Qatar facing dose of climate reality at UN talks

By Ed King
RTCC in Doha

Doha is a city in a hurry.

Buildings are erupting at bewildering speed. Vast craters have been excavated to absorb the next batch of glass-clad monoliths set to dominate the skyline.

Curious dust-devils dance with pedestrians on the ground, coating cars, windows and tongues with the visceral taste of development.

It is both a perverse and a progressive venue for a climate change conference.

Perverse because this is a city built on revenues from oil and gas sales, an industry that pervades every facet of life in the Emirate.

Progressive because taking the climate challenge to the heartland of the fossil fuel world and exposing the population to the science and the arguments could be a game changer.

Since gaining independence in 1971, Qatar has undergone a massive transformation from pearl to oil producer

Historically this region has been hostile to the UN climate change convention and any efforts to enforce binding carbon emission targets.

A look at the figures illustrates why this is the case.

Oil and gas account for more than 50% of its £100 billion GDP, roughly 85% of export earnings, and 70% of government revenues.

Billboards in downtown Doha display the number 77 along with a message “Delivering Qatar’s future”. They celebrate hitting the 77 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas (LNG) a year.

Oil production is expected to continue at current levels for the next 57 years, while gas reserves are the third largest in the world.

The CIA World Factbook reports that fossil fuels have allowed Qatar to become the second highest per-capita income country – behind Liechtenstein – and the country with the lowest unemployment.

GDP per person is a whopping $98,000. That makes Qataris the wealthiest people on the Earth.

The vast funds generated by fossil fuels allow the government to subsidise petrol, water, telecommunications – even the taxis receive a stipend.

And yet after spending a week here at the UN climate negotiations, the feeling persists that this is an economic miracle built – literally – on sand.

Liquid gold

Take the palm trees and green lawns that border Doha’s well-stocked roads.

They bake in an unrelenting sun that pulverises the life out of even the hardiest of plants.

Relief arrives six times a day, when the small black pipes that litter Qatar’s green area spray water into the thin soil. It keeps them alive, but at what cost?

With no rivers, Qataris rely on water extracted from the sea to survive. Oil powers energy-intensive desalination plants across the region,

Oil powers the ships that bring Qatar the food it needs to avoid starvation – little grows in this lunar landscape.

Oil powers the air conditioning that makes life in the inefficient glass-clad hotels bearable.

Oil powers the Qatar Investment Authority’s audacious purchases of real estate around the world – gaining leverage in financial centres like London.

Qatar’s grass and trees may absorb quantities of carbon dioxide. But they weep tears of oil.


Without gas and oil, Qatar is a small desert state with little going for it, bar a proud people who have learnt to live in hostile conditions for centuries.

And yet here the climate conference is, with all the glare of publicity and exposure to eager and aggressive NGO groups that it brings.

Change will not come overnight. Police betray a careless and aggressive streak that comes with the knowledge that no-one will complain.

Foreign workers make up over 50% of the population, yet coverage in local newspapers suggests they may as well not exist.

Energy efficiency could be worked on. The city offers a smorgasboard of lights at night – if one can be left on it seems it is. Doors are left open while the aircon works overtime, buses are rarer than winter showers.

COP18 President Al Attiyah, a former head of OPEC and architect of Qatar’s oil boom, says he is committed to addressing the causes of climate change.

His boss the Emir recently launched a ‘2030 National Vision’ strategy, with four pillars of human, social, economic and environmental development.

It is premised on Qatar moving away from oil and gas to a more rounded and resilient economy, yet it is based on oil and gas powering that change.

In itself this is no bad thing, but I would suggest their strategy depends on limited progress at the UN climate talks. If the world is to avoid breaking the 2C barrier, global emissions must peak and then decline from 2015.

Is that compatible with the economic revolution all delegates to COP18 are witnessing in Doha? Is it really in Qatar’s interests to see low carbon ambition in its key markets? Does it genuinely have a strategy for weaning itself off heavily subsidised fossil fuels and onto technologies such as solar?

The coming week may offer some clues; or then again, maybe they won’t.

The UN climate talks are dysfunctional at the best of times – chaos seems to be a default alternative. It is an easy forum to look busy and deliver little. Just ask Russia or the USA.

Confirmation of an extension period to the Kyoto Protocol plus a few finance pledges could get the hosts off the hook, leaving the nation of 1.5 million to start preparations to host the 2022 football World Cup.

Longer term the problems may not be so simple. The Emir and Al Attiyah would do well to delve into their leather-bound originals and dig out Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Without cheap oil and gas, Doha’s famous skyline could rapidly morph into a modern-day Ozymandias, with dust swirling around cracked skyscrapers, parched trees sagging listlessly in the broiling heat, and tattered signs boasting the number 77 reminding Qataris of their self inflicted own goal.

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