As Qatar welcomes world leaders to the 18th United Nations climate change conference, its own environmental record has come under criticism as a major contributor to greenhouse gases.
The climate talks, which begin on Monday in Doha, have placed a spotlight on the Gulf nation, which produces nearly 50 tonnes a year of carbon dioxide for each of its 1.6 million residents.
Environmentalists question whether Qatar has the diplomatic muscle – and, more importantly, the political will to play a positive role in the critical two-week negotiations.
“It [Qatar] would not be my choice,” Raul Estrada, an architect of the historic 1997 Kyoto Protocol, told the AFP news agency.
He said the country’s funding of the conference might have influenced the decision to choose it as the event host.
“In the whole history of the climate negotiations, Qatar was trying to avoid the adoption of commitments to reduce the use of fossil fuels in order to mitigate climate change,” said Estrada, an Argentine ex-diplomat.
Jamie Henn, co-founder of the environment group 350.org, said “it is hard to avoid the irony” of Qatar hosting the event.
“This is a little bit like McDonald’s hosting a conference on obesity,” Henn told Al Jazeera. “If anything, it shines a bit more spotlight on Qatar and on the steps that can be taken to address the problem.”
Henn pointed out that Qatar has set some goals, including the plan to use 20 per cent renewable energy by 2024. Still, he said, the host country can do more.
Qatar, which is seeking to expand its global prestige and recently awarded the 2022 football World Cup, insists it is committed to a successful conference.
“We are fully aware of the perils the world is facing as a result of climate change,” said Abdullah Bin Hamad Al-Attiyah, Qatar’s deputy prime minister.
“We hope the conference will produce tangible results and reinforce international cooperation.”
Qatar “is also one of the 10 developing countries predicted to be most affected by rising sea levels,” the former Qatari petroleum minister and conference president added.
“Environmental sustainability is a key pillar of our national vision,” he said.
Qatar has invested in green technologies such as experimental solar panels. But the government still relies heavily on cheap natural gas to generate electricity.
The Gulf state, which depends almost entirely on fossil fuels for income and energy, will find itself in a strange role – expected to steer some 194 nations towards a new deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and by default, their dependence on oil and gas, said experts.
In its latest Living Planet Report in May, green group WWF named Qatar as the country with the largest ecological footprint.
Qataris get power and water subsidies, making them some of the world’s highest consumers of both power and water, a source of greenhouse gases.
The water being consumed is also subjected to desalination, a process that consumes huge amount of energy.
At the same time, Qatar gas companies also practice gas flaring, or the so-called burning off excess gas, a practice that companies are trying to reduce.
Qatar has signed up to the Kyoto Protocol on curbing earth-warming gas emissions, but as a developing country does not have fixed emission reduction targets, nor has it made any voluntary pledge.
It is a coastal dryland that depends solely on energy intensive and costly desalination plants for its water needs.
Sven Teske of Greenpeace International argues that steering the talks towards success was clearly in Qatar’s “mid-term and long-term interest”.
“Reducing (greenhouse gas) emissions is not a burden anymore; it’s a business opportunity … and that changes the dynamics” at the negotiating table, he said.
“When climate negotiations started years ago, solar energy was ten times more expensive than today … Now, it’s really good business,” said Teske.
He said Qatar should grab this opportunity for “new markets, new technologies and new businesses in renewable” energy.
But some think this is expecting too much.
“We weren’t reassured by this story showing the Qatari [conference] President [Attiyah] schmoozing at the Oil and Money conference in London the other day,” said Kelly Rigg of the Global Campaign for Climate Action.
“This was clearly bad judgement.”
One European negotiator said Qatar’s latest row with Russia over the crisis in Syria could further hamper its ability to bring the parties to the negotiating table.
Climate conferences have made patchy progress in the past, even with host nations deemed to have fewer conflicts of interest than Qatar.
There is one thing even the critics seem to agree on: the nation of some 1.6 million stands to lose much if the world’s leaders fail to reverse the global warming trend.
“Climate change and increase in temperatures is making Qatar even more vulnerable to the lack of water and food insecurity” it already faces, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres said in a video posted on the UNFCC website.
“Every single drop of water that is used in Qatar needs to be desalinated.
Every single gram of food that is eaten needs to be either imported or grown with desalinated water,” she added.
“I have no doubt they [Qatar] are committed to a [meeting] that is not only going to be successful in format but that is actually going to be successful in substance.”
By no means is Qatar the lone culprit in large greenhouse emissions.
In terms of volume, China remains the top emitter with more than eight billion tonnes of greenhouse gases every year – an increase of 171 per cent since 2000.
China is followed by the US, which produces over five billion tons annually, although its emissions have fallen since 2007.
In third place is India. Its economic boom has made it the third worst polluter, pumping out nearly two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.
And then there’s Russia, producing around 1.6 billion tonnes of emissions every year.