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Fri 13 Feb 2009 04:00 AM

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The way of the future

Damian Reilly hears former Britain PM Tony Blair speak at the conclusion of the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi.

Damian Reilly hears former Britain PM Tony Blair speak at the conclusion of the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi.

Unless you are minded that way, there is only so long you can wander around a vast alternative energy trade show without becoming a bit sleepy. All those slightly differing solar panels and turbines, the dinky electric cars, and presentations of trains that run on vitamins alone - it all blurs into a sort of protracted and soporific modern geography lesson.

For the green scientists, of course, it is an incredibly exciting event - you only need to look in their eyes as they explain how the imminent breakthrough in carbon capture techniques will revolutionise the environmental movement to understand quite how exciting.

But for those of us who are jolly glad this sort of work is going on, but don't have all the necessary faculties to understand how it is done, it is hard to remain as open as a vessel must if it is to learn.

Insight arrived at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi at the same time as UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Insight arrived in a not terribly environmentally friendly car, the Prince in a helicopter. The latter looked regal and serene in his golden dish dash. By his side, Masdar CEO Sultan Al Jaber stood proudly, explaining the ways of the future.

It is funny to think that Abu Dhabi, whose oil reserves are vast, now hosts not only the world's leading alternative energy summit, but also the leading research into alternative fuels, all under the Masdar umbrella initiative.

To the ill informed, the project may seem like lip service. It is not. The Masdar project has been financed to the tune of $30 billion. The idea is not merely good natured - the aim is to position Abu Dhabi lucratively at the forefront of the world's energy centres when either the oil runs out, or the switch away from it is made.

It is a perfect example of blue-eyed idealism meshing with cold-eyed pragmatism. And it is therefore a very good thing.

Talking of blue-eyed idealists, Insight columnist and former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Tony Blair was on hand to close out the summit with a speech. Say what you like about Blair, he is a good talker. When his mouth is moving, if you are in the audience, you are listening.

Perennially youthful, and looking a damn sight better than he did in the dog-days of his time in office, Blair radiates energy and can do, which in the flesh is considerably less annoying than it can seem on television.

His speech followed that of Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce, Governor General of Australia. Ms Bryce is not an elected politician, rather an appointed one, and her style of delivery is clearly not designed to win votes, nor to hold the attention of an audience.

Even Blair, who sat to her left as she recited, in her Queensland drawl, a lengthy list of everything that Australia has ever done in the field of renewable energy, looked nervous about falling asleep on stage.

And then he was up. With the applause that saw Bryce ushered off stage, Blair seemed to be transformed with the nervous energy of a Meer cat. He prowled across the stage and took command of the lectern, gripping it on either side.

Behind him, projected onto an enormous backdrop, clouds billowed quickly, left to right. The effect was to make Blair seem to be talking from on high.

He started by sending his congratulations to the freshly inaugurated President Obama. The Americans in the crowd cheered raucously. Quick as a flash, Blair saw the opportunity for not one joke, but two: "I think it is some time since an announcement like that brought applause," he quipped, some might say a little disloyally to his pal Dubya.

And then: "Let me tell you, as I know, it is always easier at the beginning." Both asides caused quite a lot of laughter in the crowd.

And then it was down to business: "President Obama is in need of more than our good wishes. On his shoulders rests a heavy burden of responsibility. The economic crisis is still with us, evolving and deepening.

The events of the past weeks in Gaza illustrate the urgent necessity of finding and pursuing the path to peace in the Middle East.

And 2009 should be the year we summon the will and wit to conclude a new treaty of climate change. One which will have America as a signatory.

"The challenges are immense. And the new President will have need, not just of cheerleaders, but partners, not just of spectators wishing him to do good, but supporters helping him to do it. Our news, when not dominated by the terrible events of Palestine, has been submersed as you know in the economic catastrophe that has hit the financial sector of the world's economy, but now has spread across to the real economy. We face recession or worse. It is hard at this moment of immediate crisis to focus on the longer term challenge our environment faces, but it is necessary. For Presidents and Prime Ministers the problems do not come sequentially or in disciplined order of priority. The agenda sets itself."

There are people, some of them prominent, who argue that the whole climate change idea is nonsense. Others say that the situation is so serious now as to be irreparable - they say that to try to solve the problem is like asking a man with emphysema to quit smoking. Blair has little truck with either group.

"For who now seriously doubts the scale of the challenge to our environment? The scientific consensus is now reasonably clear, except to the willfully blind. The climate is changing; it is changing through the actions of humanity, not nature. Without changing our behaviour, and cutting dramatically CO2 emissions, the planet will suffer profound and irreversible damage. In turn this requires within the next decades transformative change in the manner of our economic growth. We have to eliminate our dependence on carbon. And yet as we speak carbon levels are rising."

Blair didn't come just to speak in politician's platitudes. He had points to make, seven of them, in fact.

The former Prime Minister believes that the only way to rise to the challenge the world faces with climate change is for all countries of the world, developed and undeveloped, to come together to form a global accord - more far reaching and reasonable than the failed Kyoto protocol.

He said that the accord must set targets, specifically a target of 2050 for serious reductions in carbon emissions, but ahead of that date, targets must be set within shorter timeframes, such as 2020, to demonstrate that progress is being made.

Blair's second point concerned the importance of differentiating between the developed and developing world when setting targets for carbon emission reductions, and making allowances for the developing world: "That 2020 target will inevitably be for the developed world, but it will have to be matched by obligations, albeit differentiated, on behalf of the developed world. And this is where the strategic partnerships between China and America, India and America, and Europe with all three, will be of such paramount significance. The developed world must be prepared to share much of the technology. And to help fund the introduction of that technology. The developing world must be prepared to accelerate the pace of its change in conjunction with help."

Points three and four were concerned with the pace of change, and the danger of placing burdens upon leaders such as Obama that are simply unrealistic: "There is no point in demanding of President Obama something he cannot deliver. Instead, let us help him deliver what he can... Protecting and enlarging the world's carbon sinks - forests - offers enormous potential. In other words, some of this is not a matter of finding the way but the will. Having said that, there are technologies that have to be developed, and on a much quicker timescale than is currently envisaged. One is solar. Another is the electric car. A third is carbon capture and storage. One stark fact stands out to me: over 70 per cent of the new power stations in India and China over the next decade will be coal powered. That is a mind boggling increase in carbon use."

After this, Blair went on to talk about the political difficulties of persuading people not to be fearful about making lifestyle changes, and of the problems that raising finance for environmental lifestyle changes will entail. And then, of course, the Herculean task of getting all the relevant parties to agree to the same thing:

"Knitting the disparate elements together in a global deal is technically complex and politically sensitive, to an unusual degree. So the UN needs a steer from the key countries. There is no point in being naïve about this: unless the major emitters, however that is measured, agree, there will be no agreement. That makes the G8 and G20 of enormous purport. It means nations such as the UAE should have a place."

Blair has an astonishing skill for talking with the broadest of brushes - talking on a global scale. It is funny to think that his rise up the political ladder has seen him make thousands of speeches, in the early days on niche subjects, student politics, or the concerns of trades unions. Today, Blair's speeches are epic in scale:

"We need a vision of what should be, and we need a coming together to achieve it. We must throw off the slough of cynicism and defeatism in the face of challenge that in the end only defeats ourselves. Today, the US emits around 20 tons of CO2 per person per year, and Europe and Japan 10 tons. By 2050, that has to reduce to around two, per person per year. China and India must catch up in prosperity, and then cut down in pollution. To contemplate such a revolution in behaviour requires not only courage and commitment, but a common purpose, shared across the world."

And then he was off, hustled away by security guards and minders, smiling, as ever, like a Cheshire cat.

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