World Future Energy Summit 2011: Exploring Clean Power in a City Built on Oil


Photo: Brian Merchant

Paradoxes abound at the World Future Energy Summit, an annual conference held in the United Arab Emirates capital of Abu Dhabi. The summit draws heads of state, business leaders, and other influential figures to the tip of the Arabian peninsula to discuss global clean energy solutions to the ongoing climate crisis. The UAE is, of course, one of the largest oil exporters in the world, so it's both ironic and remarkable that such an event is held here -- a fact that few of the speakers fail to mention in their opening statements. And these leaders -- for what purpose have they flown across the world, to give speeches in the oil-rich capital of a tiny country in the desert?

To talk about clean energy, sure. To tout their nations' various achievements in the sector, indeed. To roundly call for more unified action on climate change, you betcha. But beyond that? Beyond the grandstanding, the admirable commitments, the lofty ambitions? As is so often the case with these kinds of conferences, it's rather hard to tell.

The opening ceremonies for WFES were held today, heralding speeches from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the president of Pakistan, Arif Ali Zardari, the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, and the prime minister of Portugal, Jose Socrates. Each held forth on the dire need to address climate change ASAP, and emphasized that clean energy held the key to doing so.

Then they broke for lunch, and all the conference-goers -- European businessmen, Arab princes, international media, clean techies, and at least one confused American among them -- spilled into the Exhibition area to wander through the maze of renewable energy demos that must go on for half a mile.

It's a beguiling event, there's no doubt about that. And nothing exemplifies the nature of WFES better than Masdar City -- the cutting-edge clean energy city currently being built outside of Abu Dhabi. In many ways, it forms the symbolic heart of the summit; the ideal, emissions-free society that lays half-built in the desert. Of course, it's way behind schedule.

Which prompts the question: How much of this is a giant, shiny PR boondoggle? Could the UAE become a leader in renewables, just as it is in oil? Just how keen is the UAE to invest in clean energy? How much is anyone else?

One thing is refreshingly clear: The international community does not shy away from discussing climate change. And it does so in very frank, very real terms. It's a problem, and we need to solve it. Period. Even if there's an element of showboating in the heads of state trumpeting their proposed solutions, or glossing over various difficulties or uncertainties, nobody is wasting any time denying the scope of the threat. If climate policy discussions in the US were anything like this, we'd already be pumping out more solar panels than China.

So, over the next few days, I'll be poking around the summit -- and touring the intriguing Masdar City -- and attempting to make sense of the world's enigmatic relationship to clean energy. After all, there's a lot to be learned from a top tier clean energy forum in a city built on oil.

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