Small Steps, Big Difference
The creators of small-scale environmental initiatives are increasingly turning to private investors and philanthropists to finance their projects, writes Tony Glover of The National.
Although major multibillion-dollar sustainable energy projects such as Abu Dhabi's Masdar City are in the ecological limelight, the green movement believes that the future lies in grassroots initiatives powered by small, private investors.
"We see small investors and the private sector in general playing an increasingly important role in sustainable development," says Michael Sullivan, a spokesman for the United States Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI).
"One of GGGI's three main pillars is encouraging and fostering public-private cooperation. We often say that domestic and external private sources of finance are the missing link in infrastructure and climate finance."
This philosophy is already starting to take hold in countries such as the UAE, which last year became a GGGI partner.
"As the Middle East becomes a more important investment region, we expect to see sustainable investment opportunities grow. There are a growing number of sustainable investment initiatives in the UAE," Sullivan says.
"Sustainability" has become the green movement's watchword, and it means more than governments and large corporations paying lip-service to conservation. It also means changing attitudes towards energy use and environmental protection not only in the minds of today's consumers, but also in those of their children.
Many of today's green initiatives are aimed at changing attitudes. Hashim Al Sada, a Qatari entrepreneur, has created a clean-energy alternative to the traditional fuels that provide power for camping in the desert.
Like many Gulf residents, Qataris like to take modern, power-hungry conveniences—air conditioning, refrigerators, and televisions—with them when camping in the desert. These devices are generally powered by fuels such as oil or diesel.
Rather than trying to dissuade campers from using modern technology when venturing into extreme environments, Al Sada tested different types of solar energy panels before using a 60-kilowatt prototype that is light and robust enough to be mounted on the roof of a tent and can provide power for the luxuries many modern campers now see as essential when venturing into the desert.
There are similar initiatives aimed at changing people's perceptions on energy use. In the United Kingdom, a twice-yearly music festival called Small World is largely powered by clean energy that is designed to educate festival goers about clean forms of power.
"On average, the entire festival uses no more electricity than an ordinary household kettle, about 2.5 kW, made up by energy derived from sustainable sources such as solar panels and wind turbines located strategically around the festival ground, and even pedal power used to run some of the smaller stages," says Pony Jackson, one of the founders of Small World.
"Modern IT is also used to maximize the effective use of energy. The whole festival is solar and wind-powered; no grid power is used."
In common with the creators of many small-scale environmental initiatives, Small World's organizers would rather rely on private investors or direct philanthropy rather than commercialize their project to a point where some of its underlying ecological ethos might be lost.
"Were we to allow Small World to accommodate 20,000 or 30,000 people, its nature would alter irrevocably," Jackson says.
On a slightly grander scale, the world's largest solar-powered boat, the Turanor PlanetSolar, in May became the first boat to circumnavigate the globe using only the power of the sun. After an 18-month voyage, the solar-powered ship, which is covered in 537 square meters of solar panels, arrived back at its departure point of Monaco.
In common with many groundbreaking ventures, the aim of the project is educational, making businesses and consumers fully aware of the long-term environmental impact of their commercial choices.
The reason that small and non-commercial eco-projects must often be funded by angel investors, private and corporate philanthropy and government grants is that there have been relatively few ecological investment vehicles aimed at educating small investors about the long-term wisdom of building an eco-portfolio of investments.
This is, however, beginning to change, with new eco-funds starting to emerge in financial centers such as London.
"The challenge for individual participation at larger infrastructure or a large renewable-energy generation plant is clearly greater due to the quantum of capital that is required," says Charlie Thomas, the fund manager of the Jupiter Ecology Fund unit trust. "Increasingly, though, there are investment funds in which individuals can invest to access the opportunity."
But he adds that small investors also need to be educated about the benefits of direct domestic investment in sustainable energy to protect the environment.
"Small investors will increasingly play a role in sustainable energy really through installing renewable energies or energy efficiency in their homes," Thomas says. "Technologies such as solar, insulation, and energy-efficient HVAC [heating, ventilation, and air conditioning] are very well suited for investment and can have an important impact."