In the Unlikely Venue of Abu Dhabi, the World Charts a New Clean Energy Course

Who said this, and where:

"We can't leave it to free markets to develop renewable energy. This is a case where the free market fails to do what's right for the world and for society. So government must play a big role. If we leave it to the free market, we will be doing a disservice to our children and grandchildren."

A) Climate activist Bill McKibben, at a fossil fuel divestment rally
B) Former Sierra Club president Carl Pope, in a debate with an oil company executive
C) Marios Muftakis, chief economist at U.K.-based Standard Chartered Bank, at the 2016 World Future Energy Summit (WFES) in Abu Dhabi

The answer is C, and that speaks volumes about the accelerated global shift toward a low-carbon, clean-energy economy. At the WFES, a mid-January gathering of some 30,000 global economists, ministers of energy, investors, and energy companies spoke in a remarkably consistent voice about the need - but more importantly the compelling financial case ¬ for aggressive deployment of renewable energy in both the industrialized and developing world. And of the need for governments to set the right policies to make it happen.

On the surface, Abu Dhabi, the capital of the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, would seem an unlikely venue for the first major global clean energy conference after the landmark climate agreement signed one month earlier at COP21 in Paris. But it was actually the perfect place to view the latest signs of a tipping point in the transition from fossil fuels to renewable power. Invited as part of an international delegation of journalists, I was struck by the aggressive efforts across dozens of nations to ramp up renewables, including many MENA (Middle East/North Africa) countries, like the host, whose economies depend heavily on oil and gas.

Yes, nations like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait signed the Paris accord, pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, along with nearly 200 other countries. But speeches, and even historic climate agreements, are one thing; policy and deployment action, and the investment to pay for it, is often quite another. On this score, actions announced or discussed at WFES (part of Abu Dhabi's annual Sustainability Week) proved worthy as well. Among them were:

A commitment by the region's largest bank, the National Bank of Abu Dhabi (NBAD), of $10 billion over 10 years to finance sustainability activities, mainly large wholesale energy projects over $100 million
Morocco recently upping its national renewable energy target to 50% by 2030. It's also home to the world's largest solar thermal generation plant, Noor 1, which went online in early February. The plant, at 160 MW capacity now, is targeted to be the world's largest at 580 MW by 2018. Morocco will also host this year's United Nations climate meeting, COP22, in Marrakech in November.
The biggest kahuna of oil in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, is starting to push into clean energy generation. Among other efforts, its huge utility Saudi Electric is seeking offers to develop two 50-MW solar plants and one 50-MW wind farm. "If they get the model correct, I can see Saudi Arabia expanding significantly into renewables," said Mohammed Atif, area manager of energy for the Middle East and Africa for global energy and risk management consultancy DNV GL. "I have very high hopes."

Everything energy-related in the Middle East, of course, is occurring against the backdrop of plummeting oil prices. They were struggling to reach $30 a barrel during the WFES, a drop of some 70% since mid-2014. It makes a compelling case for oil-producing nations both to diversify their economies, and to reduce the government subsidies that have traditionally kept retail gasoline prices artificially low for their citizens when crude oil prices soared.

Indeed, one of the most memorable things I heard in Abu Dhabi came not from a conference speaker, but a newspaper headline in the local tabloid 7 Days: "UAE readies itself for last barrel of oil." Overly dramatic to be sure, but it led an article on a UAE government ministers' retreat to discuss, in light of falling prices, how to reduce the 30% chunk of the nation's economy that's dependent on oil. The nation's "last barrel of oil" is obviously many decades away, but as one Arab oil minister famously said back in the 1970s, "The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones." Even in the Middle East, we are clearly in a transition to a new way of powering our economies in a way that is cleaner, better, and ultimately cheaper.

Abu Dhabi is also home to the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Association (IRENA), the organization of 145 member nations founded in 2009 to promote clean energy worldwide. A recent IRENA study, for example, projects that increasing renewables' share of generation to 36% by 2030 would increase global GDP by 1.1% ($1.3 trillion) and create 24 million jobs. "It is unprecedented in any energy sector to have seen such a rapid change in such a short time," said Adnan Z. Amin, the affable Kenyan who chairs IRENA, about the rapid scale-up of renewable generation worldwide in this decade. "For most of the solutions we need right now to fulfill the [emissions-reduction] pledges made in Paris, the technology is already mature. There is a real sense that we're participating in a transformative agenda."

IRENA's LEED Platinum headquarters building was the site of an evening panel discussion, hosted by the Financial Times, featuring UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and other luminaries. Kyung-Ah Park, head of the environmental markets group at Goldman Sachs, talked about fossil-fuel subsidies as market distortions, but also brought this welcome news: "Global institutional investors, with combined assets of $100 trillion, are telling us they now see renewable energy as a mainstream investment." Goldman Sachs, which plans to invest $150 billion in clean energy by 2025, is one of 34 companies on Clean Edge's inaugural Corporate Clean Energy Leaders list released on March 1.

Another key element of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week is the Zayed Future Energy Prize, an annual series of awards totaling $4 million to global clean energy pioneers among corporations, NGOs, and high schools across the globe. The prize was founded in 2008 to honor the legacy of the late sustainability-minded UAE president Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. This year's winners ranged from Chinese battery and electric vehicle giant BYD to high schools with inspiring clean-energy projects in Colombia, Germany, New Zealand, South Korea, and Somaliland.

The small-medium enterprise winner was an interesting outfit called Off-Grid Electric, based in San Francisco but doing its work in Tanzania and recently, Rwanda. Backed by heavy-hitter venture money from the likes of SolarCity, DBL Partners, and Paul Allen's investment firm Vulcan Capital, Off-Grid brings the micro-payment model common in the developing world to solar power. Off-Grid employs about 1,000 Tanzanians selling solar as a service; customers pay in small increments for the amount of solar power they use. The company's efforts are helping solar replace dangerous, unhealthy, and polluting kerosene as the region's dominant energy source.

"The prize money will help us grow our salesforce into the thousands," said Off-Grid co-founder and CEO Xavier Helgesen. "We hope to cover the whole country of 40 million people."

From to clean-tech entrepreneurs like Helgesen to national energy ministers and global climate leaders, Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week brought a sense of strong, positive momentum in the often frustratingly slow transition to a global clean-energy economy. One of those leaders was the outgoing UN Framework Convention on Climate Change executive secretary Christiana Figueres, who many consider the driving force behind the Paris agreement. At the Financial Times panel, Figueres summed things up well. "This is not for the light of heart," she said. "This is a battle. But it's one we're going to win."