This month, world leaders, along with thousands of participants from governments, the private sector, NGOs and other groups, will go to Brazil to attend the Rio+20 Conference and discuss how the world can reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on a planet with an ever-increasing population. Among the countries attending is the United Arab Emirates, who are investing heavily in sustainable cities and renewable energy. In order to learn more about the UAE's goals at the conference, as well as their future energy plans, environmental challenges and the much-discussed Masdar City project, we spoke to Thani Al-Zeyoudi, the UAE's Directorate of Energy and Climate Change at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Read what Mr. Al-Zeyoudi had to say ahead.
INHABITAT: The start of the Rio+20 conference is upon us now. What is the UAE hoping to achieve whilst there?
Thani Al-Zeyoudi: The UAE’s ultimate goal in Rio is to ensure the success of the summit. We don’t want the summit to end without producing a clear path forward on sustainable development and I’m confident that the Rio Summit will conclude with a good outcome. We also want to show the world that a young country like ours, unified only 41 years ago, is capable of tackling the three pillars of sustainable development.
Rio also presents an opportunity outside of the negotiations with side events that promote the international exchange of ideas and information. We’re co-hosting an official event with Norway, called “Black Gold and the Green Economy” to discuss sustainability rationale within hydrocarbon-exporting countries like ours. Our high-level panel will also examine how the Rio agenda should accommodate surging hydrocarbon demand.
INHABITAT: One of the main topics of the conference is Sustainable Cities. The UAE is currently constructing Masdar City, the first “Zero-carbon metropolis.” How is progress going on the city and do you expect it to be the first of many?
Thani Al-Zeyoudi: Masdar City is among the most visible examples of how our country is addressing the global challenges of sustainable urban planning. It’s a low-carbon, low-waste city that’s pioneering best practices in sustainable urban planning, design, development and operation. We want to create a sustainable blueprint for the entire world to follow.
Progress is also going quite well. We’re scheduled to complete Phase 2 of Masdar Institute campus this year. Among the buildings currently under construction is the Siemens Middle East Headquarters, which is slotted for completion next year. Once the entire project is completed around 2025, the city will have about 50,000 residents drawing all of its energy from renewable resources. Energy and water efficiency is also a paramount feature. So far, Masdar City’s power and water demand is 50% less than conventional buildings in Abu Dhabi.
The UAE has also initiated and is leading the Global Sustainable Cities Network. This initiative underscores our active participation in developing world-class sustainable cities and partnering with like-minded countries to drive innovation and develop best practices.
INHABITAT: The UAE is quite diverse in terms of energy. Abu Dhabi has oil, while Dubai doesn’t. How does this affect energy policy overall?
Thani Al-Zeyoudi: This has far less of an effect on our energy policy than it does on our national economy. While we’re blessed with tremendous energy reserves, our founding father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan instilled upon us the responsibility of preserving our natural resources.
Our UAE Vision 2021 is guiding us in this and we are implementing a long-term approach to ensure sustainable national development. Yes, the UAE is a major oil-producing nation, but we do not have an endless supply. We want to meet the world’s energy needs over the next several decades, so we are actively working to better diversify our energy resources.
As a leader in the energy sector, the UAE has a responsibility to contribute to the energy sector’s evolution. We’re leveraging our natural energy resources, oil and natural gas, to bring about the additional resources the world will need to meet that future demand. And to ensure our country’s lasting economic competitiveness, we’re looking beyond traditional economic models.
INHABITAT: What are your greatest concerns about the current climate change debate and how do you feel they could be addressed?
Thani Al-Zeyoudi: The UAE wants to ensure positive results in the international negotiations process. As a coastal, low-lying country, we’re especially susceptible to the effects of sea-level rise and more prolonged droughts.
Our country is working hard to mitigate the effects of climate change. We’re using our longtime energy expertise as a foundation for innovating and advancing clean technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And with our sister country Qatar hosting the COP-18 talks later this year, the first ever held in a Gulf country, we see an opportunity to showcase the many mitigation efforts that are already taking shape in the UAE.
INHABITAT: The UAE is quite a wealthy region. Do you feel large-scale alternative energy projects are only viable for more prosperous regions?
Thani Al-Zeyoudi: Not at all. Clean energy development isn’t about wealth. It’s about a willingness to innovate. But prosperous nations do have a responsibility to help.
Through the UN Secretary-General’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative, the UAE is helping developing countries tap these innovations. As a result of our clean energy aid, a solar project in Tonga will supply 13% of that country’s electricity demand. And a rooftop solar project in Afghanistan is providing off-grid power to remote villages.
Also, through our leadership in the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development is providing even more funding for renewable energy projects in developing countries. We’ll be opening the application process for this renewable energy funding at the Rio Summit.
INHABITAT: The region is implementing several large-scale solar projects such as Shams 1 (outside Abu Dhabi). How will this affect the power infrastructure of the UAE?
Thani Al-Zeyoudi: We will continue to work in close coordination with our power production companies. The UAE has experienced a 10% population growth rate over the last decade, which is among the world’s highest. To achieve balanced growth, we must be powered by a sustainable range of energy resources based on a sound clean energy mix.
We currently have two major solar fields planned. Shams 1 is a milestone project, the first utility-scale solar power project in the Middle East. And the Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park in Dubai will eventually deliver 1,000 MW of clean energy. Both of these are essential to meeting our firm clean energy goals, 7% renewable energy use in Abu Dhabi by 2020 and 5% in Dubai by 2030. These are the first such targets in our entire region.
INHABITAT: What other alternative energy projects are the UAE currently pursuing?
Thani Al-Zeyoudi: The UAE is leading the IRENA Global Solar and Wind Atlas. The international project is mapping the specific effects of regional climates on the effectiveness and geographic viability of clean energy sources. Our contribution to the Atlas will serve a model for developing countries, and those with similar climatic conditions, to design clean energy polices and procure financing and partners. Our first solar maps will be launched at the Rio Summit.
Also, through Masdar, the UAE is bringing game-changing alternative energy innovations to life through our global partnerships. Masdar is one of three international partners in the UK’s London Array, the world’s largest offshore wind project, which will avoid almost one-million tonnes of CO2 each year. And our cutting-edge Torresol Energy solar projects in Spain are achieving ground-breaking results in renewable energy storage, able to produce electricity 24-hours-a-day.
Additionally, the UAE is utilizing our international alliances to safely and securely develop peaceful, carbon-free nuclear energy, enabling us to fulfill the needs of our growing population while reducing our carbon emissions. We’re also reducing our energy consumption through efficiency measures across many sectors, from instituting the first mandatory building codes in the Middle East to removing the least-efficient 20% of air conditioners from the market.
INHABITAT: What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing the environment today, both in the UAE and globally?
Thani Al-Zeyoudi: Globally, the most pressing challenge is the limited access to viable solutions to address climate change. We need more international partnerships, innovation, and information transfer to address and mitigate the effects of climate change.
In the UAE, we have experienced a 10% population growth rate over the last decade, among the world’s highest. We’re also a low-lying, coastal country. The threat of sea-level rise is certainly a concern for us and, because of our extreme climate, we’re facing more prolonged droughts. So as populations like ours expand and extreme climate conditions intensify, creating a sustainable future for all will hinge on empowering ourselves to ensure that we are all using our resources more responsibly.
Stay tuned for more interviews and news about the Rio+20 conference.
Dr. Al-Zeyoudi is the Head of the Directorate of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) within the UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), where he leads the country’s development of sustainable foreign and domestic policy. He is also the UAE representative for the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) within DECC, acting as the focal point for the UAE on issues relating to IRENA, including participation in the initial bid process. Prior to joining DECC he worked at Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s initiative advancing renewable energy technologies and solutions, where he was part of the Clean Development Mechanism and ZAKUM Field for Abu Dhabi Marine Oil Company. Dr. Al-Zeyoudi holds a Bachelor’s degree in Petroleum Engineering from the Tulsa University, an MBA from New York Institute of Technology, MSc in Project Management from British University in Dubai, and a PhD in Strategy, Programme & Project Management from SKEMA Business School in France.