His Excellency Dr. Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi is the Minister of Climate Change and Environment for the United Arab Emirates
Editors note: This interview was conducted on September 19, 2019 and has been edited for both brevity and clarity.
SAIS Review: How did you become interested, personally, in sustainability, renewables, and climate change?
His Excellency Dr. Al Zeyoudi: My background in petroleum engineering triggered this interest. I spent the first two years of my professional life working in the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC). During that period, the UAE faced a significant demand for power, especially in the summer. We faced great pressure to understand how to manage our power supply during a major economic boom. One of the things the UAE was doing to meet this demand was burning diesel during the summer months, but the cost was too high.
So, our leaders took the very bold decision to start diversifying our energy mix. Then they started headhunting young Emiratis from the oil and gas sector, and I was one of those people chosen by the leaders to move from the oil and gas sector to renewables. It wasn’t an easy decision for me, especially as we were outperforming in our field and had built a really strong reputation. However, as UAE nationals, we have one excellent quality – the minute our leaders adopt a vision and ask us to move on, we believe in that vision and work to help support it in the best way we can. Immediately, we told our colleagues in oil and gas, “We have to take up such challenges. You guys have to give us the chance to prove that we can come up with something to diversify the energy mix in the UAE, have an impact on the environmental efforts of the UAE in the near future, and create new jobs.”
From that point on we commenced our engagement in renewable energy. A few years later, I started my PhD on the harnessing of renewables, and specialized in this field. I knew then that this was one of the major sub-sectors that was going to have bright prospects.
SAIS Review: Could you give a high-level overview of how you see the vision behind UAE 2021 and the role renewables will have in it?
His Excellency Dr. Al Zeyoudi: The UAE Vision 2021 focuses on the country becoming, in a host of categories, one of the top five governments in the world. And sustainability plays a major role in the achievement of the UAE Vision 2021. But even beyond this vision, sustainability and environmental conservation and protection have been embedded in the way that we conduct business in the UAE since the nation’s founding. From the 1970s, environmental considerations have always been integral and among the main pillars in most of our development projects.
Focusing on the link between renewables and the UAE Vision 2021, we have to continue our leadership in the energy sector. Renewable energy has served as one of the primary new additions to our energy mix, ensuring economic diversification, job creation, environmental stewardship, and the overall sustainable development of our country. In the last 15 years, we have done a fantastic job in the way we run and manage the renewables sector. Although the sector is relatively new to the country and to the region as a whole, we have achieved prices that are very competitive, competing with the production of power from natural gas and conventional fossil fuel resources.
SAIS Review: Masdar City is a state-of-the art sustainable city built from scratch, utilizing cutting edge renewable technology, from wind to solar and waste-to-energy conversion. What have you learned from the Masdar development in terms of the cost-benefit of each of these renewable technologies, and how are you applying those lessons to future projects?
His Excellency Dr. Al Zeyoudi: The beauty of the Masdar initiative is that we’re not merely tackling the project aspect of renewables. With Masdar, we are focusing on the whole value chain of renewables, starting from the on-ground implementation of projects locally and internationally. The infrastructure within the city allows experts in new technologies to showcase their ideas and even bring their know-how to the country so that we can learn from them. They adapt and acclimatize their ideas to our own weather and environmental conditions.
Speaking about the policy, many people doubted the uptake of this model even after Masdar was fully implemented. We always react to such skepticism by saying that Masdar was the test bed of our pilot drive with renewable technologies. Through direct investment and development, we have managed to establish policies and regulations that are now implemented widely across the whole country, in terms of energy efficiency in buildings and the regulation and management of energy and water. Further, we are leveraging the business infrastructure from Masdar in construction projects across the UAE, as well as in the development sector. For instance, with waste-to-energy and the various models of renewable energy power production, we’ve been piloting and testing several of these technologies. While doing so, we always evaluate the economic impact and viability of such projects and pilots. Waste-to-energy during those test periods was too expensive, so we had to make sure we had the right quantities to ensure that the projects were financially feasible.
Are we utilizing it now? For sure. Waste-to-energy is a project that Masdar is engaged in with one of the UAE’s waste management companies. Construction has already started, and we expect the project to be commissioned by next year. Additionally, two other waste-to-energy projects are under consideration as well. One of them is going to be signed very soon and is going to be one of the largest waste-to-energy projects in the entire Middle East. And the third is expected to be signed next year. As shown with the development of waste-to-energy projects, wherever we see potential for applying sustainable technology, we will surely try to do it.
SAIS Review: How are you able to take the lessons you’re learning from Masdar and apply them to Dubai and other such places in the UAE that are rapidly developing?
His Excellency Dr. Al Zeyoudi: Masdar is a pilot that shows not only the UAE how we can modernize, but also the whole world. We are doing this through development assistance that we are offering to dozens of countries. What we have done within Masdar has certainly helped our colleagues in Dubai to shape their new policy and implementation plan. The Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park is another example of lessons learned from Masdar being implemented within the country.
One of the other interesting projects in the pipeline is the Sustainable City in Dubai. It’s a small-scale version of Masdar City and began development two years after the announcement of Masdar. Now the city is almost 90% complete, fully occupied by residents, is 100% powered by renewables, and has been re-designed in a way that supports well-being and sustainability – practices in which the residents are participating on a daily basis.
On infrastructure, there are a couple excellent ideas that we have borrowed. One of them is mastering the way that we are planning sustainable development in our cities, particularly the way in which we determine the spacing between buildings to ensure that each is capturing shade effectively and that the movement of air between those buildings will reduce air temperature, especially during the summer.
SAIS Review: What are the most critical climate change and environmental issues facing the UAE today?
His Excellency Dr. Al Zeyoudi: One of the main challenges from climate change in the UAE, as well as in the Middle East and the world in general, concerns water. The main impact facing the UAE from climate change is water scarcity and the loss of sustainability. Yes, because of our heavy dependence on water and the huge emphasis we place on this resource, we managed to build very futuristic communities, attracting knowledge and skilled expatriates from all over the world. But if we were to stop our investments and sustainable development, everything would be disturbed.
That’s why, when it comes to the climate and the impact of climate change on water, we’re continuing our investments in high-tech. For example, we’re integrating renewable energy technology from several nations, using the greatest technologies that have ever been identified in thermal renewable energy, and applying cutting-edge tech that converts humidity into potable water. We are also active in the cloud-seeding domain and have been testing new technologies for the last five years.
However, we now have to start thinking about the rest of the actors in the UAE and make sure that our private sector is adaptable to climate change.
SAIS Review: Many people are interested in understanding the environmental impact of the UAE’s artificial islands and megaprojects, such as the World and the Palm. Could you shed some light on how these projects have affected the environment?
His Excellency Dr. Al Zeyoudi: Those projects have undergone environmental impact assessment studies, like all other projects that we work on or have completed in the UAE. So, following those environmental impact assessments, the projects went ahead. Certainly, there would be an impact on the environment. Initially, we saw that there was some movement of species from that area. But now when you look, those artificial islands are becoming a home for most of those local species again. Farmers are actually complaining about the government banning or not allowing them to go and fish around those artificial islands, as they are now home to so many species.
Nothing will be perfect right from the beginning, but we are seeing improvements now and the marine life is returning. Whenever we work on a development project, we ensure that we take most of the species from that place and move them somewhere else. At the very least, we make plans to compensate for the environmental consequences of development and for the damages caused in those areas.
SAIS Review: Do you think we can prevent climate change at this point? Or have we reached a tipping point where we can only mitigate its worst effects?
His Excellency Dr. Al Zeyoudi: Looking at history – or at least the last 40 years – and seeing the huge increase in extreme weather events today relative to the 1970s, I don’t think we can reverse climate change. But we have to work together to mitigate the impact of extreme weather events by becoming better prepared for them. At the same time, we all have to work collectively. Climate change is not the responsibility of any single stakeholder. It is everyone’s responsibility, and we have to manage it together. And especially for us as a government, we have to be ready for all eventualities – the good and the bad – and we have to continue to look out for the best interests of our citizens.
SAIS Review: Is the UAE investing in carbon capture technologies or anything else that could reverse the effects of climate change?
His Excellency Dr. Al Zeyoudi: The investment is coming through our national oil company ADNOC. We have the first phase in place, which is reducing almost 800,000 tons of CO2 from our manufacturing sector. We will soon announce the expansion of the project, which is set to achieve almost six times the initial reduction. That project will be implemented five years from now.
SAIS Review: Could you provide your assessment of how the Paris Climate Accords have been going, especially in light of President Trump’s decision to pull the United States out?
His Excellency Dr. Al Zeyoudi: First, let’s go back and look at the real implementation of the Kyoto Protocol up until 2015. Did we achieve what was supposed to be done? No. Did some of the governments opt to move on? Absolutely.
So, for us, 2015 was a turning point in the whole negotiation as it became clear that it was not an option for just a certain group of countries to tackle climate change while the rest of the world had the freedom to do as they please. So, for us, as the UAE, the Paris Agreement was a milestone where we brought everyone together to take into consideration the national circumstances of all parties.
Are we achieving the global targets? We are, at the very least, moving in the right direction, instead of just waiting. Since 2015, and even if we look at the last 10 years, technological involvement and innovation in the market has been growing exponentially. So, we believe that the technologies are supporting us and helping us move forward quickly, and I’m sure in a few years the technologies will do much in assisting us to achieve the targets set by the Paris Climate Accords.
Talking about President Trump or many other leaders around the world – if they don’t want to do it, some of the stakeholders within their countries are going to do it. This is what we see here in the United States, at the state level. They’re stepping up. We’re also seeing more proactive business people and companies taking the initiative. As far as the private sector goes, we’re coordinating and working with them, and this is what’s going to happen next week at the Climate Summit [in New York]. We’re seeing so many companies coming on board, not only from the United States, but also globally. One very interesting thing that has happened in the last 10 years is Chinese involvement in environmental issues. They’re doing a good job and are at least progressing toward mitigating further environmental harm.
Are we there yet? Nothing can happen overnight, as shifting certain practices from one direction to the other cannot be done in a short period. You have to take into consideration social aspects, employment, and impact on society, because you don’t want to do something that could would bring people onto the streets. So many steps are being taken in the right direction, but, ultimately, we all have to continue to work collectively.
SAIS Review: Along the lines of cooperation: what type of cooperation have you been engaging in with your regional partners?
His Excellency Dr. Al Zeyoudi: If you’re talking about the GCC region, there are so many partnerships and engagements between us and our neighbors, especially in the renewable energy sphere. We’re sharing experience and we’re working on investing in several projects. For example, we’re commissioning the first wind project in Oman, a 50-megawatt project. We announced, earlier this year, 400-megawatt wind projects in Saudi Arabia, with the price set to be 1.9 cents per kilowatt-hour, one of the cheapest power projects in the whole region. We’re also working with the Bahrainis and with the Kuwaitis. So, the partnerships are already there. And we’re more than happy to share with everyone the experience we’ve had, as well as the knowledge we’ve gained in the last 10 or 15 years.
SAIS Review: Climate change is a very big topic in the United States, especially for the younger generation. How do you feel the people of the UAE are responding to climate change? How do they perceive it?
His Excellency Dr. Al Zeyoudi: It’s a responsibility which we take collectively in the UAE, and one that we want to ensure we pass on to the next generation. This is a commitment embedded in a whole generation of our people in the UAE. As the current generation, we have to ensure that the next generation will have a different quality of life than we experience now. They will have a decent stake.
Additionally, climate change awareness has increased significantly, especially in the last four years. And we seek to continue that trend. For instance, we had a couple of excellent engagements with British stakeholders, where we brought together the local entities, the federal government, and the private sector to discuss policy strategies. Not only that, we’re engaging with communities and experts in our decision-making process.
SAIS Review: How has the international community’s perspective toward climate change changed since you have been involved in this arena and throughout your career?
His Excellency Dr. Al Zeyoudi: There are two tracks. The first one is official meetings where conventional negotiation on climate change occurs. But to be honest, I don’t think we’re going to continue along the same path. We really want an impact on the ground, and previous agreements have not produced real transformations.
The second track, as we have seen, is the new movement from business people and the rest of the government. We’re coming up with more technological advancements in the field, and that’s where we see real progress. We come from a nation where we’re leaning toward the second option because we see that business sustainability, sometimes, will have a huge impact on the international arena.
SAIS Review: When you talk to ministers from countries that are seeking to rapidly grow their economies, one hears a recurring argument: “In order to develop and advance, the countries with today’s largest economies had to release huge amounts of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. But now, as we’re developing and we’re advancing, we’re being told to cut our carbon emissions and achieve net zero emissions. This isn’t a feasible request.” The UAE seems to have balanced this concern well. Can you speak to this pushback and how you respond to it? Additionally, have many countries, particularly those seeking to rapidly grow their economies, asked to import some of your best practices?
His Excellency Dr. Al Zeyoudi: Absolutely, there are two main answers to that question. The first one is that the sustainable projects are becoming more and more business oriented, so they make economic and financial sense. And there are so many businesses which support this.
The second one is with regard to emissions. Emissions will inherently affect people. So, at the end of the day, the health of the people of these countries is their responsibility. Whether these governments take responsibility or not for climate change, they do have to make sure that they have a healthy population. Thus, they have to act to combat climate change. They have no excuse.
Governments often come to us to ask how they can work with us. And we can also learn from them, so it’s a two-way exchange. Most of all, we will always work in a way where we can share best practices. That’s the big one.
SAIS Review: One of Johns Hopkins SAIS’s most prominent concentrations is Energy, Resources and Environment (ERE). Could you speak to those students and give them advice as they go out into the world?
His Excellency Dr. Al Zeyoudi: First of all, my advice to those students is that they have to be realistic. Becoming too aggressive and pushing the governments or certain stakeholders might backfire.
Second, they have to go to those less mature markets where there’s huge potential and the markets aren’t saturated as yet. This way, the students will have huge opportunities to really have an impact on those areas. So, they need to choose the right market in order to distinguish themselves and make a difference.