Interview by Franz Alt with Dr. Hermann Scheer on the long way to IRENA, July 2009
What has been your motivation to launch the idea to establish an International Renewable Energy Agency?
My initiative was motivated by the paradox of the existing gigantic potential of renewable energy on the one hand and its complete underestimation on the global, regional and national level on the other. Renewables are undervalued in spite of their fundamental benefits: the fact that they are inexhaustible, that they can be produced without CO2 emissions and that they can create energy autonomy everywhere. Conventional energy experts from the scientific, economic and therefore also from the political sphere collectively underestimated renewable energy. Faced with the dangers that the nuclear and fossil energy supply present to our natural environment together with the increasing dependence of a growing number of countries on limited reserves of oil, gas, coal and uranium, this dualism of gigantic potential and complete underestimation appeared to be life threatening to our global civilisation – from an ecologic as well as an economic point of view.
This question touches people all over the world. Moreover: this conflict has manifested itself in the system of international institutions. This is about the post fossil and the post nuclear age. The answer in the 50ies has been the “peaceful use of nuclear energy” and this consensus prevailed in the 50ies and 60ies. Very few took renewable energy into consideration – with the exception of large hydropower, renewables were considered to be backwardly. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been founded swiftly but it became apparent in the 80ies that hopes that centred on nuclear energy could never be fulfilled. Risks that come along with the deployment of nuclear energy have notoriously been underestimated. Since then it became apparent that the non-fossil alternative to nuclear energy has to be focused on: renewable energy. But this conclusion met with manifold mental barriers, also within the international institutional system. I am convinced: If renewables had been supported nationally and internationally after the oil crisis in the 70ies with as much intensity as nuclear energy since the 50ies we would not have to face many of those global problems that we find ourselves confronted with today - neither climate change, nor dwindling natural resources or rising energy prices. That is why I came to the conclusion that the global negligence of renewable energy was a failure of the century and that one important way to overcome this is the establishment of an international agency for renewable energy as an intergovernmental organisation.
Which obstacles did you have to face when you launched the idea and the concept of IRENA in January 1990 for the first time?
The start in 1990 was very promising. My initial idea has been to install the agency within the framework of the UN-system – as a new special organisation. This idea has been taken up swiftly within the UN-headquarters. Former special envoy for energy of the UN-Secretary General Pérez de Cuéllar has been Ahmedou Ould Abdallah. He invited me to present the project at the UN-headquarters. The UN-secretary general was convinced spontaneously. This led to the installation of the United Nations Solar Energy Group on Environment and Development (UNSEGED) under the chairmanship of Thomas Johansson from Sweden. The group drafted recommendations on how to further develop renewable energy internationally in preparation of the Rio Conference. The central point has been an international agency for renewable energy. Even though the UN-Secretary General forwarded these recommendations to the Preparatory Committee of the Rio Conference they were ignored and buried by this committee.
Why and by whom?
Although states signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Rio, the connection between climate change and energy consumption has in fact not been established. Most participants at the conference did not consider renewables an option. Japan opposed the agency outright because it wanted its export industry to benefit from the production of renewable energy technology – that is why it perceived a global proliferation of these technologies as contrary to its national interest. The special organisations of the UN were jealous and claimed that they were already doing the work IRENA was supposed to tackle – something they never really did. Numerous countries opposed a new UN-organisation because they were dissatisfied with the activities of the already existing institutions. I replied that this was precisely the reason for a new agency.
What is more: the influence of the IAEA and the IEA (International Energy Agency) was more than obvious. Both agencies represented the factual and spiritual hegemony of nuclear and fossil energy and identified IRENA as a new competitor. To this day, they claim that nuclear and fossil energy are indispensable and at the same time denounce the real potential of renewable energy. In other words: they deny the possibility that global civilisation can be supplied entirely with energy coming from renewable sources. They think and act within the outdated paradigm of energy supply and do not understand the new paradigm of renewable energy – or do not want to understand it.
What do you mean?
There is no system of energy supply with its infrastructures, power stations and refineries which could be neutral face to face diverse sources of energy: the particular energy source determines the technical, organisational, economic and political prerequisites to make it available for the consumer. All we can do is decide which particular source of energy we want to harness – this choice then determines every subsequent step that follows thereafter: from the mines and wells to the customer. Each source of energy has its own prerequisites, determining in turn conversion technologies, infrastructures and the like. It is technologically impossible to maintain the current system, which is tailored to the needs of fossil and nuclear energy, and just exchange the energy sources. Many so-called energy-experts have not understood this till now. The transition to renewable energy is a switch from imported energy to indigenous energies, from commercial fuels to non-commercial fuels, from large power plants to small and medium production facilities and to new conversion technologies – and not just the avoidance of emissions and nuclear waste. The totality of expenses for renewable energies – except for bio fuels – results from technology costs. This is a transition from fuel business to technology business, from energy dependence to energy autonomy. I call this the techno-logic of energy sources. That is why we need a global technology market for the deployment of local and regional renewable energy resources. Many have misunderstood this concept – even advocates of renewable energy. The manifold mental barriers result from this misconception.
Is this the reason for the scarce support for IRENA in the past years?
Yes, this is obvious. Reactions to the call to establish IRENA were usually to leave the international proliferation of renewable energy to the IEA and to convince it to readjust its main focus. This never happened in reality because the IEA always thought and worked along the lines of the conventional energy paradigm.
Organisations within the spectrum of international NGOs refrained from supporting the idea to establish an IRENA or have even opposed it completely. Which were their reasons?
Many of these organisations still adhere to a special political paradigm concerning renewables – often without really noticing it. There were not only governments but also NGOs, which claimed after the failure in Rio in 1992 that the establishment of IRENA was illusionary, maintaining that there would never be enough support. That is why WWF and Greenpeace argued against IRENA at the „Renewables 2004“ conference – and that is why the German federal minister for the environment Jürgen Trittin refused to support IRENA. To him, this idea was unrealistic – that is why he never tried to start the initiative even though the German parliament was in favour. His argument went: no government would be willing to take part. I have always opposed this notion: for many years I have talked to numerous countries and convinced them that the formation of IRENA was a necessity. The crucial point was to find a government that was willing and enjoyed enough credibility to take up the initiative to establish an international governmental agency for renewable energy. The German government possessed this special credibility due to its internationally renowned legislation supporting renewables, dating from 1998.
Has the sceptical attitude vis-à-vis IRENA not been understandable given the failed start prior to the Rio conference in 1992 and the opposition from within the UN-system or the World Bank?
The experience of 1992 had been: IRENA cannot be realised within the UN-system. The UN is guided by the principle to establish consensus, which means in practice: many states enjoy a veto power. Thus it was clear since 1998: IRENA must be founded outside the UN-system, brought forward by a “coalition of the willing”. There does not exist a law prohibiting the establishment of an international governmental organisation independent of the UN-system. Most international governmental organisations do not work within the UN-system but cooperate with it. Since 1992 I argued strongly in favour of going into this direction.
That is why I have since focused on motivating a government to take the initiative. It is self-evident that I was primarily aiming at the German government. As member of the German parliament and council member of the Social Democratic Party - one of the two largest parties in Germany – I was in a position to directly exert my influence. I prepared for the next launch when my party became part of the government in 1998. I initiated several resolutions to bring IRENA forward and mobilised the international community of renewable energy protagonists in parallel. The most important event was thus the International Impulse Conference 2001 for the Establishment of IRENA in Berlin, organised by EUROSOLAR with 500 participants from all continents of the world. This led to the speech of Gerhard Schröder, at that time German chancellor, at the UN-Conference for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 who invited governments to the international governmental conference for renewable energies – the „renewables 2004“. The plan was to launch IRENA there.
But this never happened. The „renewables 2004“ failed to cover IRENA.
In spite of the resolution in the German parliament, the German government was not in agreement concerning IRENA. Preparations for the „Renewables 2004“ conference hosted by the German government lay first and foremost with the German ministry for the environment and its minister was in opposition to this project. That is why the resolutions of the „Renewables 2004“ are lacking a decision on IRENA. Instead, support for IRENA came from the International Parliamentary Forum for Renewable Energy, which was held in parallel to the “Renewables 2004” conference and was hosted by the German parliament and chaired by me.
Do you want to say that IRENA could have been established in 2004 if the German government seized the initiative at the „Renewables 2004“?
Yes, IRENA could have been established already in 2004. The broad resonance for IRENA makes this clear. It was of immense help for the success of the IRENA initiative that the Danish and Spanish governments were the main supporters of the initiative since 2008. All three countries are credible protagonists for renewable energy due to their national legislation.
Which is the most important principle that should guide the work of IRENA?
First: Overcome the underestimation of renewable energy. Second: Demonstrate that the complete energy needs everywhere can be satisfied by renewable energy and that this is no economic burden but rather an important economic chance. Third: Underline that renewables will trigger a new technological revolution, which does not require international treaties.
What is your personal experience after two decades of successful agitation for IRENA?
I am happy to pass this experience on: One shall never give up to pursue a goal that one identified as important only because it is held to be unrealistic by the „business-as-usual“.
What is your opinion on member state’s decision to locate IRENA’s headquarters in Abu Dhabi instead of Bonn?
Bonn was still regarded as the favourite at IRENA’s founding conference on 26 January 2009. But then the United Arab Emirates started their successful campaign for Abu Dhabi. Their argument to finally locate an international governmental agency outside of Europe or the US met with great response. And what is more: they offered to augment their own financial contribution very generously which enlarged IRENA’s budget considerably compared to the draft budget that was proposed by IRENA’s administrative committee. This will benefit IRENA tremendously because the agency’s tasks will be manifold given the current number of 136 signatories – and expectations have to be met. One thing is clear: It will not be the host country, which decides how the agency organises its work but the director general and the member states controlling her or him.
Many expected you as the driving force behind the formation of IRENA to become the agency’s first director general. Why did your own government refrain from nominating you?
The German federal government applied to host the seat of IRENA in Bonn and did not want to reduce its chances by nominating me at the same time as director general. I myself wanted to avoid any situation where - at one point - it would come down to „Bonn or Scheer“. Since I have not been nominated, I was not in a position to be elected. I was primarily concerned with the establishment of IRENA – and not with a new political post for myself.
What became of the proposal, supported by many, to create the extraordinary position of a founding chair for you to support the director general in the start-up phase of the agency.
I asked those, who wanted to make this proposal public, not to proceed further with this idea. IRENA has to stand on her own two feet now. It is understood that I will provide Mrs. Pelosse with supporting advice – should she ever ask for it. I do not need a formal post for this.
Is this now the worldwide breakthrough for renewable energy?
One should not expect more from IRENA than the agency will actually be able to deliver. IRENA must not interfere with member state’s policies. The agency has a service function vis-à-vis its member countries, which seek to deploy renewables more widely and at a faster pace. In addition, IRENA will have a stimulating function for renewable energies within the global energy debate with the aim of overcoming existent mental resistances and barriers. The implementation of renewable energy in member countries has to be carried out by protagonists that are active at the respective national and local level. IRENA will not be able to assume their role. Forces will be active that aim at narrowing IRENA’s scope – together with forces that try to widen it. In other words: IRENA will not be active in a conflict-free sphere but rather in an environment that is dominated by the interests of conventional energies. To stand her ground and to thrive, IRENA needs the active support of all protagonists active in the field of renewable energy.