In the seven-starred splendour of Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace hotel, Hélène Pelosse manages to look both exhausted and pleased as punch. She spent last weekend here in intense negotiations to bring more countries behind her one-year-old International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) – a kind of UN for wind, solar and tidal power.
After December’s disappointing climate change talks in Copenhagen, this Abu Dhabi pow-wow was an opportunity to fire up some feel-good factor again. And three more countries – South Africa, Kyrgyzstan and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines – signed up, taking the total number of signatory countries to 142. But some remain outside the fold, notably China – the world’s largest emitter of CO2 – despite flying a huge delegation here.
While Pelosse says her organisation is “taking off”, the rulers of Abu Dhabi itself seem to have been the real winners at this weekend gathering. They pulled off a couple of coups: the first was to get an Israeli cabinet minister to the IRENA summit, the first time Israel has sent a cabinet official to the United Arab Emirates (UAE); and secondly they managed to sweet-talk Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, into agreeing to join the renewables club within the next few months. It is the latest play by the oil-rich UAE and its capital to be a power in the shifting geopolitics of energy.
IRENA is regarded by some as an offset to the International Energy Agency (IEA), which has been accused of doing too little to push alternative energy. The idea for IRENA originated in Germany, a clean tech pioneer. Yet with French support, Abu Dhabi saw off competition from Bonn to host IRENA’s secretariat – the first international body to be based in the Arab world.
Backed by loans worth $50m (€35m) IRENA will site its HQ in Abu Dhabi’s $22bn Masdar mega-project, the Foster & Partners designed, “zero-carbon” city, which this weekend began trialling its first solar-powered, magnetically-guided PRT (personal rapid transport) vehicles, which are like driverless taxis.
Impressive, yet Abu Dhabi has much catching up to do. Its citizens have the world’s largest carbon footprint per capita, yet Abu Dhabi’s target for using renewables is just 7 per cent by 2020 while others, such as the countries of the EU, are aiming for 20 per cent. Having recently struck a deal with France, one of the world’s largest suppliers of atomic technology, the UAE is also pinning hope on nuclear power. Some critics fear that, under the leadership of Pelosse, a former adviser to the French government who managed the French negotiations for the EU’s climate and energy package, and under pressure from member states with significant nuclear or oil interests, the agency will be diluted into a less than radical “international low-carbon agency”.
“Some countries want nuclear energy – that’s their choice, but IRENA is not going to deal with nuclear energy,” maintains Pelosse, who says the creation of the body is “an example of a new spirit of global co-operation”. Maybe.
But, for the sake of renewable energies, IRENA will also require strong, independent leadership. Unlike Masdar’s PRTs, IRENA will need to be driven.