Oil and gas has long driven the United Arab Emirates’ transformation from a poor and barren backwater to one of the wealthiest nations on Earth. Nevertheless, the ever-looming scenario of peak oil has long been on the nation’s mind. To that end, the past decade has seen the country launch a bevy of measures to diversify the economy — Masdar, for example, is one company that has helped Abu Dhabi add clean technology to its business portfolio.
But in order to attract the country’s youth, whose parents and grandparents have long viewed the petroleum industry as the best option within which to build careers, the UAE realizes it needs to reach out aggressively to younger generations. One such program, which aims to engage youth and inspire them to consider an alternative to a career within the petroleum sector, launched last week in Abu Dhabi.
The RenewAbility Debate, which debuted at this year’s Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW), drew hundreds of students from across the UAE and others from 29 high schools around the world. With the goal to raise awareness about sustainable development in the Middle East, the RenewAbility Debate offered a more youth-oriented agenda as part of the Middle East’s largest conference on sustainability.
Moderated by Emirati columnist Khalid Al Ameri, the RenewAbility Debate featured an interview and Q&A session with the rapper Akon on his Akon Lighting Africa initiative. Speaking about this event, Akon told the gathering: “One of my missions is helping to empower youth across the world to be active on sustainability issues. We need to come together to learn more about how we make the world a better place.”
It’s easy to say we want to make the world a better place; the challenge is figuring out where to start and how to discover how one can best make such an impact. With that big question in mind, the RenewAbility Debate initiative was designed to support the transfer of knowledge from current leaders in the sustainability industry to the next generation of UAE and other global leaders. The event paired some of the industry’s leading voices in sustainability with young Emiratis for a months-long immersion on the benefits of renewables in order to limit climate change to 2 degrees Celsius by 2030. By debating the issues related to renewables and climate change, the goal was to get more youth inspired to consider a future in clean energy and keep the conversation flowing in local media — and, even more importantly, on social media.
This program started months ago with a long process of mentorship. Working with Masdar and the country’s foreign ministry, the program’s managers selected students who were interested in shadowing the UAE’s delegation to Paris for the COP21 climate talks. They underwent intensive training in public speaking, debating tactics, compiling data for presentations and grasping the most current issues related to climate change. Next, they attended COP21 in Paris and continued their work in the weeks leading up to ADSW.
The debaters included leaders from the UAE government’s climate-change task force, NGOs and academia. This group linked up with the students who were accepted to this program: Noora Abdulrahman, Maryam Al Mazrouei and Mohamed Al Ghailani, students of Masdar Institute, and Dikirani Thaulo, a 2015 winner of the Zayed Future Energy Prize.
“No matter what career I decide to follow, some skills are essential for success,” said Mohamed Al Ghailani, one of the student debaters. “This includes organizing ideas in a cohesive and eloquent manner, the ability to present these ideas confidently, and being prepared enough to answer questions and refutations convincingly and articulately. These are all lessons that you learn as a debater and I am confident that they will prove useful in the near future.”
Building on efforts to encourage more Emiratis to be active in their communities, the RenewAbility Debate also included Emirati leaders who turned their personal passions into rewarding careers. Emirati entrepreneur and “Just Read It” author Omar Al Busaidy, local cartoonist Rashed Al Harmoodi, and other local celebrities joined the discussion so that they could inspire students with their personal stories of developing their most keen interests by harnessing a spirit of innovation.
Hence the debate began — one that has long been underway here in North America and Europe, but is still new here in the Middle East. Do we need to consider more options for renewables other than solar and wind power, which always receive the lion’s share of the debate? Is the focus on renewables enough, or must there be a wider array of options for sustainable development, such as green building, urban farming or even geoengineering? Do the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals cast a wide enough net to ensure the world can meet its climate change targets by 2030?
Clearly, more events like this are needed to engage UAE youth and have them consider their options in a future that most likely will not be centered on petroleum. Nevertheless, the students and audience who participated in the event agreed that last week’s debate would have a ripple effect and encourage more students to consider a career more aligned with sustainable development.
“The impact of renewables in achieving and accelerating sustainable development can’t be ignored or denied,” said Maryam AlMazrouei, another student debater. “What matters at this stage is to put the right framework, right platform, the right incentives and, more [importantly], the right leaders. We are responsible for the future generation and we have to find a way to get them all to work together in a very integrated manner.”
Image credit: Masdar
Disclosure: Leon Kaye’s Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week expenses were provided by Masdar