green jobs. In Jordan Bedouin women are training to be solar engineers to replace kerosene with solar. The Arab world is perfectly positioned not only to tap the new energy, but to lead it."

The contradictions on display here expand far beyond the region. Professor Jeffrey Sachs plays his accustomed role: truth-teller. "We are not a pathway to solve the climate crisis. We don't have plans, we don't have scenarios, we don't have trajectories, and we don't have public policies." Kandeh Yumkella of the UN's Sustainable Energy Initiative agrees, yes, we are on a pathway to a 4-degree increase in global temperature. But he also reminds the audience of the dilemma of countries that lack the energy that is essential for a decent life.

Adnan Amin, the head of the UN's IRENA renewable energy agency, frames the problem differently than Sachs. "We need a new way of doing things. We need an investment led approach. A top down normative approach won't work fast enough. The U.S. is in compliance with Kyoto because of less coal, more wind, and more natural gas. "

Amin pointed out that the latest report shows that in all remote locations off-grid is cheaper than conventional especially diesel. And teasingly he asked OPEC's Suleiman "to commit half of your portfolio to renewables if the report validates this statement." Suleiman doesn't bite.

Underneath all of these contradictions lies the core dilemma. For a century and a half investment has flowed into fossil fuels -- first coal, then oil and finally natural gas. But investment has not yet been mobilized for Sultan Al Jaber's two mandates -- reduce demand and improve technology -- at anything like the scale needed. Indeed, Bloomberg New Energy's latest report shows that investment in renewables in 2012 fell by more than 10 percent.

UNEP's Achim Steiner sums up:

"Oil and gas and fossil fuels were the cheapest option because we didn't look at all the costs. From this flowed the fact that engineers, policy makers and business leaders were trained to think in a way that made sens-e at the end of the 20th century. The whole problem is finance -- public-private money is promised, but is not moving -- Africa in particular is frozen -- we need accountability and responsibility for this failure. It's all about investment."

Emiratis frequently quote Sheikh Zayed as saying, "If you don't understand your past you don't have a future." The sustainability narrative that drives this country is infused with powerful cultural and historical lessons. These people love their landscape, stark and sear though it is. Their environmentalism is local. But their role as a major oil producer and their impact is global. And neither they nor the global leaders gathered here have yet come up with an equally convincing global narrative for how the world moves beyond a past based on strip-mining the planet for fuel and releasing the waste products into the atmosphere and waters.

This past is still threatening to strangle the future.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope is the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber -- of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."