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The Road to Sustainability Runs Through the Middle East

Maggie Brown's picture

It’s no secret that the majority of clean-tech activity and investment in the U.S. is happening at the state level. Renewable energy portfolio and fuel efficiency and green-building standards are proving that successful state initiatives can serve as a blueprint for Congress as it looks at pathways to a sustainable energy future. 

We should, however, also look outward to other nations that are tackling the issue head on and demonstrating why a unified approach to energy is critical. While some might not immediately turn to the Middle East for a roadmap on sustainable development, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is in fact a country that can serve as a model.

Considering that the UAE has the seventh-largest proven oil reserves in the world, it might seem counterintuitive that its government is investing billions of dollars to deploy renewable energy. But the country is not solely measuring sustainability in terms of green electrons generated or emissions emitted. Rather, the country is focused on the interconnectedness between energy, water, food, and waste.

Put simply, the UAE is investing in a future beyond hydrocarbons. It’s a future that relies on a diversified energy mix, where traditional and new forms of energy complement each other. It’s a future where access to water – often referred to as the oil of the 21st century – and addressing waste have equal attention. 

Each January, the UAE kicks off the year by hosting Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW) – an event that has grown to become the largest gathering on sustainability in the Middle East. Last year it attracted more than 30,000 people from more than 150 countries, including leading companies, academics, policy makers and NGOs from the U.S. 

The event has also evolved since its inception in 2008. It has adapted to a changing world in which nations are competing even more for natural resources. And it’s a world that can no longer look at energy in a silo. While the global platform used to be solely focused on advancing renewables, last year it added water to the agenda. And this year, it added waste as a key topic. The event is now appropriately focused on addressing the linkages between energy security, water scarcity, and waste management. This natural evolution is a reflection of a region being forced to innovate to meet rising resource demands – and in the process, grow its economy.

Take water for example. The Gulf is a region that accounts for 20 percent of the global oil supply and 50 percent of the world’s desalination capacity. And because it takes a tremendous amount of energy to convert salt water to fresh water, the interconnected relationship between water and energy is crucial.

So how do you ensure a stable supply of energy, while also producing water sustainably? It’s a challenge for sure – and one that the UAE is addressing. 

 Through its state-owned renewable-energy company, Masdar, the UAE launched a research program to test and develop advanced seawater desalination technologies that can be powered by renewables. The program united a global group of technology partners and investors to find viable commercial solutions. And to encourage results, the UAE government set a goal to implement commercial-scale, renewable-energy desalination plants by 2020. 

Just like water, waste is closely connected to energy – and has the potential to be a useful source of power.  

The UAE is taking a holistic approach looking at both recycling and waste management, including reducing the impact of landfills, as well as exploring ways to convert waste into useable energy. And with waste-to-energy growing into a multi-billion dollar global industry, it poses both an environmental and economic opportunity for countries willing to move quickly. In fact, some countries, such as Sweden, have already deployed large-scale waste-to-energy systems that are proving its power potential.

If a hydrocarbon-rich country like the UAE can unite to advance a comprehensive, new-energy future, there are certainly lessons that we can learn from their approach. First, countries with abundant energy sources, like the UAE and the U.S., are in a unique position to invest in the future. And most importantly, U.S. Congress must recognize the tremendous economic opportunity of passing a sweeping national energy plan.

Our patchwork policies are not enough. Congressional leadership must come together to create long-term certainties and market-based solutions that encourage the private sector to accelerate innovation. 

Undoubtedly, the U.S. has the opportunity to lead the global transition to a low-carbon, new-energy economy. In fact, America’s unique ability to out-innovate and solve problems has always led to new industries, economic growth and affirmed its strength in the world. Let’s look to our global counterparts for lessons learned and as potential partners, and not let them pass us by.