Doha, Qatar – Over the course of millions of years, heat and pressure deep underground blessed this sweltering nook of the Middle East with some of the biggest fossil fuel deposits in the world.
Depending on one’s point of view, it’s either ironic or a propos that the pint-sized state of Qatar – whose hydrocarbon reserves have made it among the richest countries in the world – is hosting this year’s annual UN climate change conference.
The massive meet-up is sparking closer scrutiny of Qatar and other Gulf countries’ stances on climate change.
Several Gulf states announced renewable energy targets in the months leading up to the climate talks in Doha, Qatar’s capital.
But so far, pledges – either voluntary or binding – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the near-term have not been forthcoming.
And with a new study released on Wednesday, finding sea levels could likely rise by more than one metre by the end of the century, the low-lying Gulf could be especially vulnerable to climate change – in which greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide, play a major role.
‘Cruel joke’ or exciting development?
The choice of Doha miffed some environmentalists: one called it a “cruel joke”, noting that Qatar had the highest carbon dioxide emissions per capita in the world.
In absolute terms, the United States is the world’s second biggest carbon dioxide emitter, and the Gulf countries are far down on the list.
Per capita numbers tell a different story, however: US residents emitted about 17 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person in 2009, compared with almost 32 tonnes in the the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and 40 tonnes in Qatar. (Meanwhile, Nigerians emitted less than a tonne each, on average.)
|Mariam Allam says Gulf countries ‘have the financial capacity’ to cut emissions [Sam Bollier/Al Jazeera]|
The conference’s choice of president, Qatari Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah bin Hamad Al-Attiyah, has also been criticised: he’s a former president of oil cartel OPEC, and received the Petroleum Executive of the Year award in 2007.
But many at the climate talks were thrilled a Gulf country was chosen this year. Dr Thani Al Zeyoudi, the United Arab Emirates’ Director of Energy and Climate Change at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Al Jazeera that Doha provided “a chance for us to start shifting the stereotype” that the Gulf countries “[do] nothing when it comes to climate change and environment”.
Mariam Allam, who works with the Arab Youth Climate Movement – an environmental group founded just ahead of the conference this year – is glad the talks are being held in the Gulf. Accordingly, though, she expects countries in the region to make ambitious pledges to cut emissions. “They have the money. They have the financial capacity,” she told Al Jazeera.
So far, that hasn’t happened.
Under the Kyoto Protocol climate treaty, only a few dozen highly developed states are currently required to cut CO2 output. Classified as “developing countries” when the treaty was first being written, none of the six Gulf states have been required to cut emissions.
Gulf governments have not signed up to binding emissions cuts under a second commitment period to Kyoto, and have not yet made voluntary pledges to cut emissions by a specific number, either.
Greening the Gulf
Majid Al Suwaidi, the UAE’s lead negotiator at the climate talks, said that although his country hadn’t made pledges, “we feel like we’re doing voluntary actions more than we’re required to” by investing heavily in renewable energy projects.
This year, several Gulf countries have set goals to boost the amount of energy they get from renewable sources, especially solar. As PV panels become steadily more economical, this is an increasingly appealing proposition in the sun-soaked region.
Qatar wants to produce ten per cent of its electricity from solar by 2018. Kuwait and Oman have expressed similar ambitions. And Saudi Arabia says it hopes to attain a third of its power from the sun by 2032.
The UAE hosts the new International Renewable Energy Agency, and its capital Abu Dhabi – which wants to get seven per cent of its power from renewables by 2020 – is home to Masdar City. Projected to cost $19bn when completed, the development is being billed as a zero-emission, car-free city featuring state-of-the-art green architecture.
Efficiency programmes could help cut emissions, too: Ali Haider, Kuwait’s deputy director-general for environmental monitoring affairs, told Al Jazeera that his country had recently made big cuts in the wasteful flaring of natural gas.
Does it matter?
“The problem is not how many solar panels can Saudi Arabia have. The problem is: how much of the fossil fuel that Saudi Arabia has is going to go to the whole world?“
– Pablo Solon, former Bolivian climate negotiator
However, Nathan Hultman, a professor at the University of Maryland who specialises in environmental policy, points out that more renewable energy in the Gulf doesn’t preclude an overall rise in the region’s greenhouse gas emissions, given how fast total energy consumption is growing.
Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s former chief negotiator for climate change and now the executive director of Focus on the Global South, thinks green energy projects in the Gulf could be insubstantial as long as the region continues to export fossil fuels to other countries.
For instance, given Saudi Arabia’s wealth, it could conceivably finance its transition to a green economy at home, but it would still fuel climate change by exporting oil abroad, he said.
“The problem is not how many solar panels can Saudi Arabia have,” he told Al Jazeera. “The problem is: how much of the fossil fuel that Saudi Arabia has is going to go to the whole world?” A recent International Energy Agency study found that two-thirds of fossil fuel reserves should stay in the ground if the world hopes to fend off dangerous levels of warming.
Hultman doesn’t expect the Gulf countries to voluntarily reduce their fossil fuel exports in the near future. “The reality is,” he explained, “this is their industry right now. The international community should not expect that they’re just going to give up on this domestic industry in a very short period”.
He is, however, still optimistic about the Gulf’s role. “They can have a huge amount of leverage” in the fight against climate change, he says, by using their wealth to fund technological innovation in poorer, less developed countries.
With the prospect of peak oil already affecting some Gulf countries, diversification to renewable energy sources could deliver economic benefits.
“If we are moving to an economy that is not as reliant on fossil fuels,” said Pamela Chasek, executive editor of the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, “it is best to jump on the bandwagon early rather than fight it constantly.”
The capitals of five of the six Gulf nations (Saudi Arabia being the exception) are located on the coast, and if sea levels were to rise by one metre by 2100 – a possible scenario according to scientists – thousands of kilometres of Gulf coastline could be submerged.
Tariq Al-Olaimy, a member of the Adopt a Negotiator group which tracks countries’ climate negotiators at the conference, says his native Bahrain – the only island state in the Gulf – “has traditionally been ‘passive’ in previous negotiations”.
Bahrain, he told Al Jazeera, “should be more ambitious in actually tackling climate change issues” such as reducing emissions and adaptation. “Because Bahrain is so vulnerable to climate extremes.”
Follow Sam Bollier on Twitter: @SamBollier