x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Green queen gives women voice

Helene Pelosse is driven by the vision of clean, renewable energy, and the crucial part women will play in its global introduction.

Illustration: Chris Burke for The National
Illustration: Chris Burke for The National

Helene Pelosse dreams of driving around Abu Dhabi in a solar-powered car instead of being tied down in bureaucratic wrangling over climate change.

The head of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) is used to political compromise and the painstaking pace of international negotiations. But that does not cloud her vision of the future: that one day, relatively soon, clean, renewable energy will cover 100 per cent of human power needs. "I really think it's going to happen at some point, maybe not tomorrow but this vision makes sense, it's not crazy," Ms Pelosse says, adding she would like to drive a "solar prototype car" through the streets of Abu Dhabi.

"We need the scientists to look at the issue, to develop these kinds of schemes and then to show them to the world to convince us." Ms Pelosse, 40, also believes women have a much bigger role to play in a renewable energy industry now dominated by men. She says they are probably more likely than men to see the wisdom of clean fuel. "I think, you know, when you're mentioning timeframe and the long term, women understand that better," she says. "It's a question of patience, maybe because we have babies ? we know it takes 20 years to raise a child. I think it's embedded in our bodies."

Leadership is also a quality embedded in Ms Pelosse. Her grandmother was elected to her local city council in France in the late 1940s, soon after that country's women won the right to vote. She lived until the day after Ms Pelosse won election to become the director general of IRENA. "She was old, she was 96, but I like the fact that she passed away only after I was elected," she says. "She was holding my hand until the end and, OK she goes, and that's another generation. That was great."

Patience and a long-term perspective serve Ms Pelosse well in a profession that features intricate political negotiations that take account of the needs of every country, however small. The particularly painstaking pace of talks over clean energy, which include foiled climate change negotiations and doubt about the need for expensive clean energy, does not put her off. "Maybe you don't get there that quickly but you get there," she says. "I always prefer a compromise."

Sometimes, Ms Pelosse says, negotiators must simply wait for the right political moment. "The ancient Greeks had a word for it - they called it the kairos, the right time or the right moment. Life is about that. Sometimes people are fighting for something for years and it's never the right moment, and sometimes it just happens." In her former job as a negotiator for the French government, Ms Pelosse met British officials 30 times to hammer out one climate agreement, and she has no delusions about the prospect of 192 governments reaching a grand compromise on fighting the problem at a UN summit in Mexico later this year.

The US Senate's failure to pass legislation on global warming will doom the country's commitment this year, she says, just as it did the Kyoto climate change treaty in 1997. Last year, as commentators and politicians raised expectations for the Copenhagen summit, Ms Pelosse correctly predicted the talks would end without a final treaty. As she knows, life can sometimes be daunting. Ms Pelosse arrived in Abu Dhabi in early July last year with barely any staff and no permanent office to call home.

During the year, she repeatedly described her new position in highly personal terms, referring to IRENA as her "fourth child" that would take years to develop into a fully fledged organisation. "At the beginning you do everything," she says. "I received hundreds of e-mails every day. I tried to answer them and realised I could spend my whole life and I would never be able to." A trained lawyer, Ms Pelosse had to write drafts of some of IRENA's founding documents, balance its budget and scour the world for talent to fill the more than 100 positions at the agency.

On the international stage, she was essentially a one-woman show at the Copenhagen summit, shaking hands and describing what IRENA stood for. She wore a bright yellow T-shirt over her formal clothes that encouraged potential recruits to sign up. In her first year in Abu Dhabi, she has taken hard positions on certain issues that have left her at odds with international groups and governments. Ms Pelosse repeatedly criticised the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Paris-based group of energy importing countries that produces benchmark data on world trends, for favouring fossil fuels and underselling the possible role of renewables.

In a recent interview she tempered her remarks a little, referring in generic terms to "other forecasts" and not to the IEA specifically. Ms Pelosse has also been critical of nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage (CCS), issues dear to the Abu Dhabi Government. In September last year, she released a strongly worded statement opposing a proposal at UN climate talks to reclassify nuclear power and CCS as clean energy investments eligible to receive UN-administered carbon credits.

CCS technology "is nothing but a Fata Morgana, technically feasible on a larger scale not before 2020", she said at the time, referring to an Italian legend symbolising a mirage. UAE negotiators have strongly backed the inclusion of CCS in the carbon credit scheme, describing it as one of their main priorities at international climate change talks. Ms Pelosse's statement, unfamiliar to a country where policy criticism is usually delivered less publicly, caught some government officials off-guard, and hinted at a clash of cultures that will inevitably reappear as the country's first international organisation grows in size and hosts more events.

"They have their own culture and as an international organisation we have our own communications," she says. "You might have a difference of culture but that's true in many other places." Along with the push for renewable energy, Ms Pelosse has found common ground with Abu Dhabi in the area of women's rights. The emirate has made significant progress in empowering women to take important positions within the Government, she says. It is an effort she hopes to take even further by ensuring women make up 50 per cent of IRENA's staff.

"Gender parity is something everyone talks about but no one makes it happen," she says. "I'm a woman and I'm now in a position where I can make it happen." cstanton@thenational.ae