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Gulf countries, taking on the challenge of renewable energy

Article by: Mark Radka - Chief, Energy Branch, UN Environment Programme

Famously endowed with fossil fuel reserves, the Middle East may not be seen as an obvious place to learn about renewable energy. Yet many of the countries in this part of the world, including the oil-rich states on the Persian Gulf, are launching energy initiatives that could teach the world a thing or two about sustainability.

In a region where entire economies are powered by oil and gas revenues, it surprises no one that fossil fuels – including their effects on the environment – dominate the thinking of governments. Less well known are that an increasing number of countries are committed to leaving behind their status as the world’s largest carbon emitters per capita, becoming in the process the largest investors in renewable energy projects. Governments are increasingly realizing that they need to prepare their economies for the day when oil reserves run dry, and taking steps to remain energy leaders

To find an alternative energy source in the Middle East, just look up. In a region where the sun shines intensely year round, it is no wonder that so far, most renewable energy investments have been made in the solar technology sector. Abu Dhabi's carbon-neutral Masdar City, Saudi Arabia’s huge solar heating plant in Riyadh, Dubai’s plan to construct a 1GW solar park, and Qatar’s Solar Schools project are just a few indications that the region is undergoing a “Green Energy Revolution.”

An increasing number of governments in the region have indicated their intention to invest heavily in green energy. For example, the Saudi royal family has stated that it would like the country to go 100% renewable and low-carbon in the coming decades.

Recently, the UAE signed on to the United Nations’ Sustainable Energy for All initiative. Led by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the initiative aims to mobilize all sectors of society to support three goals by 2030: universal access to modern energy services, doubling the rate of energy efficiency gains, and doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. And the UAE is the proud host of IRENA, the International Renewable Energy Agency.

The UN is an old hand at sustainable energy initiatives and has several in the Middle East and North Africa. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has been providing institutional and technical support for projects like the new city of Boughzoul, in Algeria. Like Madsar, Boughzoul will be planned according to sustainable energy principles, using smart building techniques, low-carbon street lighting, and solar technology for heating water. In Egypt, UNEP is helping energy policy makers face the challenges of climate change and identifying ways in which tap solar energy for industrial purposes. And UNEP’s Mediterranean Investment Facility is developing new ways to finance renewable energy and energy efficiency efforts in Tunisia and Morocco.

Working together in global partnerships, such as the Sustainable Energy for All initiative, and through national and regional initiatives like those described above, the Middle East may soon be exporting something that doesn’t require drilling. In the future, the region may be known for energy exports of a greener sort, as well as reputation for having the knowledge and technical know-how that can help other countries build a sustainable energy future. Hopefully, governments will look beyond their current renewable energy investments and take the opportunity to create a clean energy future that runs from North Africa to the Persian Gulf, with benefits to the rest of the world as well.

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