This past week I attended and had the pleasure to speak and debate at the 2013 World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  This was the sixth such summit, and the third I have attended.

The stated goal of the meeting is to:

bring together global leaders in policy, technology and business to discuss the state of the art, develop new ways of thinking and shape the future of renewable energy.

For me, the meeting did just that.  At each of the past meetings lectures, panel discussions, and extensive exhibitions of energy technologies provided one element of the dialog, and the evolving shape of Masdar City provided the other.  Masdar City is intended to eventually house over 40,000 people and be the working environment for another 50,000 commuters, all in a site that produces its own energy and is a platform for the newest ideas of sustainability.

One of the most important ideas to get across to everyone thinking about sustainability issues is that we are failing to live up to our potential to match the scale of the challenges with sufficiently creative solutions.

I was particularly interested to attend the World Future Energy Summit this time because it the first year that the International Water Summit was to be held in conjunction with the World Future Energy Summit. The International Water Summit is, in fact, the only event – so far — that focuses specifically on the water energy nexus and the challenges of this within arid environments. The event will include a political summit, expert conference and exhibition for delegates and water experts from all over the world.

This nexus – energy and water – is part of a growing theme of researchers and research themes that look at the intersection of key challenges.  I am particularly concerned that these linkages spread rapidly to other areas to flesh out our understanding of what ‘sustainability’ actually means (Casillas and Kammen, 2010).  There are many that we need to explore: energy-water nexus; the energy-poverty nexus; the climate-culture nexus; the biodiversity-resilience nexus; the energy-justice nexus, and so forth.

These are each critical efforts to frame elements of what sustainability science will need to capture.  In Abu Dhabi, a place overflowing with both fossil fuels and solar energy, the inclusion of water in the equation is vital.  Without it, energy presents no local challenge, as long as linkages – in this case to greenhouse gas emissions and global sustainability, are ignored.  Water for Abu Dhabi is provided through desalinization, driven by energy.  A nexus.

At the meeting I listened intently at sessions on the energy side where global carbon budgets were discussed, and I listened equally intently at sessions on the water side of the summit where the shortages of water for mega-cities, for the rural poor, and for cooling fossil-fuel power plants were all discussed.

The most telling assessment of the myriad of sessions of our currently unsustainable energy and water practices was that we simply were not innovating and deploying new, superior ideas fast enough.  Instead of taking this as a rallying cry for a hugely expanded and accelerated path to finding new and better ways to do things, one headline from the meeting captured where we are today, “If not sustainable, then at least efficient”!

A true but troubling conference conclusion. (Photograph by Daniel Kammen)


The fact is that we are becoming too good at finding improvements – even significant ones – that are not tipping the balance fast enough.

That new agenda – committing to innovations that truly lead to sustainability – needs to get the political backing and the backing of resources needed to turn the corner on truly new ways of doing things.  The search for solutions at in the ‘nexus’ areas is one part of that story, but our pace must accelerate dramatically.


  1. Dan Kammen
    Berkeley, CA
    January 25, 2013, 12:48 pm

    Mark is absolutely right that improvements are better than not improving.

    The problem is that the lack of significant leadership and direction on achieving meaningful goals) has led to an acceptance of small steps as sufficient.

    The Nevada case is indeed unfortunate. A small but significant number of states have adopted ‘decoupling’ as one example policy that rewards innovations that save energy by compensating utilities without linking revenue to sales.

    Sadly there has been far too much push back on this innovative policy.

  2. Mark C.
    January 25, 2013, 12:11 pm

    Political backing is key, but doesn’t it really come down to dollars as the main motivator these days?

    I am provoked by the statement “We are becoming too good at finding improvements – even significant ones – that are not tipping the balance fast enough.” This statement presents a challenge, but also another line of thinking – Isn’t it better to make systems more efficient if possible, rather than replacing with all new systems (more materials, embodied energy, water use)?

    Additionally, an interesting thing happened in Nevada this year. The utility has been promoting and financially supporting energy efficiency projects (smart thermostats, meters, home energy testing), but this year asked for a rate increase on its users because people have reduced their energy use too much!