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Remarks by Achim Steiner at the First General Assembly of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)

Abu Dhabi, 4 April 2011 - Dr Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber, the United Arab Emirates Special Envoy for Energy and Climate Change and President of this first General Assembly of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)

Excellencies, Ministers, Vice Ministers, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to be here to address this evolution of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) from in some ways concept and inception to a fully functioning intergovernmental institution.

Renewable energy is no longer a dream or a fringe preoccupation of the few.

It is fast emerging as a mainstream technology able to answer multiple challenges and deliver multiple opportunities for countries and communities across the developed and the developing world.

Take solar photo-voltaics.

17.5GW was installed in 2010, up 130 per cent from 2009. PV installations have been forecast to increase further this year by perhaps 20.5 GW taking global capacity to about 50GW-the equivalent of about 15 nuclear reactors.

This is happening not just in developed economies such as Germany or Spain, but in developing economies from Bangladesh to Brazil, China, India, Mexico and Morroco.

Wind power is also growing rapidly.

According to the latest estimates of the Global Wind Energy Council, installed capacity world-wide could reach 450 GW by 2015.

Asia may have installed around 170 GW by that date; Europe 145 GW; North America, 94 GW; Latin America, almost 30 GW.

Only a few days ago, I had the pleasure of taking the UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon and the Chief Executives Board of the UN to the Great Rift Valley.

In Kenya, a country where less than 20 per cent of its citizens have access to electricity, a revolution in generation from 'hot rock' geothermal is taking place.

After two decades of modest electricity generation, geothermal has expanded to around 170 Megawatts (MW) today with the aim of 1,200 MW by 2018.

Why is it happening now?

Firstly, because of fundamental social, economic and environmental realities.

Kenya has no oil, coal or gas; but it does have an abundant source of 'clean fuels' from solar and wind to biomass and geothermal.

In respect to geothermal, the price of the electricity generated is now cheaper than that generated from imported fossil fuels and the government is committed to be part of the climate change solution as its economy grows.

Secondly partnership:

  • UNEP, with funding from the Global Environment Facility, has assisted in leapfrogging some of the upfront financial and technical hurdles including more cost effective and accurate drilling techniques and assisting Kenya to access the Clean Development Mechanism of the UN's Kyoto Protocol.

  • The World Bank is for example investing in transmission lines

  • The Kenyan government has adopted supportive public policies, including a feed-in tariff, that is attracting bilateral and private sector support.

It was a partnership that led 100,000 homes in India to access solar photovoltaics over two or three years.

The solar loans programme, involving the UN Foundation, the Shell Foundation, UNEP and several Indian banks, bought down the cost of borrowing so that rural households could afford panels.

It is now self-financing.

There are many, many more examples, not least here in West Asia.

Masdar City, planned as the eventually home of IRENA here in Abu Dhabi, reflects not only the potential for renewable energies, but a transition of urban living to a zero emission, energy neutral one.

Masdar is also part of a global revolution towards a Green Economy, where GDP is decoupled from resource use-where growth and employment generation can happen, but in a way that keeps humanity's footprint within planetary boundaries.

IRENA's Preparatory Commission has laid out three priority areas

  • Knowledge management and technology cooperation, with a goal of increasing networking amongst renewable energy stakeholders and serving as a clearinghouse of information for use by those stakeholders

  • Policy advisory services and capacity building, under which IRENA will undertake global-level analytical work on issues related to renewable energy policy-making, such as financing and resource potentials

  • Innovation and technology, which will focus on scenario and roadmap development for selected renewable energy technologies.

    I believe there is a great deal of scope for partnership between the Agency and UNEP.

    Networking, for example through the UNEP-hosted Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st century or REN-21.

    Trends and policy advice through UNEP Risoe Centre in Denmark; our Sustainable Energy Finance Initiative conducted in collaboration with New Energy Finance and Bloomberg.

    The work of the UNEP Finance Initiative, a partnership involving over 200 financial institutions, and whose work ranges from overcoming barriers to investment in clean tech to capacity building in developing economies.

    UNEP's work at the country level, in partnership with many UN agencies and with funding from the Global Environment Facility, in areas ranging from mapping wind and solar resources to pin pointing ways of meeting fundamental challenges in new ways.

    The rolling out of small-scale hydro, to meet the costly energy needs of the tea industry in East Africa is a good example.

    Or innovative ways of fast tracking solar water heaters in North Africa, through partnership with the utilities, is another.

    I am sure that there are many more areas of potential partnership and collaboration.

    And there is another emerging rapidly on our collective radars.

    Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

    We meet here some 15 months before perhaps the most important meeting on sustainable development in a generation.

    I refer of course to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development or Rio+20: 20 years after the Rio Earth Summit of 1992.

    The two themes echo to UNEP work and direction and to many of IRENA's goals.

    • The Green Economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication

    • An international framework for sustainable development

    Renewable energy, alongside energy efficiency, is a key sector of UNEP's Green Economy work.

    Work that is also a partnership between many organizations within and outside the UN system.

    Recently we published Towards a Green Economy-an analysis of what 2 per cent of global GDP, invested in 10 key sectors, might achieve if supported by the right kind of transformational public policies.

    In respect to energy the answer was this.

    Investing about one and a quarter per cent of global GDP each year in energy efficiency and renewable energies could cut global primary energy demand by nine per cent in 2020 and close to 40 per cent by 2050, it says.

    • Employment levels in the energy sector would be one-fifth higher than under a business as usual scenario as renewable energies take close to 30 per cent of the share of primary global energy demand by mid century

    • Savings on capital and fuel costs in power generation would under a Green Economy scenario, be on average $760 billion a year between 2010 and 2050

    Part of the financing for the overall Green Economy transition could come from the close to $1 trillion-worth of global subsizides.

    In respect to fossil fuels, these stand at somewhere over $600 billion a year.

    The challenge in terms of renewables and a transition to a Green Economy is now one of acceleration and of scaling-up.

    IRENA's contribution to the analysis; the smart public policies and the technology choices rapidly becoming available could prove invaluable in our work towards that Green Economy transition.

    Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,

    You have some important decisions to take at this, IRENA's first General Assembly.

    UNEP looks forward to working with the new Director General and the Agency staff as IRENA embarks on a new and exciting chapter in the development of clean energy across the globe.

    The green shoots are sprouting and emerging everywhere in ways that could not have been imagined when the idea of IRENA was first conceived.

    IRENA has the opportunity to assist in building on these and fast tracking a fresh direction for development.

    One that meets the aspirations of six billion people, rising to nine billion by 2050, for access to electricity in ways that manage finite resource and mainten the life support systems that underpin our common future.

    Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director UN Environment Programme



    Further Resources

    UN Secretary General's Visit to a Geothermal Plant in Rift Valley, Kenya

    International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)

    UNEP Launches the Green Economy Report


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