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IRENA comes into being

Steve Sawyer

Steve Sawyer pieces together the frenetic events that took place in June in Egypt, which saw the official creation of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

The idea of an international institution dedicated to the uptake of renewable energy has been a dream for more than 20 years. After much hard work and advocacy by the German government and others, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) is now a reality.

The two most important decisions for getting IRENA off the ground were taken at a meeting of IRENA member Governments, held in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, on 29-30 June 2009. The formal name: The Second Session of the Preparatory Commission of the International Renewable Energy Agency.

While there was some discussion of the draft programme and administrative matters, the main items on the agenda were the selection of the location of the headquarters (from among Abu Dhabi, Bonn and Vienna), and the selection of its first director general from among four candidates put forward by Denmark, Spain, France and Greece.

Some in the renewable energy community may have harboured slightly naïve hopes that this international organisation would somehow be 'different' from the tortuous, procedure-bound machinations of the established institutions - both within and outside the UN system - that deal with energy matters. Those hopes were soon dashed as delegates settled (mostly) into the familiar rhetorical obfuscation that characterises most UN sessions. I felt like I might have been in the basement of UN HQ in New York rather than baking in the Egyptian desert.

The latest plan to establish IRENA was put forward by the newly-elected German coalition Government shortly after its 2005 election. It was envisaged at that time as a 'coalition of the willing', an organisation of the like-minded. It was not to be a UN agency (or a UN-style agency). It was thought that broad membership would tend to bring all discussions down to the lowest common denominator.

But several factors, including the success of the promotion of the idea, the increasing popularity of renewables and changes in Government in the USA and Australia, meant that strategy soon got out of control - and the coalition of the willing turned into 'just about everyone'. An ominous indication of the consequences of this emerged during a discussion of IRENA’s potential role in the upcoming climate negotiations in Copenhagen. The Algerian delegate quickly put up his flag and said that IRENA should have nothing to do with the climate issue, because, in his words, “countries have different positions on climate change”. Oh dear.

Member states

IRENA now has 136 member states, which include last-minute signatories such as the USA, the UK, Australia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kiribati, East Timor, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland. Still missing are key countries such as China, Brazil, the Russian Federation, South Africa and Indonesia, and, among the OECD, Canada and New Zealand are not yet in the club. Only five countries have ratified to date, and the statutes require 25 nations to ratify for the Treaty enabling IRENA to enter into force. However, it is expected that that number will be reached soon.

Much has been written and said about the selection of Abu Dhabi as headquarters, both in terms of the choice itself and Abu Dhabi’s aggressive campaign to secure support, to which I will add only this: unlike many of my colleagues, I thought (and continue to think) that it is better for the agency to be headquartered in a developing country rather than in the traditional European renewable energy strongholds of Bonn, Vienna or Copenhagen. Although among developing countries the UAE (with a per capita income considerably higher than the OECD or EU average – about the same as The Netherlands) would not have necessarily been my first choice, it sends an important signal about the global relevance of renewables. Also, Abu Dhabi’s pledge to contribute significantly in financial terms to the development of the agency, to be housed in MASDAR City, the world’s first carbon-neutral city, will help get the agency moving, though recruitment is going to be a problem.

In the end, it did not come to a vote, though it was clear that Abu Dhabi would have won by a large margin. The compromise deal: to give Abu Dhabi the HQ and to have Bonn establish a technology centre and Vienna have a liaison office with the UN institutions. In addition to providing face-saving concession prizes for Germany and Austria, this compromise may also prove to be useful.

Choice of director general

On the choice of director general it also boiled down to 'politics as usual', with horse-trading deals between countries established long in advance of the meeting, in which the candidates made presentations and were questioned by Government delegates. However, it soon became clear that the experience and qualifications of the individuals involved was never a significant consideration. The renewable energy community was disappointed that neither of the two senior candidates, each with 30 years of renewables experience, was selected; but the French played a more successful diplomatic game than Denmark, Spain or Greece. The new director general, Hélène Pelosse, has already started extensive outreach to the broader renewable energy community and she deserves our full support.

COP15 moves ever closer

On the climate front, the “informal” negotiating session of the UNFCCC held in Bonn from 10-14 August 2009, was a grim reminder that the UNFCCC COP15 in Copenhagen opens in just a few months on 7 December 2009. At the conclusion of the Bonn session, UNFCCC executive secretary Yvo de Boer summed it up by saying, “if they continue at this pace, they’re not going to make it”.

The major announcements at the session were New Zealand’s announcement of its target of 10%-20% below 1990 levels by 2020, and the Russian Federation’s announcement of its plans to “reduce” emissions by 10%-15% compared with 1990 levels by 2020, though this actually represents a continuing increase of their emissions - which plummeted after the collapse of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

While the USA offered nothing new, there was a (positive) renewed interest in flexible mechanisms, carbon markets generally, and clear signals that the USA is going to seek to join the international system rather than re-invent an entirely new system for the carbon market. All of this, however, doesn’t add up to the kind of progress that moves us significantly towards a positive outcome in Copenhagen. The UNFCCC Secretariat and others are already engaged in what appears to be damage control messaging, hedging against the failure to come up with the goods in December.

The bottom line pre-Copenhagen

The bottom line is that the negotiators do not have instructions to reach a deal, and if there is to be one, clear messages are needed from their political masters. This may be forthcoming in the context of a number of high-level meetings taking place in September in the USA; most notably UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s high level event on Climate Change at UN HQ in New York on 22 September 2009 (just before the opening of the UN General Assembly) followed almost immediately by the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh on 24-25 September. The next negotiating session starts in Bangkok on the 28 September, so we should know reasonably soon whether or not the negotiators have any new instructions.

On a positive note, the long-held and hard-fought position of the EU that we should seek to limit global mean temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels has now become common currency, with its adoption in the G8 communiqué in Italy in July 2009. Whether or not they intend to enact policies to ensure that this target is reached is another matter. As is usually the case in these matters, the most recent science continues to up the ante in our uncontrolled experiment with the earth’s climate system. Recent research done by teams at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research and Oxford University indicate that we can burn only a quarter or less of existing fossil fuel reserves to preserve any reasonable chance of meeting the 2°C target.

Two final thoughts: the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory has now published a thorough and detailed rebuttal of both the methodology and findings of the infamous Calzada Report, which purported to show that each job created in renewable energy “destroys” 2.2 jobs in the rest of the economy. The report is available at:

Finally, with all of the prophets and pundits predicting a downturn in wind industry installations in 2009, on the basis of the six-month figures that we’ve seen so far, I’m going to go out on a limb and bet that we meet the target for 2009 that we set back in February 2009 of 30,000 MW of new wind power installations in 2009. That’s still 10%-12% growth in annual market size over 2008. Given the economic mess of the last year, that’s not bad. Which other major manufacturing industry is going to grow by more than 10% in 2009?

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