What have I learned from my two days spent attending and speaking at the World Future Energy Summit – part of Abu Dhabi’s Sustainability Week?
My first impressions is that this is, by far, the largest sustainability conference I have attended in my 12 years in the industry. The exhibition space here in Abu Dhabi is vast, filled with impressive stands representing hundreds of regional and international businesses and associations.
In parallel, the week has included a significant programme of seminars and talks covering energy efficiency, renewable energy waste and water – the event is co-hosted with the International Water Summit. These well attended sessions (some seating hundreds of delegates) have included high quality commercial and governmental representatives from all over the world.
So what am I taking away from this visit? Well, there is clear evidence of a vast investment planned in the region in renewables – in particular solar. Masdar, a renewable energy company owned by the Abu Dhabi government, used their exhibition stand to display their range of solar projects in the region, along with a number of renewables projects in Europe such as their offshore wind array in the Thames estuary in the UK, and their solar concentrator tower and salt storage installation in Spain.
But beyond renewables, there is a recognition of the wider importance of sustainable development (including water and energy efficiency) for businesses and the governments in the region. There is a clear desire to achieve a leadership position in a number of sectors – potentially resulting in the creation of a sustainability hub in a geography not renowned for resource use constraint.
And that leads to the obvious challenge which continues to rear its head – energy is still so cheap to the end user here. In my session on industrial energy efficiency this challenge was debated with the audience. The business cases – in simple payback terms – are often hard to sell. But two key factors cannot continue to be ignored.
Firstly, the obvious one – what you use yourself you cannot sell to someone else. The lost opportunity of energy export revenues has to be recognised.
But secondly, and more crucially, the global economy’s growing focus on resource efficiency, along with the inevitable expansion in consumer desire for sustainable products, services and commodities, is beginning to be recognised as a risk that cannot be ignored.
Parts of the world with historically higher energy prices may be further ahead right now in the move to bring sustainability inside business practices, as well as in the adoption of resource efficiency technologies. But from what I have seen and heard over the last two days, it looks likely that the Gulf will move quickly to adopt these practices and technologies, leading to a transformation across business sectors in the region.
Technology and efficient business practices have been well developed and deployed elsewhere – the learning curve is well worn. Who knows? Perhaps this region can catch up from behind in the sustainability race and surprise us all, in moving rapidly to the front of the global pack.