Mr Unflappable, the great green persuader

The head of Irena, the UN's clean-power agency, is tasked with persuading nations to sign up to a renewable-energy agenda. He says being based in a major oil producing country is an advantage.

Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Diet Coke starts the morning. Poured from the can into a cut-glass goblet, the dark fizzy liquid seems out of place in its glittering container.

Tomorrow's exclusives tonight:

Industry Insights e-newsletter Stay ahead of the pack and get the pick of the premium Business content straight to your inbox. Sign up

Adnan Amin, the director general of the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena), the UN's clean energy organisation, laughs at the incongruity of the Dh1.50 soft drink and the crystal glass; the latter he says came courtesy of the Abu Dhabi authorities along with his office on the capital's Corniche.

On the surface, Mr Amin's task in the UAE may also seem out of place. His job is to try to persuade nations to speed up their adoption of solar and wind energy, abandon subsidies on fossil fuels, and to make the old argument to stop climate change so fresh that governments cough up taxpayers' money for the cause. And he will pursue this mission from Irena's headquarters in one of the world's largest oil exporters.

"To have a renewable energy agency based in an oil-producing country actually sends exactly the kind of signal you want out there - that we're looking out for our energy future although today we're profiting from oil," he says.

Mr Amin, 53, is engaged in a number of other delicate negotiations, such as trying to convince Brazil and China that it is worth their while to join the agency. And he has been distancing himself from his predecessor, Hélène Pelosse, the agency's first director general, who shocked member countries with a US$8.4 million (Dh30.8m) budget shortfall before resigning last year.

Regular trips to New York to meet business leaders for talks on sustainability or organising an energy road map for the island of Tonga are all part of a job that makes him, in essence, the world's ambassador for renewable energy.

"He communicates very effectively, and that's a very powerful thing," says Doug Cook, the first secretary for energy and climate change at the British Embassy in the UAE. "Nothing flaps him."

Mr Amin looks the part, too - pin-striped navy suits complementing a refined, measured voice. His lack of a discernible accent makes it nearly impossible to tell where he comes from.

"I was born and grew in my early years in Kenya," he says. "We are very much a Kenyan family."

Mr Amin's ancestors went to Kenya from Pakistan, and in Nairobi they established themselves among the political elite. His father, a lawyer, helped the nation in its struggle for independence by defending the freedom fighters. Mohammed Amin later served as a political adviser and eventually a justice in the supreme court.

As his father rose in the Nairobi establishment, Mr Amin was growing up in a house on the outskirts of the city then untouched by heavy urbanisation. Surrounded by countryside, he developed a love of nature.

After Kenyan primary school - "among the happiest days of my life" - he attended Kelly College in Devon, in the UK, where he learned to sail and later won a place at the University of Sussex's school of oriental and African studies to study economy. He went then took a master's degree in development there, laying the foundation for a career in helping emerging nations to develop their resources.

"Coming from a developing country, one of the things you grow up with are the challenges," he says.

After university, Mr Amin worked on a series forBBC Radio 4 called A World in Common that examined issues such as clean water and breaking down barriers to commerce.

Soon he went to the source of some of those stories, returning to Nairobi to study subjects such as the development of arid land and how to increase agriculture exports, working for the World Bank and the UN Environment Programme (Unep) on a freelance basis. At the time, about the turn of the start of 1990s, nations in Africa were just beginning to set up their environment ministries, and Mr Amin helped bring the new ministers together. Unep eventually took him on full-time, and he began going further afield to help nations including Vietnam to build their environmental policies and train staff.

In 1992 in New York, government representatives were coming together to create the world's first treaty designed to curb greenhouse gas emissions - the UN framework convention on climate change. The document preceded the introduction of the politically controversial Kyoto Protocol, the binding 1997 agreement between 37 industrialised and emerging nations to limit emissions of greenhouse gases.

Kyoto expires next year, and negotiators are scheduled to meet in South Africa next month to try to agree on a new deal. But with nations such as Canada and Japan already saying they are not interested in extending or replacing the protocol, prospects for further international consensus look bleak.

Such an outlook was one of the factors that contributed to the creation of Irena in 2009.

Mr Amin was still working within the UN family, but now in New York. There, Kofi Annan, then the agency's secretary general, chose him to look into the coordination of the UN's more than 20 units, which needed to be modernised.

"From that it became very clear the type of bad practices that can come about in international organisations," Mr Amin says. "At the core of it is a question of trust, and the leader of any international institution has to command the trust of its members.

"If they believe that the work that you are doing to establish the institutional structure, the management structure, the administrative structure of the organisation is in the right direction, you will command a lot of support and it will give a lot of impetus to the organisation," Mr Amin says.

"If questions begin to arise about the management and administration of the organisation and the use of its resources, it cripples the organisation."

In Abu Dhabi, Irena was facing some of those problems. The UAE had won a campaign in 2009 to host the organisation at its planned carbon-neutral development, Masdar City.

A year later, Irena's member nations got a shock when Ms Pelosse announced the budget shortfall.

On the night of Ms Pelosse's announcement, five of Irena's top contributors, including the UAE, decided to put together a team to investigate the matter. An audit by Ernst & Young followed, and three months later Ms Pelosse resigned and Mr Amin was brought in.

"I realised the scale of the problems that were being faced," he says. That night "I lay in bed for an hour wondering what I had got myself into."

These days, in his office with his goblet of cola on the desk, Mr Amin is more optimistic. After firing nearly a third of Irena's staff, Mr Amin has recruited replacements, and he plans by the end of the year to bring the organisation's workforce up to 60, including experts for Irena's technology centre in Bonn, Germany. Companies and industry organisations are in talks to set up a corporate panel with Irena. And this month Mr Amin travelled to China, the world's top energy consumer and the biggest manufacturer of solar panels, to try to persuade the heavyweight to sign on to Irena's agenda. As more nations join and the agency's roles expand, the budget, $25m this year, is also on the rise.

Mr Amin is cautious, however.

"We have a board with 150 shareholders, and all of them have their needs and demands," he says. "This is public money that's coming to Irena. It's taxpayers' money."

In what little time off he gets, Mr Amin likes to jog and work out.

"Light weights," he says. "I don't want to get too big. It's not conducive to agility."

The same philosophy goes at work, where he envisages Irena as increasingly "flexible, results-oriented, demand-driven".

That desire was briefly threatened in April when Irena became a full-fledged organisation and member countries had to choose between Mr Amin and Pedro Marín, a Spanish official, to serve as its permanent leader.

But if Mr Amin was at all worried, he need not have been. He won the secret vote 76 to 36.