If Abu Dhabi's future energy initiative did not exist today, it would surely have to be created. The decision in 2006 to create Masdar, placing one of the world's top oil exporters at the the vanguard of the global energy revolution, was received with amazement in some quarters at the time. Today, four years and one global economic crisis later, the decision looks even smarter than it did at the time.
The crisis of the past 18 months has left no person or industry on the planet untouched, but the consensus for action to reduce our impact on the climate has grown only stronger. Despite a wealth of natural resources, all the countries of the Gulf face challenges keeping up with demand for energy as their populations grow and as they seek to diversify their economies away from heavy reliance on the export of hydrocarbons. As the region's power grids are stretched to their limit and the consensus on global constraints on carbon gains strength, the region is increasingly turning to low-carbon solutions, especially renewables.
In just four years, the Masdar initiative has gathered pace in a way few would have believed possible at the outset. The designation of Masdar City as the headquarters for the International Renewable Energy Agency, cementing global support for Abu Dhabi's renewable strategy, came partly because of the work the emirate is doing to address the carbon problem at its source; not only is Abu Dhabi a major exporter of hydrocarbons, but its carbon footprint per capita is among the highest in the world.
Another factor in its favour was Abu Dhabi's commitment to promote renewable energy across a region where it is notable for its absence. Although construction, originally due for completion in 2016, has been delayed, anchor tenants have already booked in and Masdar City is designed to become a focal point for the global green tech industry. Despite the achievements so far - including the start of the production of photovoltaic panels in Germany, a big step forward for its US$600 million (Dh2.16bn) investment plan for thin-film solar panels - Masdar has faced challenges. The search for a viable energy source for Masdar City has undoubtedly been tough and is mainly responsible for the delay in construction. Masdar is testing a number of solar technologies to determine which will take the lead role in powering the city and meet the Government's goal of generating seven per cent of Abu Dhabi's electricity from renewables by 2020.
Meanwhile, the company has also invested heavily in sustainable waste processing systems, a less glamorous but essential part of the Masdar dream. One of the more controversial initiatives under Masdar is the carbon capture and storage (CCS) project, a natural fit for Abu Dhabi and its oil-based economy because it makes the use of fossil fuels more sustainable. But Abu Dhabi faces a battle to secure global backing for carbon capture, which has not yet been deployed on a commercial scale and would only become viable when authorities establish a value for the captured carbon or award direct subsidies.
Yet these challenges and controversies illustrate the extent to which Abu Dhabi has become embedded in the global climate debate, more deeply than any other country in the region. If more recognition of this pivotal role were needed, one need only look east to South Korea, which is formulating a carbon-neutral property development modeled on Masdar. According to the architects, the South Korean version could be just one of many "babies of Masdar" springing up around the globe.