Sarah Arnott: Land of oil makes an unlikely green beacon

Abu Dhabi Notebook
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The Independent Online

At first, Abu Dhabi seems an incongruous location for the World Future Energy Summit. Not because it has such vast oil reserves. Rather, because of the culture: the glitz, the consumption, the addiction to the out-of-the-box smell of success.

Whatever else it is, Abu Dhabi is not environmentally friendly. It has the second-highest per capita carbon emissions in the world, nearly twice the US level. It is in love with gas-guzzling 4x4s, ostentatious building projects, self-conscious consumerism. The city's very existence is a statement of domination of the environment, its trees and fountains lined up to flaunt wealth's triumph over the desert.

In the spanking new conference centre, the President of the Maldives is saying that his country may be submerged by the rising sea. Just up the road is Emirates Palace hotel, above a seven-star pile of temperature-controlled marble and gold with a bigger dome than St Paul's cathedral. Even the road in front is marble, and the tyres of the limousines screech as they turn.

The Abu Dhabi government does have plenty to talk green about. It is pouring investment into research, including building the world's first zero-carbon, zero-waste city from scratch.

Coming from jaded old Europe it is hard not to feel cynical. But even if only a fraction of the "vision" is achieved, the medical research facilities and green energy developments and prototype cities being developed with all this oil money are not mirages. They do exist, so they do at least have a chance.

So perhaps Abu Dhabi is the right location for a Future Energy Summit after all. Not because of the green investments. Nor even because the government has so much to lose when the oil runs out. But because our ultimate aim must be to make even this ludicrous prosperity sustainable. Then we would have gluttony without obesity, profligacy without waste, indulgence without guilt. And that really would be progress.

Slaves, but well-paid ones

Abu Dhabi has another, trickier sustainability issue. There are 1.6 million Emiratis, less than 20 per cent of the population. The rest are immigrants, mostly unskilled labour with no rights. Everyone I spoke to hates it here. They live in camps, many to a room, working like slaves. But the money is fabulous. Amid all this talk of sustainable energy, one is left wondering at the sustainability of the labour market.

Security loophole

On my way through Heathrow security, I took my shoes off, had my bag scanned, was patted down. But no one checked that the name on my self-printed boarding pass was the same as that in my passport. Or even that I had a passport at all. I wish I was joking.