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Interview

H.E. Dr. Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi – UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment

Minister of Climate Change and Environment H.E. Dr. Thani Al Zeyoudi

In an exclusive interview, H.E. Dr. Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi reveals why the creation of his Ministry was a milestone in the UAE’s efforts to combat climate change; his commitment to sustainable development; and the key role of the O&G industry in achieving the emirate’s green growth strategy.

A government reshuffle in February 2016 led to the establishment of the newly named Ministry of Climate Change and Environment. You had previously been Director of Energy and Climate Change at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. What is your mandate and vision for the new Ministry?

The UAE is committed to moving away from a hydrocarbon-based economy and transitioning into new knowledge-based industries.

The February 2016 reshuffle was fundamentally anchored in the UAE’s commitment to sustainable growth across all sectors. The establishment of the newly named Ministry of Climate Change and Environment is an important milestone which reflects the importance our leadership places on climate action.

The UAE is committed to moving away from a hydrocarbon-based economy and transitioning into new knowledge-based industries. We are constantly exploring the best international practices and technologies and tailoring them to our particular environment. The environmental sector must play a key role if we are to achieve the vision of our leaders.

One of our new areas of focus will be the engagement of the private sector and academia, because a focus on innovation, and research and development (R&D) is essential. The Ministry will be looking for new and innovative ways to engage the private sector and academic institutions in the development of climate change and environmental solutions – we will be great champions for partnerships which will allow the government, private sector and academic institutions to work hand in hand.

The defining characteristic of the UAE is that when we make a commitment, we always see it through. This explains why the private sector sees the UAE government as one of the main drivers when it comes to developing new ideas: we set the best practices and guidelines so that the private sector can work with us to achieve the country´s goals. With the Ministry’s mandate, we are ensuring the country’s sustainable pathway.

The UAE’s leadership has made the structural transformation of the UAE into a post-oil, diversified economy a critical national priority. How can your Ministry balance the need for economic development with the need to preserve the environment and combat climate change?

Economic diversification and the transition into knowledge-based industries is a key focus of the UAE government and is at the heart of the UAE 2021 vision. Through the Vision, we want to ensure sustainable development of our economy while preserving the environment, and in so doing, achieve a perfect balance between economic and social development. To do that, the Vision, launched in 2010 by H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, focuses on improving the quality of air, preserving water resources, increasing the contribution of clean energy and implementing green growth plans.

Last November, the UAE’s first desalination plant that works on renewable energy was inaugurated in Abu Dhabi. The project, which began in 2013, aims at producing 1,500 cubic metres of water daily and forms part of the UAE’s ambitious target to increase clean energy to 24 percent of the national energy mix by 2021.

When it comes to our strategy regarding the development of green energy, we have two flagship projects: the Masdar initiative and the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park. These two initiatives are leading the region when it comes to developing renewable energy. Masdar, also known as the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, has the mission of advancing the clean energy industry in the UAE and around the world, and of acting as a catalyst for the economic diversification of the emirate. The landmark Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, named after H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum, is expected to become the biggest solar power plant in the Middle East. It is scheduled to begin operations in 2017 and will see the UAE continue to play a leading role when it comes to reducing the price of solar energy.

What do you see as some of the primary challenges when it comes to safeguarding the UAE’s leadership role in energy diversification?

We do have some particular challenges. The UAE is a country with scarce water supply. That said, I am proud that we have proactively taken the initiative to invest in technologies suitable for our environment in order to address the challenge we are facing.

Earlier this year, our leaders had a ministerial retreat where we focused on achieving an economy beyond oil. Our strategy is to become a knowledge-based economy by 2050 and also, to celebrate the country’s last barrel of oil, fifty years from now.

While we know our petroleum resources can sustain us for at least another century, we have to think about our future, from a long-term perspective. In the shorter term, we want to reduce our dependence on the volatile natural resource market, which sees heavy price fluctuations that affect the stability of our economy.

Today, 70 percent of our GDP comes from the non-oil sector. We will continue our efforts to build an economy independent of oil market fluctuations.

Today, we increasingly see oil and gas companies entering the renewables sector. What role do you think oil and gas companies can play in UAE´s energy diversification strategy?

The UAE is the seventh largest oil producer in the world. We are also one of the greenest when it comes to our national companies. We have extremely high standards when it comes to Health, Safety and Environment (HSE). We started focusing on this area over 20 years ago, ahead of others. Our founding father, the late H.H. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, understood that environmental protection was integral to the UAE´s future. The UAE’s oil and gas industry has played a crucial role in this process, supporting and financing numerous projects.

Notably, at the leadership level, there is a lot of movement between the traditional and renewables sectors. I come from an oil and gas background. It is clear that the oil and gas industry plays a crucial role in developing the country´s human talent and supporting the wider economy.

Looking at the International Oil Companies (IOCs), Total has played a key role in the development of the Shams 1 project, the largest concentrated solar power plant (CSP) in operation in the world and a major breakthrough for renewable energy in the Middle East. This shows that IOCs can play a major role in building the UAE´s energy future. Another flagship project is the Abu Dhabi Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage Project, a joint venture between the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) and Masdar. The project involves the capture of CO2 from the Emirates Steel factory in Abu Dhabi and its transportation to the ADNOC reservoirs for the purpose of enhanced oil recovery (EOR).

Ultimately, we see the IOCs as innovative solution providers, contributing to best practices in the region and I am confident that the oil and gas industry will play a key role in achieving the UAE´s green growth strategy and Vision 2021.

You have said that while international expertise was crucial in the development of the UAE’s clean energy sector, local development must also play an important role. What importance do you attach to Emiratization as part of the UAE´s green development?

Emiratization is at the heart of the UAE’s Vision 2021. 1,600 jobs will be created through the country´s green growth strategy. Masdar achieved an Emiratization rate of 44 percent in 2015. This demonstrates that even in the more technical sectors, increasing the local workforce content is not only a priority but has been a reality. We also attach a lot of importance to empowering women, as we believe that they can act as leaders in the development of the UAE´s technical sectors.

As part of the February reshuffle, the government appointed H.E. Shamma Al Mazrui, who is just 22 years old, as Minister of State for Youth Affairs. Such a move highlighted the UAE leadership’s emphasis on youth development. Most impressively, the average age of the new ministers is 38.

The country´s focus on education is paramount. Internationally renowned universities, including the likes of NYU and the Sorbonne have been brought to the UAE. Locally, establishments such as Masdar Institute – which has partnered with MIT and Abu Dhabi’s Petroleum Institute, have played an important role in advancing the energy education sector.

We have a dedicated program for the youth as part of the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW), a ground-breaking global forum that unites thought leaders, policy makers and investors to address the challenges of renewable energy and sustainable development. ADSW helps to raise awareness in the UAE about the importance of sustainability and energy diversification.

The UAE stands as an exemplary model that it is possible to be a major energy producer and exporter while preserving a clean environment for future generations. What can other countries learn from UAE´s experience?

We believe in reaching out and sharing our experiences globally. When it comes to the green energy sector, the Masdar initiative has led the way in encouraging our region to look beyond oil and gas. In 2009, the UAE became the first developing country to host a major international organisation, with Abu Dhabi becoming home to the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). We see IRENA as an opportunity to support the world when it comes to developing renewables.

The UAE is also investing internationally in development programs. Over the last six years we have committed almost USD 840 million in renewable energy projects, amounting to 26 projects internationally, the most recent of which was in the Republic of Palau, where on May 13, 2016, the UAE marked the completion of three renewable energy projects. As a major supplier of the world´s energy needs, the UAE is committed to do its part in developing constructive approaches to combat the impact of climate change and to exemplify a leadership model in sustainable energy and economic development.

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