Dubai: The previously negative attitude of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to climate change shifted in 2007, as the UAE led several members of the organisation to take a positive lead in developing alternative energies, and began investment in technologies like carbon capture and carbon storage.
"Abu Dhabi is now selling an environmentally-conscious image and wants to be a leader in alternative energy," said Mari Luomi of the Natural Resources Research Programme of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, and the Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, University of Durham.
Luomi was talking at the 30th Gulf Studies Conference at Exeter University when she argued that the UAE has made a significant shift in its thinking when it ceased to be frightened of the consequences of both climate change and climate change mitigation.
Up till 2007, Luomi argued, the UAE had focused on its vulnerability to climate change mitigation as world markets moved to accommodate the new measures to combat climate change.
These would impact the UAE mainly through a highly variable oil price, and possible long-term shift away from use of hydro-carbons, both damaging to the present economy of the UAE.
The UAE had also has largely ignored the future impact of climate change on its national security, from the potential threats of rising temperatures, falling water resources, and potentially elevated sea levels.
The old style of thinking was still present as recently as December 2007 when the UAE's address to the UN conference on climate change in Bali was mostly full of progressive thinking, according to Luomi, except for the section that argued that the interests of economies based principally on fossil fuels had not been sufficiently addressed in the negotiations, and demanded that no additional obligations should be placed on developing countries that would impede their development.
In the last six months, however, the impact of the UAE's interest in alternative technologies has come to the fore, exemplified by the launch of Abu Dhabi's Masdar project earlier this year.
Masdar is made up of various projects on alternative energy and carbon management, and included building a "totally green city" of 50,000 residents and 1,500 businesses by 2016.
Masdar consists of five elements: a research institute and network, an innovation and investment unit, a special projects unit, a carbon management unit and a free trade zone.
The Masdar project is owned by the private stock joint company Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, which is owned by Mubadala Development Company, the investment vehicle of the Government of Abu Dhabi.
The four objectives of the Masdar Institutes show how the project is tasked with both developing a strong base in alternative energies and in giving Abu Dhabi a strong base in the new technologies, which can only become more important as time passes.
The challenge for the UAE is to establish a leadership role in alternative energy, despite its high reliance on hydrocarbons for its domestic economy, and its position as one of the world's largest oil producers.
In addition, any leadership role of the UAE would be harmed by the country's very poor domestic record on energy use.
Luomi argued that the UAE is getting ready to tackle these issues. She quoted Sultan Ali Al Jaber, chief executive of Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, who said that Abu Dhabi sees "renewable energy sources as complimentary to traditional hydrocarbons, given the rapid growth in overall world energy demand" and that "Abu Dhabi is leveraging its substantial resources and expertise in the world's energy markets to develop the technologies of the future".
The government, however, will have to ensure that its other economic undertakings are in line with its green image and seriously address the low local environmental awareness.
The World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) ecological footprint index in 2006 showed the UAE has the largest ecological footprint per resident in the world, equal to over six times the carrying capacity of the global biosphere and over five times the world average footprint.
Luomi, however, said that the UAE has moved to deal with these issues. She reported that following the WWF report, the UAE launched its Al Basama Al Beeiya (Ecological Footprint) project to "chart the ecological challenges facing the nation".
In addition, green building has become another area emphasised by the rulers of the UAE, and the new standards insisted on in Dubai since January 2008, have sought to bring all new buildings in Dubai to comply with environmental standards.
Abu Dhabi's Masdar project is made up of various projects on alternative energy and carbon management. Its objectives are:
- furthering economic diversification in the emirate,
- increasing competitiveness in global energy markets,
- transforming the emirate into a developer of technology and
- promoting sustainable human development.