U.S. Taxpayers on the Hook As Obama Joins a New International Renewable Energy Agency

By Patrick Goodenough | March 7, 2011 | 5:03 AM EST

IRENA Director-General Adnan Amin. (Photo: IRENA)

(CNSNews.com) – At a time when congressional Republicans are looking for ways to reduce U.S. funding to the United Nations, the Obama administration has formalized its membership in a new international body – and American taxpayers will provide more than one-fifth of its budget.

The administration on Friday deposited its instrument of acceptance to join the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), State Department spokesman Philip Crowley announced.

After joining in June 2009, the U.S. now becomes the 63rd fully ratified member of IRENA, a European-inspired initiative set up in 2009 to promote renewable forms of energy such as wind and solar power.

Although IRENA is not currently a U.N. agency, becoming one is a goal for some of its proponents, and members’ contributions are calculated according to the same formula used to fund the U.N.

The U.S. therefore will provide 22 percent of IRENA’s budget.

In its fiscal 2012 budget request for international programs, the administration has asked for $5.2 million for IRENA.

When the U.S. first announced it was joining the agency in June 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the decision to participate “an important element of the administration’s effort to support clean energy technologies and the development of low carbon economies to address global climate change.”

At an IRENA meeting last October, the U.S. representative, Assistant Secretary Kerri-Ann Jones of the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, spelled out why the administration was supporting the initiative.

“Much of the world has come to understand that human-induced climate change has the potential to radically alter the planet,” she said.

“We firmly believe that the increased adoption of renewable energy technologies constitutes a crucial piece that will ultimately solve the climate change challenge, while serving as the catalyst for job creation and sound economic growth.”

Several existing U.N. bodies already carry out activity in the field of renewable energy, including the secretariat’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The U.N. also has an interagency mechanism to coordinate energy-related efforts, called U.N.-Energy.

Moreover, a non-U.N. organization working in the renewable energy field is the International Energy Agency (IEA). IEA membership is open only to the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), but it does undertake projects with non-OECD developing countries, like China and India.

Despite all this activity underway, the advocates behind IRENA cited mounting concerns about climate change and the need to find “clean” energy sources in arguing for the need for an organization focusing exclusively on renewable energy.

‘North-South tensions’

Progress in setting up the new agency has not been without hiccups.

At a “preparatory commission” meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in June 2009, a developed country/developing country rift emerged over where IRENA should be based. Germany had played a leading role in the process leading up to its establishment, and pushed for hosting rights, as did Austria and Denmark.

But the United Arab Emirates (UAE) also sought to host IRENA, and Emirati officials traveled to more than 100 countries ahead of the meeting to lobby for support.

Some European activists meanwhile complained that the Gulf state was not an appropriate venue for the agency. Although it has begun to explore renewable energy, the UAE remains almost solely reliant on oil and gas, and has one of the world’s highest per-capita “carbon footprints.”

A compromise hammered out behind the scenes handed the right to host the headquarters to the UAE’s Abu Dhabi, while Germany and Austria got consolation prizes in the form of an IRENA innovation and technology center in Bonn, and an IRENA office in Vienna to liaise with the U.N. and other international organizations. The German and Austrian governments will fund the two satellite entities.

At the time of the meeting, media reports said Germany and Austria withdrew their candidacies after it became apparent that an overwhelming majority of countries supported the UAE.

But one of the classified U.S. government cables released by Wikileaks late last year revealed that the U.S. delegation at the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting played the principal role in brokering the compromise that favored the UAE.

The cable did not make clear why this was important for the administration, although there was a reference to “North-South tensions regarding the role of developed countries in promoting renewable energy in the developing world.”

On a visit to Abu Dhabi last January, Clinton highlighted the fact that IRENA “is the first truly international organization to be headquartered in the Middle East.”

Helene Pelosse, a Frenchwoman who served as the first director-general of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) until resigning abruptly last October, is pictured here with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York on September 18, 2009. (UN Photo by Paulo Filgueiras)

IRENA’s next hurdle came when its first interim director-general, Helene Pelosse of France, abruptly resign last October, just 15 months into her tenure.

No official reason was given for Pelosse’s surprise departure, but she told the French news agency AFP later that she had fallen afoul of the UAE government over payment delays and after promoting the recruitment of more women to the agency (when nominated as director-general, Pelosse pledged to aim for a 50 percent female IRENA staff).

After Pelosse resigned the post was handed temporarily to Adnan Amin, a Kenyan national with a U.N. background, pending a final decision to be taken when IRENA holds its inaugural assembly early next month.

Although IRENA is not now a U.N. agency, it says it will work closely with the U.N. and could eventually become a U.N. body.

 “Given the founders’ ambitious time goal for the founding of IRENA, it was not a realistic option for IRENA to become a new United Nations or United Nations-affiliated organization,” a question-and-answer section on the IRENA Web site states.

“Thus, it was decided that IRENA should be created as an independent organization and swiftly commence operations. In the long term however, integrating IRENA into the United Nations should be considered.”

Immediately After her appointment, Pelosse also spoke about the desire for IRENA to become “part of the U.N. family.”

Among those invited to IRENA’s inaugural assembly on April 4-5, is Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s foreign minister, Musa Kusa, the Emirates News Agency WAM recently reported.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow