Saudis lend their weight to Irena

Saudi Arabia, the world's leading oil producer and a long-standing sceptic of climate change will become a member of the International Renewable Energy Agency.

ABU DHABI // Saudi Arabia, the world's leading oil producer and a long-standing sceptic of climate change, will become a member of the International Renewable Energy Agency, it was announced here yesterday. Sultan al Jaber, the chief executive of Masdar, Abu Dhabi's clean-energy firm, said Irena, as the energy agency is known, had received "official notification from Saudi Arabia to become a signatory state".

"Hopefully in the next three weeks, official representatives of Saudi Arabia will get their full powers to become an authorised member of Irena," said Dr al Jaber, speaking following the UN agency's first meeting in the capital, which was attended by heads of state, prime ministers and energy ministers and 1,400 chief executives from 138 countries. The meeting was held in conjunction with the World Future Energy Summit, which opens in the capital today.

Irena's third preparatory session also saw the addition of three new members: South Africa, Kyrgyzstan, and St Vincent & the Grenadines, an island state in the Caribbean. Saudi Arabia, one of the most influential OPEC members, has for years downplayed the risks associated with climate change. The Saudi government has also insisted on financial compensation for oil revenues lost due to measures to reduce the fossil-fuel consumption of developed states.

Dr al Jaber and Hélène Pelosse, Irena's interim director-general, said the overture from Saudi Arabia was an encouraging one. "It is sending out a strong message that we cannot rely on energy of the past to power the future," said Mrs Pelosse. "We know that within 40 years there will be no more oil." The idea, she said, "is to co-operate". China, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, is also considering joining Irena.

"We have had a lot of meetings with China and a huge delegation is attending," said Mrs Pelosse. "They are considering seriously. It's not a decision you take quickly." At the session yesterday, the UAE stressed it would strive to make the agency a success. The UAE capital was chosen in June as the home of Irena, beating three European cities, Vienna, Copenhagen and Bonn, to the honour. "The UAE firmly believes that Irena will evolve into one of the most important international organisations of the 21st century and we are truly proud to be part of that journey," said Dr Mohammed Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, in a speech reported by WAM, the state news agency.

Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, also told the session that as a major oil producer and home of Irena, "the UAE is adding its voice to other countries to send out a message that we all believe in it and which says, 'We can't rely on the energy of the past to make prosperity in the future'," reported WAM. Irena yesterday fixed the budget for its first full year at US$13.7 million (Dh50.3m). Decisions about how it will be governed and staffed were also made.

The overriding importance of the Irena initiative in the global battle against climate change was reinforced yesterday by the first visit by an Israeli cabinet minister to a meeting in the UAE. Israel and the UAE were among the 75 states that founded Irena in Bonn last January. Uzi Landau, Israel's national infrastructure minister, attended the day-long meeting at the Emirates Palace hotel after "special arrangements" were made for him and his delegation to enter the country, with which the Emirates has no diplomatic ties.

Mandated by governments worldwide, Irena's mission is to promote the adoption and sustainable use of all forms of renewable energy. In her opening speech, Mrs Pelosse praised Masdar for the "enormous support" it had given the organisation; the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology has offered 20 scholarships to Irena to support and establish its technical and administrative bodies. Mrs Pelosse told delegates that gender equality was also on Irena's agenda: 50 per cent of its employees would be women, she said.

Dr al Jaber also defended the UAE's decision to use nuclear energy. "We will have to adopt a new approach to energy, which is going to be about an energy mix," he said. "Hydrocarbons will play a role. Renewable energy will play a significant role." He said nuclear energy would play a role "for some time", until renewable energy is able to compete financially with other sources of power.