By Dallas Blaney
Global climate change was not on the agenda this week at the World Future Energy Summit but it nevertheless emerged as a prominent topic of concern.
Here in the UAE, climate change poses a significant threat to the medium- and long-run prospects for economic growth. Eighty-five percent of the population and 90 percent of the infrastructure are located along the Gulf Coast, making the country particularly vulnerable to the threat of rising sea levels. It has been estimated that just one meter of sea level rise would wipe out roughly 1,200 square kilometers of prime coastal property.
The UAE is also heavily dependent on imports of food and other essential commodities, making the country particularly vulnerable to climate change-related shocks beyond its borders. Although 83 percent of its freshwater supplies are allocated to irrigation, the agricultural sector only contributes 2 percent to its GDP. With a robust 6.7 percent population growth rate, meeting the needs of this population in the face of climate change impacts poses a massive logistical and political challenge.
According to Majid Hasan Al Suwadi, lead climate change negotiator for the UAE, there is often a misperception within the international community that the UAE can simply throw money at these problems to solve them. However, Suwadi pointed out that the UAE faces many of the same complex agency and ministerial coordination problems that plague climate change mitigation and adaption efforts in other countries. The key to unlocking these challenges, he said, is to bring together government representatives, the private sector, NGOs, and academia to exchange best practices to build human capacity. “Those sorts of initiatives,” he argued, “can often seem simple but they can often have a big impact.”
A host of foreign speakers also talked at length about the climate change challenge. French President Francois Hollande offered his particular insights, reminding the audience, “If we don’t do anything, if we don’t invest anything, then we can be sure we will have a catastrophe on our hands.”
Jeffrey Sachs agreed. “We need quantified strategies that show how the emissions are going to come down in a timely way. Unless we do that I’m afraid that we’re going to be consoling ourselves and keeping ourselves happy as the dangers evidently expand around us and the risks for ourselves, for our planet, but especially for our children continue to grow.”
Echoing these observations, U.S. Climate Change Envoy, Todd Stern, suggested that a new multilateral agreement on climate change is needed to trigger a further acceleration of clean energy adoption and diffusion worldwide. Stern identified three steps to developing such an agreement. First and foremost is ambition. In his view, governments must be more willing to move beyond short-term economic considerations in order to realize the long term benefits of a transition to renewable energy systems. Second, developing countries should rethink the international norm of common but differentiated responsibilities, which has thus far been misused to advance historical or ideological justifications for inaction. A more constructive approach, according to Stern, is one that inscribes this concept with a concern for actual present circumstances. Finally, Stern argued for integrating greater flexibility mechanisms in order to accommodate differences in national conditions and to encourage innovation in mitigation strategies.
The point, it seems, is to remain ever mindful that the interest in renewable energy is not simply about finding lower cost solutions to the challenge of growing energy demands. Rather, the goal is ultimately to combat global climate change by decoupling our energy production systems from their reliance on fossil fuel inputs. In the words of Todd Stern, “the only chance we have to contain climate change is to accelerate the growth of clean energy. What turns the development of clean energy into a war of necessity rather than a war of choice, is climate change.”