A report-back on Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week

The complexities of change and the sustainability trilemma 

Since 2008, United Arab Emirates’s capital city, Abu Dhabi has played host to the annual Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week. Every year, the event brings together a delegation of heads of state, policy makers, industry stakeholders and activists for a conference aimed at addressing the most pressing issues on the climate action agenda. This year saw an influx of attendees from countries including Fiji, France, the United States and India. 

The conference features a series of events, each one geared towards a specific dimension of the climate change issue. The most anticipated of these events included the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Forum, the World Future Energy Summit, Women in Sustainability and the Youth 4 Sustainability Hub

The issues are clear but complex

Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week made it indelibly clear that climate change, as a global crisis, is a complex problem. There are simply no “easy wins” or “quick fixes.” Any viable solution to these challenges must involve a multi-pronged approach that should materialise over an extended period of time, driven by consistent and practical action. 

As consumers, private sector leaders, public sector decision-makers and activists, we must resist the urge to oversimplify the issue of climate change. As we continue to learn, the implementation of a solution on one end of the spectrum may catalyse a new and emerging challenge at the other end.

The shutdown of entire industries may trigger massive job losses and affect the livelihoods of billions of people. Likewise, the shift towards a greener economy will need to be executed in a way that doesn’t lead to even greater levels of poverty and hardship among the most vulnerable groups of society. The solution to climate change involves a delicate and precarious balancing act and the truth is; for the most part, it’s not as easy as it may seem. 

The sustainability trilemma: a delicate balancing act

One of the terms that dominated discourse at Abu Dhabi’s Sustainability Week was the sustainability “trilemma.” This term refers to the layered challenge that climate change has left on the doorstep of world leaders. It is a term that has come to characterise the tradeoff between the need to ensure energy security, the call to promote energy equality (or equal access to affordable, clean energy) and the goal of achieving environmental sustainability. 
The need for energy security 

For every country, energy security depends on implementing systems that are not too heavily reliant on any one single energy solution. The impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict is a key example of how overreliance on one energy source can have a devastating impact on global supply chains and ultimately, the broader economy. Ripple effects of the conflict have materalised as record-high fuel hikes, catastrophic food shortages and supply chain disruptions. 

Herein lies an important lesson for all countries – the importance of diversifying the supplier pool and testing contingency plans ahead of time to avoid the collapse of industry when tragedy hits. Going forward therefore, solutions to alternative energy need to be balanced to even out supply peaks and troughs, and avoid destabilizing national power grids. This is however, just one of three major considerations. 

Equitable access to energy for all

According to the United Nations, around 620 million people around the world still do not have access to a reliable power source, and will still experience this lack beyond 2030. Access to reliable, affordable and abundant energy is something that many take for granted but for millions of under-resourced communities, energy is still a luxury. This overwhelming inequality poses a serious threat not only on the human rights front, but in terms of the economic development of countries who may not be forerunners in the race towards the “next big thing” in energy. 

Energy solutions need to be tailored to the natural resources of countries and the needs of the local population. If this balance is not struck, global stakeholders run the risk of widening the poverty gap and worsening inequality to levels that pose insurmountable obstacles to the global objective of equitable development. 

Environmental sustainability: weighing up the costs

The third dimension of the climate problem involves achieving environmental sustainability. And for all intents and purposes, it’s the dimension of sustainability that the public is most privy to and around which most public discourse is centered. The just energy transition is key to mitigating the effects of climate change but adopting a sweeping renewable energy policy will not solve the broader issues. This is particularly true in countries that rely on industries which are heat or gas- intensive.

For industry leaders, the challenge is to weigh up the carbon consequences of industries against what their footprint will become when the shift to renewable energy is realised. Industries like mining, manufacturing and shipping are wholly reliant on the production and supply of fossil fuels. Therefore, shifting to alternative fuel sources will have far-reaching socioeconomic effects on the people who are employed within these industries as well as the natural environment that supports them. 

As Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Chairman, Shunichi Miyanaga asserts: “In recent years, the focus has rightly been on the third of these energy trilemma challenges. But in the post-COVID world, with many economies in recession, reliable and affordable energy supplies for all must also be prioritized if a truly global, cohesive and sustainable economic recovery from the pandemic is to come about.”

Collaboration as the key to global development

As many of the keynote speakers and industry leaders at the conference reiterated, collaboration between countries, institutional bodies and individual change makers is the key to devising a plan that can be followed at the highest levels of state as well as on the ground, where real change will take effect. 

Cabinet Member and Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology of the United Arab Emirates, Dr Sultan Al Jaber emphasized the importance of mutual cooperation in his address at the conference, saying that:

“Sustainable development is about never settling for the now, it is always about the next. It is about building on previous breakthroughs, building new partnerships, staying one step ahead, and never hitting the pause button.”

Bringing his perspective to the subject was HE Parviz Shahbazov, Minister of Energy in Azerbaijan, who credits the success of Azerbaijan’s energy sector to fruitful collaboration with international partners. As he elaborated: “all the success stories we’re seeing in the energy sector, have been reaised with and because of the mutual efforts of our partners.” 

The last decade has seen Azerbaijan emerge as one of the most serious contenders in the renewable energy space. Currently, oil and gas exports as a share of total trade totals almost 90% and equates to 35% of GDP. Azerbaijan has invested substantially in a drive to modernise its energy sector, adapting policy instruments and its regulatory framework to create a more enabling environment for the emergence of a robust renewable energy sector. To achieve these aims, the country has partnered with a number of foreign entities including The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

An increasing number of examples continue to illustrate the crucial nature of collaboration at a time when the issue of climate change should raise the concern of every country. These pivotal issues cannot be solved in isolation. 
A new dawn for human-nature co-existence

Contributing to the conversation was Adrian Grenier, award-winning actor and climate change activist who explained that at this juncture in human history, we find ourselves at the brink of rediscovery – a rediscovery of earth and our relationship with the planet, its people and the natural and built environments.

As he explained: “We often think that the solution to climate change is something that exists outside of ourselves, when really the answer lies in an inward reflection on our lifestyles and how we can coexist with each other and with nature.”

Hydrogen as the next frontier

According to Canada’s Climate Change Ambassador, Catherine Stewart, part of the solution to building a more sustainable future begins with furthering the hydrogen agenda. As a country, Canada has begun implementing a series of state interventions in the form of tax incentives, policy reforms and public funds in an effort to enable the development of its hydrogen economy. Many other countries are geared up to follow suit. 

In the years to come, hydrogen will become an arena of fierce competition. And that, as Stewart asserts, is a good thing. A competitive hydrogen landscape will create an environment within which all countries can find their niche in the next evolution of human existence – because ultimately, the emergence of the hydrogen economy is not just about advancement on a technological and biochemical level, it’s about the future of everyday people and their welfare. 

Similar sentiments were expressed by Dr. Faye Al Hersh, Head of Business Development for Green Hydrogen in Masdar,who highlighted the importance of foreign investment to support #GreenHydrogen projects in Africa.

Hydrogen as the “fuel of the future” will top the list of talking points at the upcoming COP28 event, which is set to be hosted near the end of 2023 in the UAE. 

Onwards and upwards to COP28

Abu Dhabi’s Sustainability Week provided a segue for broader conversations amongst national leadership teams on how they plan to position their countries within the emerging renewable energy economy. 

This is a period of unprecedented change in world history, where the decisions we make today will have a direct impact on whether our future on earth can be sustained for generations to come. In the lead up to COP28, these are the kinds of issues that we can contribute to in our individual and collective capacities as we strive to work together towards a solution that will benefit us all.

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