Dawn of a new power game

This week's World Future Energy Summit is the centrepiece of Abu Dhabi's determination to lead the world into a new era of planet-friendly energy.

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When politicians, experts and industry leaders from more than 100 nations arrive in Abu Dhabi this week for the third World Future Energy Summit, they will find themselves in an emirate that is not only sitting on the sixth-largest reserves of oil in the world, but has also repositioned itself in a few short years as a capital of climate-change concern, determined to play a key role in the battle against the global warming caused by fossil fuels.

On the face of it, it is a counter -intuitive proposition. With an estimated 98 billion barrels under its seas and sands, 94 per cent of which belong to Abu Dhabi, the UAE holds eight per cent of global oil reserves, not to mention the world's fifth-largest supplies of natural gas. Without these resources the rapid development that the UAE has enjoyed since unification in 1971 would not have been possible. But Abu Dhabi has been increasingly directing the energy expertise that has flowed from almost half a century of exploiting hydrocarbons into a range of initiatives, policies and projects designed not only to reduce its own reliance on fossil fuels, but also to help the rest of the world to do the same.

Future Energy Week serves as a showcase for Abu Dhabi's efforts to contribute solutions to the future-energy problems confronting the planet. The main event, of course, is the four-day World Future Energy Summit, at which leading players and experts in the energy industry will rub shoulders and trade ideas and inspiration with scientists and politicians from around the world, including energy, trade, environment and economics ministers from many nations.

On the agenda are topics ranging from the political to the practical, with sessions dedicated to discussions about the challenges and opportunities presented by such evolving technologies as carbon capture, solar power and biofuels to the economic and regulatory frameworks necessary to make them everyday realities. If Copenhagen was an "in principle" talking shop, Abu Dhabi is an "in practice" hothouse in which solutions will take root and grow in the rich soil of commercial imperative.

Another highlight of Future Energy Week is the third session of the preparatory commission of the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena), which takes place in Abu Dhabi today. Irena, created in Bonn on January 26 last year at a conference of 75 founder nations, is an intergovernmental organisation dedicated to the "rapid transition towards the widespread and sustainable use of renewable energy worldwide".

The UAE was one of Irena's founding nations; today, 139 states and the European Union countries are signatories to the agency's statute. In a vote of confidence in Abu Dhabi's commitment to renewable energy, at a meeting of signatory countries at Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt in June, the capital of the Emirates beat other contenders, including Germany and Denmark, to be designated as Irena's interim headquarters.

At today's meeting, Irena's work programme and budget for this year will be decided. Following tomorrow morning's welcome address by Sultan al Jaber, the chief executive of Masdar, Hélène Pelosse, Irena's interim director general, will introduce the summit's first plenary forum, a twin-strand round-table meeting for energy ministers who will discuss the pressing issues of global energy policy. The session for ministers from Asia, Africa and the Middle East will include contributions from Mohammed bin Da'hen al Hamli, the UAE's Minister of Energy, and his counterparts from Qatar, Egypt and India. Ministers confirmed for the Europe and North America session include Britain's Ed Miliband and senior officials from France, Germany, Switzerland, Finland, Canada and Sweden.

On Tuesday evening the coveted Zayed Future Energy Prize will be awarded to this year's winner at a ceremony in the Emirates Palace hotel.The prize was set up by Abu Dhabi in 2008 to honour the environmental legacy of Sheikh Zayed, the late founder of the UAE, and "to inspire the next generation of global energy innovators - creating solutions we can barely imagine today". Finalists have been nominated by experts from around the globe and the winner will be chosen by Dr RK Pachauri, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the 2007 Nobel Peace laureate.

The winner will be awarded US$2.3 million (Dh8.5m), while up to two finalists will receive $350,000 each to help them to "take their ideas and ambitions to the next level". It was Sheikh Zayed who ensured that the UAE was able to make the most of its oil resources for the benefit of its people, transforming the nation after unification in 1971. At the same time, however, he was conscious of the urgent need to protect the environment and took what steps he could to balance those two competing imperatives.

"We cherish our environment because it is an integral part of our country, our history and our heritage," he said in a speech he gave to mark the UAE's first Environment Day, in February 1998. "On land and in the sea, our forefathers lived and survived in this environment. "They were able to do so only because they recognised the need to conserve it, to take from it only what they needed to live, and to preserve it for succeeding generations."

It is a sentiment that is echoed in the spirit of Future Energy Week. @Email:jgornall@thenational.ae