A decade ago, renewable energy was viewed as an unwelcome offspring of fossil fuels, but the recent establishment of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) indicates that governments worldwide are taking “renewables” seriously. With mounting concerns about climate change and volatility in oil and other fossil-fuel prices, renewables are finally becoming a viable proposition.
IRENA will be headquartered in the United Arab Emirates, in Masdar City, the world’s first carbon-neutral city, which will be constructed in the desert by 2011. The agency will also maintain two vital arms in Europe: an innovation and technology center in Bonn; and an office in Vienna for strategic alliances with other agencies, particularly the UN.
Close to US$155 billion was invested last year in renewable energy companies and projects worldwide, not including large-scale hydroelectric projects, according to a recent UN Environment Program report. On a global scale, the renewable energy sector created 2.3 million jobs in the past few years. In Germany alone, the sector’s growth has generated 250,000 new green jobs in less than 10 years.
Big business is spending billions of dollars to explore the opportunities that renewables can bring. There are serious plans to turn the Sahara desert’s heat and sunlight into Europe’s major power source, supplying energy to half a billion people. Some estimates suggest it could cost up to US$60 billion to start sending Sahara power to Europe a decade from now. With public support, progress could be much faster. The price tags are huge, but the current economic and financial crisis has taught us not to be afraid of 10-digit numbers.
Renewable energy costs will eventually go down, in step with technological innovation and mass production. The European Parliament recently enacted a law to support investors who help the continent reach its goal of sourcing 20 percent of its power from renewable energy by 2020.
As a new global platform for renewables, IRENA will provide policy advice and assist in capacity building and technology transfer. This will contribute to giving the poorest nations affordable access to clean energy, a key step towards lifting millions out of poverty. Yet skeptics might say: must we really add yet another set of letters to the alphabet soup of global bureaucracy? My answer is yes. This new agency already has immense potential.
First, IRENA will hit the ground running in developing policy and spreading technology, partly because the countries instrumental in its birth — Denmark, Germany and Spain — have impeccable “green” policy credentials. Denmark is a pioneer in commercial wind power and produces half of the world’s wind turbines. It may soon set the stage for the post-Kyoto world.
Germany leads in the clean technology sector, focusing on solar power. By 2020, it plans to obtain 47 percent of its electricity from renewables. Spain was among the first countries to introduce a national energy plan aimed at promoting renewable energy sources and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. I would also add here Austria, a proven international energy hub and a leader in renewable energy production and technologies.
Second, the new agency’s wide membership — 136 States — is keen to benefit from the opportunities that renewable energy will create for growth, jobs and helping to meet the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. These countries recognize the potential for renewable energy, especially new off-grid solutions in rural areas.
Third, IRENA will be based in a developing country, a vote of confidence in the quality, institutional expertise, and dynamism that exists in the developing world. Moreover, a headquarters in Abu Dhabi sends an unequivocal message that promoting renewable energy is not “anti-oil.” Fossil fuels will be with us for some time to come, and we should continuously seek out cleaner ways to use them.
At the same time, we must face the facts: Fossil fuels will not last forever and some supplies may dwindle soon. So let’s plan for the inevitable, and develop the relevant policies, technologies, and institutional infrastructure as soon as possible.
IRENA may not be a component of the UN system, but it should be regarded as part of the family from the outset. A lesson we have learned from both the climate change debate on the way to the December summit in Copenhagen and from the economic crisis is that only by working together can we achieve genuine change.
In a sense, that change has now arrived. IRENA is solid proof that our world has the will to turn away from the carbon-clogged past and to fuel a clean, prosperous future that both developed and developing countries can enjoy.
Kandeh Yumkella is director-general of the UN Industrial Development Organization. COPYRIGHT: PROJECT SYNDICATE
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