Guest Article #62

Harnessing the Potential of IRENA

This April witnessed the historic first Assembly of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), a fledgling Agency with the potential to transform the world's response to the urgent need to harness renewable energy and put the world on a sustainable clean energy path.

With 152 affiliated States, including 80 ratifications to date, a clear political mandate has been afforded to IRENA's vision. It marks the recognition by the international community that our planet is facing severe economic and environmental challenges, that we urgently need to create a clean, more secure energy industry and economic growth that is sustainable, and that renewable energy is an essential – indeed an inexorable – part of the solution.

As the first such Agency to be headquartered in the Middle East, IRENA will benefit from the inspiring role the UAE is playing in advancing renewable energy, with the continued transformation of Abu Dhabi into a centre of expertise, hosting the World Future Energy Summit, and ongoing innovation as embodied in Masdar City.

The far-reaching threats posed by climate change are well-documented and the irreversible repercussions will not wait for international consensus to form.  Therefore, immediate practical measures for mitigation are crucial, affording renewable energy initiatives a central role. As outlined in the IPCC's Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation (SRREN), the global technical potential of renewable energy sources is unlimited, but there remain challenges of cost, technology and mindset we must overcome.

IRENA's mission is to support the transition to a future based primarily on renewable energy and to assist countries to identify, map out, design and implement the best route to that destination. We must address global challenges while ensuring the progress and protection of countries that have contributed least to the present problems but experience their impacts most severely. For developing nations, success in IRENA's mandate holds the promise of sustainable development via energy access: access both for basic needs and to catalyze economies with enormous untapped potential. For developed nations, health and environmental concerns will be addressed and crucial energy security concerns alleviated. With improved energy security, we can also look forward to a more stable and peaceful world.

To fulfill our vision, IRENA must become the global authority on renewable energy. Achieving that, in the context of evolving technologies, a continuously growing energy industry, rising global energy demand and a rapidly changing international environment, will require persistent application and continuous effort. It will require the engagement of, and close collaboration with, the plethora of institutions and organisations already working on renewable energy and related fields, with IRENA representing the global focal point for the knowledge generated. Within this remit, I believe that the private sector has a crucial role to play and IRENA will work in close collaboration with leading industry actors to ensure that innovative technology can be quickly disseminated and adopted by member States, underpinning corporate initiative with political will.

IRENA's work programme for 2011 incorporates action on three key fronts: First, the knowledge management and technology sub-programme designated to facilitate an increased role for renewable energy; Second, the policy advisory services and capacity building sub-programme that will encourage an enabling environment for renewables. And third, under the innovation and technology sub-programme, we will create a framework for technology support, work of cost reduction potentials and the wider use of standards. All of these will contribute to accelerating uptake of renewables.

Next year will be the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All and the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio +20) will be held. With this backdrop, IRENA will seek to support the international community to harness the full potential of renewable energy. Momentum is gathering. New investment into renewable energy was $243bn in 2010, up from $186bn in 2009. The largest drivers were investment in the growing Chinese market (up 30% at $51bn), small-scale distributed generation projects (up 91% at $60bn – led by European solar power), the expansion of offshore wind finance and record levels of global R&D spending on clean energy technology. R&D reached $21bn by governments (up 33%) and $14.4bn (up 13%) by corporates. As innovations in technology gradually drive down costs, additional installed power capacity is now majority sourced from renewables, and economic opportunities – including decent job creation – are coming to fruition, I believe we have passed a tipping point. The future prospects for renewable energy uptake look bright.

However, now is not the time for complacency. Time is short and the stakes are extremely high. More than one-and-a-half billion people still live without electricity and more than three billion in developing countries continue to rely on polluting, heavily carbon based fuels – with devastating consequences for their health and the environment. This is a situation that is both indefensible and untenable.

I hope IRENA can work together with all actors to harness the full potential of renewable energy technologies and investments to support the international community on the path to a sustainable energy future.