‘Working Together: Saving Tomorrow Today’ is the theme of the climate change talks that started in South Africa on Tuesday. But that’s wishful thinking if newspaper reports are anything to go by. The chances of the Kyoto protocol being meaningfully extended beyond 2012 appear slim, with a host of countries saying they are reluctant to re-commit to its terms. Eileen Claussen, president of the Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions, even described Kyoto as “on life support”. Hardly a vote of confidence.

With among the largest per-capita carbon footprints in the world, it is not surprising that Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia are loath to back emissions restrictions. But developments in the region suggest that innovation rather than regulation holds the key to mitigating climate change.

Next year Abu Dhabi will commission Shams 1, the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant. A 100 megawatt PV facility is also in the pipeline, and now other Gulf states are committing significant resources to renewable energy.

Every year each square kilometre of land in the Gulf receives a volume of solar energy equivalent to 1.5 million barrels of oil. The region’s leaders know that every barrel saved by using renewable sources to meet domestic electricity demand is another one sold on the international market.

Exporting more fossil fuels may not seem like an effective strategy on climate change at first glance, but it is easy to overlook just how much oil and gas Gulf countries consume. Around a third of Saudi Arabia’s oil production goes to local industry and water desalination.

Achieving utility-scale renewable energy will help Gulf countries cut greenhouse emissions at home and potentially create a template for cost-competitive renewable energy abroad.

The Gulf has the capital, the land area and, where solar power is concerned, the feedstock to realize large-scale clean energy, irrespective of the Kyoto policy wrangling down in Durban. What they lack is the local know-how. Working together on research rather than rule-making is likely to be the mantra of Middle East states post Kyoto.

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