Lord Browne to Planet Earth: oil and green energy must get along

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At the

in Abu Dhabi this week, I had the opportunity to chat with Lord John Browne, the former

chief executive, who was in town as a jurist for the

, awarded last night.

Lord Browne is far too polite to put it this way, but one of his messages was that the alternative energy industry and oil producers had better learn to get along, as both will be needed for several decades to come.

We reported his remarks on Big Oil's future


There is a popular assumption of antagonism between the states and companies that sell oil and the energy consumers who also want clean air and water and to be rid of anxiety over climate change. This is the main reason for widespread scepticism over the sincerity of the UAE's clean energy commitment. Is one of the world's biggest oil exporters and per capita emitters of carbon dioxide making a genuine effort to clean up its act, or is it all so much greenwash?

Lord Browne is in a better position than most to get to the bottom of this, as he has been involved with Abu Dhabi's clean energy initiative from its launch five years ago, when he still headed one of the top five international oil companies. In keeping with BP's nearly 80-year track record of operating in the emirate, Lord Browne also has a keen sense of of the region's history. So I asked him what he thought of the Abu Dhabi government's advanced energy company

, and the emirate's alternative energy aspirations in general.

His initial response was that the clean energy programme was very much in keeping with the ideas on environmental stewardship of the UAE's late founder, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Lord Browne also noted that Sheikh Zayed's second eldest son, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, was the original driving force behind the intiative.

It is no accident that Masdar is a wholly owned subsidiary of the sprawling Abu Dhabi industrial conglomerate

t, of which Sheikh Mohammed is the chairman, and also one of the businesses that Mubadala most heavily promotes.

Sheikh Zayed's insistance that the UAE's natural spaces and wildlife should be protected, even as he urged development of the nation's oil resources, is well documented. The ruler may not, however, have foreseen the breakneck pace of urban and industrial development in the Gulf region, especially over the past decade. That has inevitably compromised many aspects of the local environment while contributing to broader environmental challenges such as global warming.

What is not surprising is that one of his sons should now be trying to get the UAE's chief oil producing emirate back on track; back to the vision of responsible resource development that his father championed.

At the same time, Sheikh Mohammed, as the chairman of the powerful Abu Dhabi Executive Council, is not just a captain of industry, but the very admiral in charge of charting Abu Dhabi's industrial future. Not surprisingly, he is also an influential member of the emirate's Supreme Petroleum Council.

Mubadala, by the way, has an oil and gas unit that has set itself the not-so-modest target of becoming the biggest independent oil and gas producer in the eastern hemisphere,

Abu Dhabi is therefore certainly not turning away from oil, but it also harbours ambitions of becoming an important player in the emerging low-carbon energy sector, reflecting Sheikh Mohammed's personal ambitions. In this emirate, by mandate of the Crown Prince, oil and green energy have to get along.

That was apparent in the awarding of this year's Zayed Future Energy Prize - created in honour the late Sheikh Zayed - to

for developing the world's first mass-produced hybrid vehicle. The

runs on both petrol and electricity, using much less of the former than conventional cars.

That is another example of how oil and clean-tech innovation are getting along, in this case under the bonnet of a motor car.

Pic: Lord Browne at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre. Galen Clarke/The National