Last week I visited Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, statistically the 8th highest producer of CO2 emissions per capita and certainly one of the least sustainable places on the planet Earth. The point of my visit was for the 8th World Future Energy Summit (WFES) at Abu Dhabi’s National Exhibition and Conference Centre (ADNEC), and while the summit is a great platform for meeting new business partners and getting an entry point to the Middle Eastern market, it exposes some of the fundamentally unsustainable practices of global summits as well as the glaring short-fallings of the Middle East with regards to implementation of low-carbon technologies when compared to their projected global image. I will briefly explore some of the benefits of the summit when compared to the ironies involved with the region in which it is hosted, and my thoughts on the main barriers to implementation of renewable energy in the region.
Main benefits of the WFES include:
- Increasing the global presence and importance of furthering the low-carbon agenda through implementation of renewable energy technology, by hosting talks by many prestigious diplomats and industry leaders;
- Creating a platform for business cooperation and increased globalisation of the renewable sector, especially with regards to consultancy, so as good decisions are made and cost-effective solutions implemented.
Before we delve in to the ironies associated with hosting the WFES there are a few things about the UAE I learned on my travels that I should clarify real quick:
- The 7th largest consumer of energy per capita, almost all of which comes from the burning of fossil fuels.
- Designed on the oversized car-obsessed North American city model, with almost no modes of transport other than the car and petrol so cheap that there is no incentives to not drive.
- Excessive waste of electricity due to highly subsidized electricity and gas prices. Until just a few months ago electricity and gas were completely free to all native inhabitants, so there is no incentive to conserve energy. Some skyscrapers are fully lit up 24/7 even when not in use!
- They live in a desert that is completely uninhabitable without air conditioning for half the year;
- They sit upon the world’s 4th largest oil reserve which is also one of the cheapest to produce.
Now that we have the scene set for how care-free the life of an Abu Dhabi energy consume must be, here are some of the main ironies of hosting WFES in Abu Dhabi and down-right “energy crimes” I noticed whilst I was there:
- Most of the buildings I visited, including the gigantic conference centre ADNEC was overly air conditioned to the point of being uncomfortably cold even for those of us wearing full business attire. We we’re there in the middle of the winter and temperatures we’re about 20 °C, but they don’t seem to adjust air conditioners to account for this. Summer temperatures are regularly above 40 °C.
- All the water, other than imported in bottled spring water, is first de-salinated via hydrocarbon powered desalinisation plants, and then re-heated by burning gas and using electricity when temperature outside is upwards of 40 °C and solar thermal panels could satisfy all of their hot water needs.
- More than 30,000 delegates attended the summit, of which at least half took international flights to be there – an enormous amount of carbon dioxide in the name of sustainability.
- Specific “energy crime” example: Dubai’s indoor ski slope uses the energy equivalent of burning 3500 barrels of oil every day.
Due to the UAE’s excessive energy use and continued economic growth they are now a net importer of gas despite once having huge gas reserves. This will hopefully spurn on the development of cost effective renewable energy sources, but there is no evidence of the sustainable infrastructure investment required to provide the quantities of energy currently consumed.
I recently noticed that WFES has some unfortunate implications associated with its own name and branding. World “Future” Energy Summit implies that these technologies are futuristic, and so will be implemented in the future. Therefore, development of them “today” is not the implied goal when it most certainly should be. It’s 2015 for Christ sake!
However, many barriers exist in the region that do not exist in many other places in the world. Inhabitants of Abu Dhabi and Dubai are already living in a highly synthetic and energetic state of human existence, in the middle of a desert which should never be able to support a population of 4 million with water, food and energy. This echoes what parts of Europe and America may look like in a post-apocalyptic climate change scenario. The highly complex and fragile ecosystems that prevail throughout much of the northern and southern hemisphere have no comparisons in the region, and so less sensitivity exists to the extinction of fauna and flora species.
Two of the most common trains of thought for encouraging self-enforced individual sustainable behaviour patterns are:
- local externalities such as reduced energy prices, improvements in local living conditions, improvements in health;
- protecting local ecosystems and general empathy for the natural environment.
Neither really apply to the local inhabitants of the Middle East. For example, the local health benefits of replacing internal combustion engines with electric car has less sway – cigarettes cost about 50p per pack.
Some lines of discussion that may be persuasive:
- Energy security from local renewables;
- Maintain market share of oil exports despite increasing internal demand.
A carbon trading scheme may be our best bet for reining in carbon emissions and avoiding catastrophic climate change, but I’m afraid that a global carbon tax would never be taken up by the Middle East. Their lifeblood is oil exports, and no political move will trump this vast wealth creation system they depend on. I think this may be why innovation in the renewables sector has not in reality been led by the UAE, despite driving to go green nearly a decade ago with the formation of Masdar Institute, Masdar City and the World Future Energy Summit. Don’t get me started on Masdar City, we don’t have time…
For a lengthier and more literate analysis of Abu Dhabi’s energy situation please click here: http://bakerinstitute.org/media/files/Research/3fd50ed2/Pub-CES-AbuDhabiRenewables-021314.pdf
For a link to the original publication on the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI) website click here: http://edinburghcentreblog.org/2015/02/06/thoughts-from-world-future-energy-summit-2015-abu-dhabi-by-david-townsend-town-rock-energy/