01/19/2012 11:36 am ET Updated Mar 20, 2012

Will the Post-Oil World Also Be the Post-American World?

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates -- That question just shouts itself from the stage of the World Future Energy Summit here. The opening plenary features UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon, and Abu Dhabi's Sultan Ahmed al Jaber, but also Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Korean President Kim Hwang-sik. The U.S. is not even mentioned by any of the speakers. And U.S. presence here is thin -- almost absent -- in terms of government engagement, even as just to the north the sabers rattle around the Straits of Hormuz and Iran's nuclear program.

It was Al Jaber who framed the world's challenge as one of shifting toward an agenda for growth through renewable energy, even while governments are having to cut budgets:

"We must be agile. We must deploy and demonstrate." He pointed out that the United Arab Emirates is now exporting renewables -- having built the world's first 24-hour thermal solar project in Spain -- even though his country has the world's ninth-largest oil reserves.

Ban ki-Moon explained the source of his passion for climate change and energy access for the poor:

"A single light bulb opened a whole new world for me as a young man in post-conflict Korea -- it enabled me to study -- to grow -- to develop my mind. I want to give this opportunity to everyone else."

"Energy poverty must end. It is neither just nor sustainable that one in five lacks access to modern energy."

That was the impetus for the Secretary General's launch of the UN's Sustainable Energy Access for All initiative, with its three goals:

  1. Universal access to modern energy by 2030. (Almost half of the world lacks either electricity or technology for clean cooking.)
  2. Doubling the rate of energy-efficiency improvements.
  3. Doubling the share of renewable energy in the global economy.

The Secretary General also strongly signaled that he won't let the seemingly endlessly bogged down formal UNFCC negotiations on climate prevent world action against the threat of climate disruption. He framed Rio + 20 as the moment for opening a new chapter, one focused on bottom-up, solutions-oriented climate action. "Rio is our generational opportunity to shape the world we want -- but it is not the end, but the beginning."

It was the Korean president who declared that we are moving into a "Post-Oil World."

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao provided the real news, and dominated the stage. He buried his lead in class Chinese fashion, beginning with a routine description of the outlines and dimensions of China's energy situation and policy.

Then he closed with four points: the first two quite conventional. Energy efficiency, he says, is the key to everything. Renewables are important but (in a hedge against criticism of Chinese reliance on coal) not ready to take over yet.

Then he made his move as the largest importer of Persian Gulf oil and the new focus of attention in this region. He deplored the lack of stability in global oil markets, said that prices have departed from levels justified by the supply-demand situation, said that speculation and volatility need to end, and called for a global, and binding set of rules to govern world oil trade. It was a direct challenge to OPEC and the control that oil producers have exercised over markets since the 1970s. It was said gently, though, in a non-threatening tone.

Wen Jiabao closed with his fourth point, a soothing bromide about the great desire of China to be a neighbor and friend to everyone in the region, softening still further the challenge posed by the idea of a globally regulated oil market.

While the Chinese premier buried his lead, it did not go unnoticed by his hosts. The National wrote "Beyond energy security, in turn, Mr Wen's Gulf visit offered an intriguing glimpse of a broad realignment that may link this region more closely with the big economies of Asia ... Mr Wen went so far as to suggest 'a global governance mechanism for energy, under the G20 framework, to stabilise oil and natural gas markets'. Producing countries will have little interest in surrendering influence over oil prices, but buyers are not alone in wanting a calm, predictable market...."

But there is more to the question of America's role than China's new centrality. The theme of this conference, driven home time and again, was innovation. A special plenary was led by Bertrand Piccard, who led the team that flew the Solar Impulse, the first solar aircraft to fly for a diurnal cycle, nighttime as well as day. He made it clear that the Impulse was not an effort to remake aviation but rather to "create a revolution in human consciousness. We have today all the solutions in our hands. " Piccard went on to say that the technologies demonstrated in the Solar Impulse would save half the world's energy use if deployed everywhere, and that we could already get the rest from renewables. "I'm very depressed when I go to conferences and hear that protecting the environment and protecting the climate is extremely expensive." As a doctor, he points out that CO2 emissions are not the disease, they are the symptom, that the disease is the wasteful burning of excessive fossil fuels, and that the therapy is clean technology.

Piccard was followed by the only American on the plenary stage,  13-year-old Aiden Dwyer, who has proposed that by using the Fibonacci series you could squeeze more power out of arrays of solar cells. Subsequent tests have suggested that Dwyer's original measuring techniques were incorrect, and that he has not in fact made a major breakthrough. But the point of his appearance was to underscore the need for creativity and a wiliness to challenge orthodoxy that is required by a clean energy future.

It's fascinating that this drive for innovation is welling up inside the Arab world, in a region best known in the West for its resistance to modernity and innovation. Oil alone does not break this pattern -- last year in Saudi Arabia I could feel the heavy hand of the past. And Abu Dhabi faces serious problems. Only 20 percent of its population are citizens, the other 80 percent are guest workers. But the country is not trying to hide this fact -- the opening video showcases the broad diversity of the population as it is, not as it once was -- and the themes of diversity and tolerance are driven home everywhere. And it is making way rapidly for its youth generation. The moderator of the plenary session, Aida Al Busaidy, was a 38-year-old Emirati journalist educated at Arkansas State.

How many nations would let someone that young introduce the Premier of China at the country's biggest showcase to the world?

So does the U.S. still matter here? Yes, it turns out, because we still provide a particular kind of leadership in clean energy, sustainability, and environmental protection -- we just don't provide it at the government level. The Zaid Energy Future prize, hosted at the Emirates Palace (by far the most-over-the-top hotel I have ever entered), shows where the U.S. still shines. The lifetime achievement winner is my Bay area neighbor, Ashok Gadgil, who won $500,000 for work including his Darfur stove project, a fuel-efficient cooking stove that has prompted a 55 percent drop in Darfur's use of firewood. General Electric was one of the three finalists for the most innovative major corporation. The second place NGO winner was a distributed solar company -- Orb Energy, India's biggest -- led by an American, Damian Miller, in a reversal of Gadgil's diaspora biography, while the Environmental Defense Fund came in third.

So Americans are still doing their part, even though as a nation state there is no longer American leadership of the kind that is needed. That's bad news for America, but perhaps worse news for the climate. Our broken politics are now becoming everyone's business -- but we're the ones who have to fix them.