Despite the failure of Copenhagen's climate talks last year, at least one conclusion emerged: practical steps, not pie-in-the-sky aspirations, are the way forward.
Whether that lesson prevails at the ongoing Cancun summit remains to be seen. Over the past few days, delegates have been wrangling over an agreement in a fashion rather reminiscent of last December. One key sticking point is whether the Kyoto Protocol, which is set to expire in 2012, will be renewed. It's an issue of great importance to the UAE, which relies on carbon credit trading to balance the budgets of renewable energy projects, including hopes for carbon capture and storage technologies.
But as Rashid Ahmed bin Fahad, the Minister of Environment and Water, and other officials arrive in Cancun, the UAE has far more at stake. Aware of its huge carbon footprint, the Emirates has rightly invested in turning the tide of climate change starting at home. Besides committing to generating 7 per cent of its energy from alternative sources by 2020, it has also invested heavily in R&D - from building solar towers to growing biofuel plants in saltwater to developing electric car pods. The Masdar Institute stands as one of the most ambitious carbon-neutral projects in the world.
The Kyoto Protocol should be renewed in some form or another. Despite progress made in fits and starts, and the spotty adherence to its rules, the 1997 treaty has encouraged environmentally friendly projects across the world. Cancun might not end with a generally agreed on concord on emissions limits, but hopefully it won't backtrack.
Still, Kyoto is something of a stopgap measure. As all the wrangling over the past year has shown, climate change policy isn't going to be forced on countries. Enlightened self-interest is going to have to be the guiding star.
Certainly limiting carbon emissions is an immediate interest, but significant reductions in burning hydrocarbons is a hard sell for economies dependent on fossil fuels. Countries aren't going to switch to less polluting energy generation until technology makes it cost competitive.
A technology-led response to climate change will require heavy investment with profitability years down the road. Private sector involvement is crucial, but the initial capital outlay, and patience, that is required means governments have to get involved. Here, the UAE is leading the field in pioneering projects that hopefully will not only benefit the country, but the rest of the world as well.