The United Arab Emirates has the largest per capita carbon footprint of any country in the world, contains artificial islands, a ski dome in the middle of the desert, and will soon boast the first air-conditioned beach. In general, the country relies on a cheap supply of oil for its continued growth. Yet the International Renewable Energy Association, founded in January as a counterbalance to the International Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency, announced today that it will make its home in… Abu Dhabi.
The city beat Bonn, Germany and Vienna, Austria, with German environment minister Sigmar Gabriel claiming that the solution avoided “an artificially charged north-south division” between the two countries. The real reason for IRENA’s pick, though, probably has something to do with Abu Dhabi’s offer to cover the cost of the headquarters and launch a major publicity campaign–an offer likely made possible by Abu Dhabi’s status as one of the world’s largest oil producers. Germany was only willing to offer $11 million, while the UAE offered to support IRENA with a grant of $136 million over a six year period. The Abu Dhabi Fund for Development also created a $50 million annual endowment for clean tech projects in developing countries. Indeed, it is the UAE’s status as a developing country itself that helped make it the most politically palatable choice.
Bonn and Vienna didn’t lose out entirely in the IRENA bid. As a compromise, Germany will host IRENA’s innovation center, and Vienna will receive IRENA’s office for liasion with international energy organizations and the U.N.
IRENA’s pick isn’t entirely uncalled for. Abu Dhabi is building Masdar City, the first large-scale carbon-neutral development, and in fact IRENA will be housed inside Masdar when its headquarters is completed in 2011. The $22 billion Masdar project will be powered primarily by solar panels and create homes for 40,000 people when it’s finished in 2016. Masdar will also host the Sustainable Cities Research Center, a hub of clean technology collaboration. And Abu Dhabi is preparing to launch the Masdar Clean Tech Fund, a $250 million venture capital investment.
It’s admirable that the UAE is using its oil wealth to move into the clean tech space, but any advances are offset by the country’s continued reliance on unsustainable tourist development, mainly in Dubai. Unless the UAE stops investing in ski domes and fake islands, its efforts to court agencies like IRENA and build carbon-neutral cities will continue to ring false.