Renewing the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)

Adil Najam

The excitement that had marked the creation of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in early 2009 – to act “as the global voice for renewable energies” – dissipated fast in the last year and a half. Indeed, for those few who followed what was happening at the agency, feelings of crisis and panic set in fairly early and in recent weeks had turned into a distinct sense of foreboding and desperation. One hopes that this is finally about to change as new excitement has been injected into IRENA after the resignation of its beleaguered founding Director General – Helene Pelosse from France – and the appointment of Kenyan development economist and seasoned UN official Adnan Amin as her replacement.

Although his current appointment is as ‘interim’ DG, it is widely expected that it will turn permanent when the IRENA Council meets early next year. Indeed, if for some reason that does not happen, the Agency will again be thrown into a fractious leadership chaos. Something that IRENA can ill-afford, and may not even survive.

Helene Pelosse’s disastrous stint at the helm was short and substantively uneventful but she leaves the agency in financial shambles. Even more ruinous than the financial mess is the deficit of trust and enthusiasm amongst member states that her tenure provoked. Adnan Amin’s immediate task is to restore sound fiscal management within the agency and raise financial contributions from member states. But his much more important challenge is to inspire and recreate the same confidence and enthusiasm amongst the member states that had originally led to IRENA’s creation.

The job cannot possibly be easy, but Adnan Amin is an inspired choice. His last three appointments were as the head of the New York office of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), as secretariat Executive Director for the High-Level Commission on UN System-wide Coherence, and most recently as the Director of the secretariat of the UN Chief Executives Board for Coordination. One hopes that the first experience taught him how to operate in cash-strapped environments, the second gave him a deep appreciation of what works in managing international organizations, and the third has gained for him the confidence of UN agency heads with many of whom IRENA has to work closely.

All of these experiences should come in handy as the new Director General navigates his way through four inter-related challenges facing IRENA today.

First, and foremost, the internal management of IRENA needs cleaning up. Budgetary controls and sound fiscal management has to be the most pressing priority, but rationalized staffing and developing internal structures and systems in tune with the institutions mandate is going to be equally important. The good news is that the agency has been so mismanaged that improving things from what they were should not be difficult. But a key indicator will be whether member states will also step forward with much needed support and resources.

Second, IRENA’s enabling statute needs to be ratified. Set up as an international treaty organization that is not (yet) a UN agency, IRENA will not really be ‘real’ until its enabling statute is ratified. Least of all because that is the key to the agency’s financial sustainability. Of the 148 member countries (plus the European Union), only 42 have ratified the treaty till now. European countries that had originally pushed hard to create IRENA need to take the lead, but with a developing country leader now at its helm one hopes that developing countries will also show greater support for the agency.

Third, IRENA needs goal clarity. Although IRENA’s vision and mission has been much debated before and since its creation, the agency has been unable to develop goal clarity through its substantive actions. It is clear that IRENA is neither an implementing nor a funding agency. But it must become a facilitator of both and be seen to be more than just a compiler of statistics. Ideally, it should be seen as a ‘transition coach’ for a global energy system that moves progressively towards more and more use of renewable energy sources. That transition is already happening, IRENA’s role should be to facilitate actions that (a) make it happen faster, (b) enable learning amongst nations on how to make it happen, (c) encourage best practices, (d) hold hands of countries which need capacity building and resource priming, and (e) become a global champion for such a transition.

Finally, IRENA should focus especially on poor countries. If IRENA is to become a ‘transition coach’ for countries that need its help the most it has to be more than just a cheerleader. It is in developing countries where IRENA can make the biggest difference, even with a few targeted catalytic efforts. Central to this ‘hand-holding’ mission would be the ability to provide access to knowledge and resources for targeted catalytic activities. The good news is that Abu Dhabi, which is also host to IRENA’s headquarters, has already pledged US$50 million per year for a development fund to assist developing countries. This could become the first seed in an international fund, to be managed by IRENA, to support capacity development, technical assistance, and pilot projects in developing countries.

The next many months should be exciting for this agency, which was conceived amidst such hopes and promise but has been mired by bureaucratic infighting. One hopes that era is now behind us and member states will focus on moving forward with the agency’s substance rather than petty managerial turf wars.

10 Responses to “Renewing the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)”

  1. Paul Arfin says:

    Good one, Adil. No one is really focusing on it, but IRENA is the only new international organization for the environment in a long time. And if it does its job right it can make a huge and real difference in actually changing things. Lets hope it can get its act straight.

  2. Geert S. says:

    I hope the hew Director will actually save IRENA from the rot that seems to have set in. The financial scandals recently have really hurt this effort greatly and we need to save this organization and get it going to its real work.

  3. Sam Henkinn says:

    This agency had the promise to change the world. It squandered that promise under the last DG. Hope it is restored.

  4. Elio G says:

    Saying that everything that has gone wrong in IRENA is Ms. Pelosse’s fault is (at best) ill-intentioned, and the reasons given for assuming that Mr. Amin will do a better job are weak and flawed. The fact that he has worked for the UN in his last three appointments is not a reason for hope for anyone who knows how the UN system works. Has he been secretariat Executive Director for the High-Level Commission on UN System-wide Coherence? Well, coherence within the UN is nonexistent, so it looks as if he did not do a great job there.
    The simple facts are that countries showed support to IRENA when there was nothing of a financial crisis, but when this came Ms. Pelosse had to deal with a very stringent budget. In addition to this, she has faced very strong opposition because many countries have lobbied to have a DG from a developing country. Now funding will start flowing naturally with the economic recovery, should we say that this is Mr. Amin’s success? If he manages to wisely use those funds instead of wasting them as many other UN agencies do, then I will join those who praise Mr. Amin’s appointment.

  5. Bo Fredvik says:

    I must agree with Mr. Elio G.’s more critical analysis of the transition of IRENA from its previous Director General, Ms. Pelosse, to its interim Director General, Mr. Amin.

    Apologies for not having an English version of this article from “Le Monde”, but it dresses an even more complete analysis as to why Ms. Pelosse may have been pressured to resign and why replacing Ms. Pelosse may not solve all of IRENA’s problems.

    30 October 2010

    Le Monde

    © Le Monde, 2010. Tous droits réservés.

    La directrice générale de l’Agence internationale des énergies renouvelables explique les raisons de son départ


    Moins de deux ans après sa création, l’Agence internationale des énergies renouvelables (Irena) connaît une sérieuse embardée : la directrice générale, Hélène Pelosse, a démissionné le 19 octobre en raison d’un grave conflit avec le pays hôte de l’agence, les Emirats arabes unis.

    Mme Pelosse, 40 ans, avait été élue en juin 2009, six mois après la création de la nouvelle agence. Avant de rejoindre l’Irena, cette haute fonctionnaire, issue de l’inspection des finances, fut la directrice adjointe du cabinet du ministre de l’écologie, Jean-Louis Borloo.

    Elle a notamment suivi les négociations climatiques et la préparation du ” paquet énergie climat ” européen, finalisé en décembre 2008. Réagissant à cette démission, le porte-parole du ministère des affaires étrangères a déclaré, mardi 26 octobre, que la France avait salué, à plusieurs reprises, ” l’appui sans faille et les efforts constants du pays hôte – les Emirats arabes unis – pour soutenir l’Irena dans sa phase de développement “. Mme Pelosse explique les raisons de son départ.

    Pourquoi avez-vous démissionné du poste de directrice générale de l’Irena ?

    Parce que les autorités du pays siège de l’Agence, les Emirats arabes unis (EAU) ont demandé à la France de me faire démissionner, et que l’on m’a contrainte à écrire une lettre de démission. Je l’ai d’ailleurs dit publiquement devant les Etats membres lors du comité administratif et financier, le 23 octobre, à Abou Dhabi. Les Emirats avaient déjà acheté un certain nombre de voix des pays en développement pour être choisis comme siège. Maintenant, ils exercent les mêmes pressions pour contrôler le poste de directeur de l’Agence, ce qui menace son indépendance.

    Avez-vous personnellement subi des pressions ?

    Un certain nombre de ce qu’on appelle en langage diplomatique des ” incidents de sécurité ” se sont produits : disparition temporaire de mon passeport, visites de mon domicile, fouille de bagages, interceptions de courriels et blocages d’appels vers certaines personnes, voire menaces à l’encontre de mes proches.

    Les Emirats arabes unis veulent-ils contrôler cette agence internationale ?

    Absolument. Sur le plan financier, leur statut de premier contributeur leur donne la capacité de peser sur les choix de l’agence. De plus, les fonctionnaires de l’agence n’ont pas obtenu toutes les protections qu’ils seraient en droit d’attendre dans un pays qui applique la charia et qui n’est pas une démocratie. Cela les fragilise du point de vue des libertés individuelles. L’immunité à laquelle les personnels ont droit en tant que fonctionnaires internationaux aurait dû être étendue.

    Les intérêts de la France aux Emirats ont-ils affecté vos relations avec l’Etat hôte ?

    Oui, tout à fait. Si on avait voulu une Irena qui fonctionne, il n’aurait pas fallu l’installer à Abou Dhabi. Il aurait au contraire fallu soutenir l’Allemagne qui était candidate, cela n’a pas été fait en dépit de la relation franco-allemande. Mais plusieurs pays redoutaient de voir émerger une institution efficace et ils trouvent donc finalement très bien qu’elle soit à Abou Dhabi. Le risque maintenant est que de nombreux projets d’énergies nouvelles soient validés par l’Irena et qu’ils servent d’autres objectifs que le mandat de l’agence, en couvrant au passage des formes de corruption.

    Pourquoi certains pays ne veulent-ils pas que l’Irena marche correctement ?

    Les Etats-Unis, le Japon, l’Australie, dans une moindre mesure le Royaume-Uni, ne veulent pas que l’Irena fonctionne. Leur méfiance à l’égard des organisations internationales est notoire. Ils préfèrent que l’Agence internationale de l’énergie (AIE), beaucoup plus proche de l’OCDE et de leur vision, ait la compétence sur les énergies renouvelables. Face à ce groupe, les pays européens, surtout la Suède, le Danemark, l’Allemagne, l’Espagne, soutiennent l’Irena et souhaitent qu’elle ait un programme de travail ambitieux et dispose des moyens financiers lui permettant d’être indépendante des Emirats. Ce conflit empêche l’agence de fonctionner correctement.

    Y a-t-il une volonté de gêner le développement des énergies renouvelables ?

    Tout le monde est conscient qu’il faut aller vers les énergies nouvelles, mais l’Australie, par exemple, qui est le premier exportateur de charbon au monde, veut maîtriser le rythme de cette transition.

    Quelle a été l’attitude de la Chine ?

    Elle est restée attentive. Mais je pense qu’elle n’a pas besoin de l’Irena pour développer les énergies renouvelables qui constituent pour elle une question vitale. La Chine importe du pétrole, du charbon, elle a un besoin boulimique d’énergie, elle sait qu’elle ne pourra pas se développer sans les énergies renouvelables.

    L’Irena devrait-elle être tournée vers les pays en développement ?

    Pas seulement. Les pays industrialisés ont aussi intérêt à mettre en commun les connaissances et les ressources. La coopération est nécessaire à un développement massif des nouvelles énergies. Par exemple, l’Espagne et le Portugal ont une production éolienne très importante et ont développé un important savoir-faire en matière d’intégration des énergies renouvelables au réseau électrique traditionnel. Il faut savoir tirer parti de cette expérience plutôt que de sans cesse avoir à réinventer.

    L’agence doit aussi développer une vision, montrer – en s’appuyant sur des études de plus en plus solides que produisent par exemple les laboratoires allemands ou l’université Stanford – que le potentiel des énergies renouvelables est beaucoup plus important que ce que l’on pense communément. Obtenir 80 % ou 100 % d’énergies renouvelables est à terme possible. C’est un véritable changement de paradigme. Mais beaucoup de gens ne veulent pas en entendre parler.

    Qui ?

    Les lobbies. Et d’abord celui des énergies fossiles. Le lobby nucléaire n’est pas très favorable aux énergies nouvelles, mais cela peut changer – une entreprise comme Areva vient par exemple d’investir dans le solaire.

    Peut-on sauver l’Irena ?

    Ça va être compliqué. Mais je crois beaucoup dans le centre d’innovation et de technologies qui dépendra de l’Irena, mais qui sera installé à Bonn dans les prochaines semaines. Il va faire ce que le siège d’Abou Dhabi ne fera pas en s’appuyant sur l’expertise accumulée par l’Allemagne ces dernières années.

    Propos recueillis par Hervé Kempf

  6. Achim Haellis says:

    There was obviously much that was wrong at IRENA and I hope that the new DG can fix it. There is a financial enquiry now underway and that will make things more clear. The important point to me is that after one disaster the agency cannot afford to go through another. So like the author I wish that the new DG will be able to pull things together and we can move to the substance. I agree with the priorities laid out for the agency in this article. The one I will add is that IRENA will need to get into the UN agency fold soon.

  7. Ludwig Hartmann says:

    Countries such as the USA, Japan, Australia which have “forgotten” to contribute for the IRENA 2010 approved budget should all be revoked from the IRENA Member States since they are the main cause of the financial shortfall of the Agency.
    I fully agree with Bo that the UNefficiency has been demonstrated throughout the world until today and apart from securing highly paid jobs, the UN high-level civil servants are not known for being result oriented…
    Wait and see if the new DG will be the White Knight as described by some ?

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  9. Ali N says:

    While I agreee with my dear Adil, I could hardly think that Adnan Amin is an inspired choice. Today, after several years of having been elected, Mr Amin has successfully managed to deflate any hopes that IRENA would become an agent of change to turn it instead into just another international bureaucracy, with an impenetrable culture of secretism and internal fear and plagued with corruption.
    It is not a secret that Mr. Amin has threatened wi summary dismissal any staff member who dares to speak about the inner realities of IRENA. Moreover, Mr. Amin has fought every attempt to bring transparency into his own compemsation out of fear that the public will know the enormous payments and perks that he and his family arereceiving from the UAE! Which include a rent-free mansion with all expemses paid, frequent shopping trips for Aisha, his young wife, free use of Mercedes Benz limousines and secret payments into his bank accounts.
    What is more, Mr. Amin has been very careful in cultivating his alliances in the UAE even by hiring the son of an Iraqi war criminal, Nizar Al Khazraji, who despide being circulated by INTERPOL, lives comfortably in Abu Dhabi with the protection of emirati authorities and full knowledge of Mr. Amin.
    Do you, professor Najam, still think that Mr Amin was an inspired choice?

  10. Vanessa says:

    Adnan Amin is a disastrous choice for the clean energy sector, not only is he very ignorant about renewables he also mistreats and harasses morally most of IRENA’s competent staff… He manipulates evaluation reports, promotes bully staff, rejects project proposals that can raise the agency’s profile and ensures that projects with potential never get into the agency’s work program. media needs to start looking into the internal mismanagement of IRENA and obvious conflicts of interest… He is using IRENA to get a higher position within the UN system, he’s never cared about the environment and the well being of people…