An Interview with Dr. Thani Al Zeyoudi, UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment

In an exclusive interview with Climasphere, the newly appointed UAE Minister for Climate Change and Environment discusses the country's current and future work to replace traditional fossil fuels with renewable energy innovations.

On February 8-10, Climasphere attended the World Government Summit in Dubai, UAE. While there, we interviewed Dr. Thani Al Zeyoudi, Director of Energy and Climate Change for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the United Arab Emirates. Shortly after our interview, Dr. Thani was appointed as the UAE’s Minister for Climate Change and Environment.

Interview edited lightly for clarity.

What part of the World Government Summit have you found the most powerful?
Dr. Thani: Actually there were so many topics at the World Government Summit. I would not say that there was one part that was more thoughtful than the others because the topics are very relevant, and the topics are shaping our future.

When we talk about what we did with the UN and the relevant entities when it comes to the [Sustainable Development Goals] it’s very important, not only to the country but to the whole world. When we’re talking about the Edge of Government [editor’s note: The Edge of Goverment was an exhibition at the Summit showcasing 10 innovations in medicine, city planning, and environment from around the world], we’re talking about innovative ideas. When we talk about the presentations and the discussions, they were brilliant, and we’re talking about best practices from around the world and how we can work together.

So I would not say that there was one element that was better than the others, because the whole Government Summit is a tool and mechanism which the [UAE] is using to shape our future and come up with implementation action plans of our vision and our strategies.

For us, [action on] climate change is business-as-usual: we’re doing it as we move forward with our growth developments.

As reports show, 40% of the Gross Domestic Product of the UAE is based in oil [editor’s note: Dr. Thani reported that this figure should be 30% of GDP]. How do you see the UAE’s plan to balance economic priorities with action on climate change?
Dr. Thani: If you allow me to go a bit back, the founder of UAE, Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, when he started the government, the first thing he said to our grandfathers that we have to take care of our environment and that we have to conserve our [resources], especially when it comes to water, the hydrocarbons, etc. So he embedded this concept with the establishment of the government.
For us, [action on] climate change is business-as-usual: we’re doing it as we move forward with our growth developments. We have a Green Growth strategy for 2021 which is already embedded in our five-year business plan, which is already under implementation now. Our vision is to become one of the top five governments by 2021, which is the 50th anniversary of the Global Green [Growth Institution] for us. If we ignore the environment, we’re not going to achieve our visions of becoming the first of these governments around the world.
For us, [action on] climate change is something natural, we’re doing so many initiatives – the DEWA Solar Complex here in Dubai…the efficiency programs and standards, the public transportation – all are initiatives which are fostering economic growth while at the same time bettering the environment.
Could you touch on the kind of commitments that the UAE brought to the Paris Agreement at COP21 through their INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) and how the government intends to scale up their plans over the next 5, 10, 15 years? 
Dr. Thani: The first and the most important one is the involvement of the private sector, because with most of the INDCs, when you see them, you see only [government] actions. What we are committed to is the involvement of the private sector, which were a big part of the international negotiations.

When it comes to the initiatives that we have committed to, on the mitigation side we’re talking about our renewable energy projects in the country – we’re aiming to reach renewable energy through the clean renewable program, to reach 24% by 2021 from both nuclear and renewables. We’ve already started applying the efficiency standards on the buildings and [employing] sustainability in our buildings, which encourages and actually [requires] contractors to apply the sustainable standards of an all-renewable mix

On the public transportation, we have more than 3,500 taxis in Abu Dhabi operated by natural gas rather than [fossil] fuels. We eliminated subsidies a year ago, and we linked our transportation fuel prices to the global prices. The electricity and utilities tariffs were revised last year, so we’re doing so many things to encourage the reduction of consumption and to encourage the conservation of resources.

On the adaptation side, we’re recognizing that the UAE is very scarce when it comes to water, so we’re applying new technologies to desalinate water using new technology, and we’re going to continue applying new technologies in the country. Carbon capture and storage is one of the initiatives that is working to reduce our emissions, and at the same time enhance our economy.

The huge growth in renewable energy technologies is one of the key ways we can reduce global emissions. It’s one of the key solutions.

The UAE recently hosted the annual Zayed Energy Future Prize where Dr. Gro Brundtland was awarded the lifetime achievement award. What role do you believe sustainable development and the global goals play in climate action?

Dr. Thani: The ceremony of the Zayed Future Energy Prize was part of a bigger event, the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, where we have various other events – the International Water Summit, etc. The events this year and for next year were targeting efficiency as well.

What we’re doing here in the UAE is certainly going to help to SDG implementation. Even throughout the World Government Summit here over the last three days, we brought those global topics and distributed them among the individuals here to discuss implementation and finance. We brought the key people and experts in the field who are creating and testing the newest innovations for the SDGs.

The World Government Summit is going to be the platform where we can discuss the implementation and even follow up with these governments in the future. We in the UAE, we [implement] sustainability as business-as-usual. We already, in the last few weeks after the adoption of the SDGs in September, have embedded the indicators into our annual business plans, and we can start monitoring and charting our progress on those goals immediately, and even start modifying and applying new policies as needed to start implementing these goals.

What’s the most exciting innovation that you think is changing the global landscape on climate change? 

Dr. Thani: The most innovative way, and the most I would say applicable way, is renewable energy. The huge growth in renewable energy technologies is one of the key ways we can reduce global emissions. It’s one of the key solutions. I’m not undermining the other sectors, but renewable energy is going to have a key role in [addressing] climate change.

What initiatives, innovations, or technologies do you think the world can learn about and adopt from the UAE, and what work does the UAE still have to do?

Dr. Thani: One of the key things that we can easily, at a later stage, share our experience of is using innovative desalination techniques. In this region, most of our water comes through desalination, and all of the desalination plants here are using conventional hydrocarbon resources. We will be applying a new pilot program where we use clean energy in this field, and once we’ve applied these pilot projects, we’re going to certainly share these [learnings] with the region and with relevant governments to apply it in a larger scale in these regions as well.

We’re working on electrical cars, as we believe electrical transportation is going to be a key innovation. We are only starting to work on it, but we are certainly going to keep working on it in the future, as well as advances in clean energy and advancements to lead in the adoption of renewables.

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