We won IRENA – now let’s prove the critics wrong

The announcement that the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) would be located in Abu Dhabi is a proud moment for the capital and the country.

The UAE's love for big-engined vehicles contributes to its carbon footprint, the world's second-largest.

The UAE's love for big-engined vehicles contributes to its carbon footprint, the world's second-largest.

A skilful public relations exercise, and intensive lobbying led by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Dr Sultan al Jaber, Masdar’s chief executive, pushed Abu Dhabi ahead of the early leaders Germany and Austria.

Yet criticism was raised at the time by some who pointed to the UAE’s carbon footprint, the second-highest in the world, and questioned whether it was an appropriate role model. Having secured the prize, the UAE now needs to show it is worthy of IRENA.

There is no doubt that Abu Dhabi will fulfil its commitments to IRENA. The emirate plans for 7 per cent of its energy to come from sustainable sources by 2020, up from less than 1 per cent today. The generously funded agency’s rent-free offices will be at the centre of the world’s first zero-emissions city.

The Masdar initiative has already made bold steps in solar energy, greenhouse gas reductions, hydrogen power plants and carbon capture, with its US$15 billion (Dh55.09bn) seed money. Despite Germany’s huge green investments, the high-profile Masdar was Abu Dhabi’s major selling point for IRENA.

The Emirates’s high carbon footprint can be defended. The country is a centre of the oil and petrochemical business, mostly destined for export. The hot climate requires air conditioning and makes walking or cycling in the summer difficult, encouraging car use. Limited rainfall rules out hydropower, the cheapest renewable energy. The population is mostly young and economically active.

The UAE’s other, less-heralded environmental successes should also be recognised. Efficient centralised district cooling is becoming standard for new high-rise developments. Landscaping, despite strains on Dubai’s system, runs almost entirely on re-used water, vital in a country so dependent on energy-intensive desalination. And Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE, , has ordered quite strict green building standards.

So, with all these initiatives, why is the carbon fo otprint still so high? And is the Emirates favouring high-profile, cutting-edge initiatives over green policies that are perhaps socially more difficult but more effective? Transport is one obvious example.
Even the US is falling out of love with big cars, as the recent sale of Hummer and the bankruptcy of GM and Chrysler shows. European and Japanese roads are filled with smaller models, and efficient hybrids are gaining popularity.

Yet the UAE’s roads are ruled by the SUV. Fast and aggressive driving further increases fuel consumption.

The primary reason for this is, of course, low petrol prices, at Dh6.35 a gallon for special unleaded compared with almost Dh12 in the US and Dh29 in the UK. Petrol should always be a little cheaper in the UAE, but having prices below world market levels encourages waste and poor driving habits.

China and India recently acknowledged this and raised state-controlled prices. In a rich country such as the UAE and with inflation coming down, subsidised fuel is unjustified. Petrol is much cheaper than unsubsidised diesel. The fuel consumption of cars running on diesel is 30 per cent better than those on petrol. Diesel cars make up more than half of new passenger car sales in Europe, but they are non-existent here. The presence of a good public transport system is another key part of tackling carbon emissions. If petrol prices rise, public transport becomes more attractive. The Dubai Metro, which opens in September, is a crucial step.

The extension of metro systems to Abu Dhabi and the other emirates, and the creation of an inter-emirate rail network have been mooted, and should follow soon.
Electricity consumption is the other major area for carbon savings. The UAE’s power-generation sector, running on gas, should be fairly clean but the end use in residences and commercial buildings is wasteful. This is partly due to careless habits; leaving windows open with air conditioners running and over-watering the garden.

Awareness campaigns by the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) and other utilities may help, but consumption is also boosted by architectural conventions that are not suited to the local climate. Some 90,000 people will inhabit Masdar but millions live in metal and glass towers, essentially large, poorly insulated, over-lit greenhouses.

Wandering around a traditional Arab town in Yemen, Tunisia or even Dubai’s own Bastakia, the use of closely packed buildings, thick walls, shutters and natural ventilation from wind towers is immediately apparent. Masdar City will copy some of these techniques.

We know that tap water in the summer is uncomfortably hot. In fact, all the hot water needs of a villa or even a mid-rise residential building can be met economically with solar water-heating, requiring no electricity even in the winter. This technology, widespread in Turkey and Cyprus, should be a standard here.

Solar air conditioning could also become universal in the near future. Solar electricity will be more expensive than the UAE’s cheap, gas-fired power for many years to come, but at midday it can probably compete with peak fossil-fuelled plants. And newer “reverse osmosis” desalination is much more efficient than the thermal techniques (effectively boiling water) still mostly employed here.

Efficiency would be greatly promoted by raising electricity and water prices to reflect their full cost. DEWA’s “slab tariffs” are a valuable first step. “Smart meters” let people monitor their own consumption and could help spread the electricity load more evenly through the day, saving on costly new power stations.

Some of these moves may be unpopular or suffer from the inertia of individuals and institutions comfortable with the way things are today, but IRENA can be a catalyst for an environmental leap forward in the Emirates.

Yes, we must tackle leading-edge technologies and world-first initiatives. But we must also emphasise the simple steps, many of them money-savers, in the short term.

Robin M. Mills is a Dubai-based
energy economist, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis (Praeger, 2008) and Capturing Carbon

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