12/06/2012 02:39 pm ET Updated Feb 05, 2013

From Oil to Renewables

This week's United Nations climate talks are being held in the oil-rich Middle East -- a region now making a strategic shift to renewable energy. While some people may find it ironic that countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are making massive investments in renewable energy, we think it is absolutely fitting and a logical step.

Since the first oil concessions were signed in the Middle East, our hydrocarbon resources have been the backbone of economic growth. Today, those same resources are providing the financial underpinning for an economic transformation the world has never before seen.

Leveraging decades of expertise gained as exporters of conventional energy, the Middle East, and in particular the Gulf, is now poised to become exporters of clean, renewable energy. And the addition of renewable energy is critical to our long-term economic diversification. The region is also embracing the realities of climate change, energy access and security, and heavily invested in accelerating the adoption of renewable energy.

In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the government is planning a $109 billion investment to develop 41 gigawatts of solar power. That's enough electricity to power three million U.S. homes. And just like the rest of the world, Saudi Arabia needs to diversify its own energy mix to keep up with the rising demand for electricity.

In the UAE, we have embarked on a program to transform our economy from one based on resource depletion to one based on resource enrichment. By focusing on education and developing our tremendous human capital, we are working to empower our most important resource -- our people -- with the knowledge, skills and abilities to lead in the new energy economy. To do so, we are investing in the full value chain of a renewable energy industry. And as a result, the UAE is responsible for 68 percent of the Gulf's renewable energy capacity.

These investments are emblematic of the serious commitment to renewable energy being made by hydrocarbon-rich countries of the Gulf.

The Gulf's turn to clean energy is not simply driven by financial ability or dictated by structural need. The focus is also being driven by the region's abundant renewable resources. The Middle East and North Africa is estimated to hold nearly half of the world's renewable energy potential. While much of that resource is solar energy, substantial onshore and offshore wind is also endemic to the region.

The growing concerns of climate change are also central to the Middle East's new focus.

Countries in the region will be some of the most severely affected by a changing climate. Hotter temperatures and a decline in precipitation, coupled with the already unsustainable depletion of groundwater resources, will likely increase the occurrence of droughts. In addition, climate models project sea levels to rise nearly two feet by the end of the century.

While the Middle East and North Africa's global greenhouse gas contribution may be relatively low -- roughly 6 percent -- countries in the region understand that we have a responsibility to contribute lasting and tangible change. Given that 85 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the region come from the production, transmission and use of energy, the energy sector must play an essential role in climate change mitigation. Steps are already being taken. The UAE has adopted a zero-gas-flaring policy, drastically reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the sector.

But make no mistake: climate change is not only a crisis, but an opportunity. Throughout history, economic downturns and hardship have led to breakthroughs -- and the industries able to weather the turmoil have emerged stronger. We are seeing this now.

Globally, $257 billion was invested in clean energy last year, and over the next decade, the industry is expected to grow at a rate of 7 percent annually. Amidst the economic downturn, the time is now for accelerating the global growth of clean energy.

All energy-rich countries are in the unique position to leverage their resources to advance the substantial economic, social and environmental benefits of clean energy, while also diversifying and securing their own economies for long-term growth.