When it was first agreed in 2009 that the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) would be headquartered and hold its general assemblies in Abu Dhabi, it seemed that the emirate had a mountain to climb.
Back then, Irena comprised fewer than 50 member states. Women were almost absent from the renewable energy workforce, and our youth had not yet taken up the climate change fight.
A little more than a decade later, step by step, we have reached new heights. Irena now boasts 161 member states, women form more than 30 per cent of the renewables workforce and we have hosted the first-ever Irena 4 Youth Forum, where we gave a platform to young people from more than 20 countries.
Since we hosted the first Irena assembly in 2010, nearly Dh10 trillion has been invested in renewable energy, half of which was directed to solar power, a 2019 UN Environment-Bloomberg New Energy Finance report states.
This level of investment has resulted in a doubling of total installed capacity – from 1,140 to 2,360 gigawatts. According to Irena's report, 10 Years: Progress to Action, renewables have become the world's main source of new power generation capacity.
The industry’s growth, boosted in part by the record-breaking solar projects underway in the UAE, has been remarkable. It is important to recognise our achievements, which is why we launched the #Act4Impact campaign ahead of this year’s assembly to call all Irena member states to share their accomplishments and hopes for the coming years.
But it is just as important to realise that we have a long way to go before reaching the summit of our potential and bringing the global energy transition to fruition. At the moment, 29 per cent of our global power supply comes from renewable sources. By 2030, that figure could be as high as 57 per cent, making renewables the primary source of the world’s energy and thereby carving a clear pathway to climate safety.
To get there, however, the renewable energy sector must grow at four times the rate of the last decade. Annual investments in the sector must more than double from their current level of $329 billion (Dh1.2tn) to $737bn (Dh2.7tn) by 2030. In this scenario, the total sum invested over the next 10 years would amount to $10.3tn.
A probable consequence of this unprecedented level of investment in the energy industry would be net gains in job creation. Indeed, Irena’s socio-economic footprint analysis, released this year, estimates that, by 2050, employment in renewables will almost triple, to the tune of 42 million jobs. The knock-on effects of this unprecedented employment boom could well unlock great gender parity and diversity in the workforce.
Already since 2009, we have seen professional roles grow by up to five times in the fields of solar PV, liquid biofuel, hydropower and wind alone to more than 11 million today. By 2030, that figure is set to exceed 30 million people.
For the UAE and the wider international community, this growth is the foundation atop which we must build our future – particularly for women and youth entering the sector. The importance of gender equality and diversity in the traditionally male-dominated energy sector cannot be overstated, as two key Irena reports highlight. Wind Energy: A Gender Perspective, released at the start of this year, and Renewable Energy: A Gender Perspective, from 2019, were both discussed at length during the most recent Irena assembly. They reveal the immediate challenges we face in driving gender equality.
The wind energy sector, in particular, is far behind; women represent only 21 per cent of the workforce, compared to 32 per cent in renewables overall, while traditional industries like oil and gas hold a 22 per cent female representation.
Moreover, wage inequities are also an issue. Close to two-thirds of Irena survey respondents believe that women in renewable energy earn less than men in the same position, according to the Wind Energy report. Meanwhile, one-third of the respondents believe men and women earn the same, and just one per cent believe women are paid more. These responses, the report states, indicates that perceptions about wage equity are formed by a gender bias. Among male respondents, just 37 per cent said they think men are paid more, as opposed to 70 per cent of female respondents, while 60 per cent of men have the perception that both genders are paid equally.
While these figures undoubtedly represent a dramatic improvement upon where the industry was 10 years ago, we must ensure that everyone benefits from the socio-economic opportunities soon to be created by the energy transition. The sector must be accessible to women, youth, minorities and others who have historically been left behind.
To start, we must engage more women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects – particularly as they relate to renewables. Forty-five per cent of the administrative jobs in the sector are held by women – 12 per cent higher than the wider economy’s 32 per cent average. As for renewables jobs that fall under the Stem umbrella, only 28 per cent are held by women. These figures reinforce the point that men and women continue to be bracketed within the sector based on prevailing misperceptions and gender-biased hiring methods.
In the UAE, we are well on our way to reversing these trends. Currently, 56 per cent of UAE government university graduates in Stem are women.
By empowering our young female population, we are actively creating gender balance in the renewables sector in order to manifest the clear economic benefits and fresh ideas and perspectives that come with a wider talent pool across all occupations.
As we reach the first of many milestones in our climb towards a sustainable and inclusive energy sector, we still face a long, uphill path ahead. But we can derive strength to continue in the knowledge that our arrival at the summit will be met with great rewards for every member of our society.
Nawal Al Hosany is the UAE’s permanent representative to Irena