3 lessons from UAE's climate minister on moving to renewables

Dr. Thani Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, minister of climate change and environment for the United Arab Emirates. Photo by: UNIDO / CC BY-ND

NEW YORK — The United Emirates is set to finalize details of a $50 million grant fund meant to help Caribbean islands build renewable energy this week on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. The fund will be open to a variety of energy projects and financing models, ranging from full to partial grants and public-private partnerships.

An oil-rich country itself, the UAE may seem an unlikely leader on renewables. But for the past decade, it has been leading a push to both improve energy efficiency and increase non-hydrocarbon sources. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been transformative, Dr. Thani Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, the minister of climate change and environment, told Devex in an interview during UNGA.

“Adaptation is the most difficult aspect of the whole climate change,” he said.

Armed with the experience of their own ongoing energy shift, the UAE is offering direct help and advice to other small nations about how they might follow suit. The Caribbean fund follows a similar venture in the Pacific. The fund will bring UAE foreign aid on renewables to $1 billion since 2013.

“We reached a level where we gain knowledge in the sector,” Al Zeyoudi told Devex in an interview. In the past, small islands have often requested aid from oil-rich neighbors in the form of subsidized petrol. “We know that this is not a sustainable solution and the best is to provide sustainable energy to their communities,” he said. “We tackled the backbone of any economy: the clean energy.”

Here are three of the lessons that the UAE has learned in its experience and is now ready to share.

1. Build political will

Changing national grids and citizen consumption patterns is a long battle and requires leadership, Al Zeyoudi said. “You have to have a vision. It’s not only the vision but the commitment of the leaders to implement it,” he added.

Key to ensuring progress in the UAE has been the government’s consistent efforts to monitor progress and follow up on initiatives once they have begun. Convincing the public is also vital, he said. Not everyone will be on board with new energy sources, but constructive politics can help. “If the number of deniers is more than the supporters, it will kill the project,” he said.

2. Be willing to change

“The openness to change is very crucial,” said Al Zeyoudi. In more blunt terms, this means a willingness to accelerate usual bureaucratic processes or create new pathways. Because technology is moving so quickly, delayed projects risk being outdated before they are built.

“Moving quickly with implementation is very crucial,” he said.

Many small island countries, as well as fellow hydrocarbon countries in the region, “have a system that was built five to six decades ago,” Al Zeyoudi said. “The world has changed.” As part of its grant work, the UAE, together with the International Renewable Energy Agency, which it hosts in Abu Dhabi, offers advice and technical assistance in building the sort of regulatory environment that will encourage investment.

3. Invest in youth

“The last aspect of climate change from our side are investments in human resources — the youth and investment in education.”

Building a sustainable renewable energy system will take years, and the next generation will be vital to seeing it through.

“The last aspect of climate change from our side are investments in human resources — the youth and investment in education,” Al Zeyoudi said. “It’s the most crucial element.” The Caribbean project, for example, will include capacity-building projects and technical training.

In the UAE, Al Zeyoudi is himself something of an example of the demographic shift underway. He is one of several younger ministers in the Cabinet. “The latest shuffle within the government is to inject the new blood within the government to move things much faster to capitalize on the new technologies.”

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About the author

  • Dickenson beth full

    Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.

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