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COP18 daily: Qatar - from petro state to clean revolution leader?

06 December 2012
COP18 daily: Qatar - from petro state to clean revolution leader?

COP18 in Doha, Qatar, runs from November 26 to December 7, 2012. As part of our involvement in COP18, Damian Ryan our Senior Policy Manager, is providing news and analysis, as well as live tweeting from Doha. Today Damian looks at Qatar's chances as a clean revolution leader.

The irony of the world’s most carbon intensive economy hosting the UN’s annual climate conference has not been lost on those attending this year’s COP.

With emissions at over 50 tons per capita – more than double the US figure and seven times Chinese and European levels – Qatar (and to a certain degree its fellow oil and gas exporting neighbors) has come under intense scrutiny by media and observers alike over the past week.

But what exactly does this highly carbonized country look like? And can a poster child for excessive fossil fuel consumption realistically move towards, and survive in, a low-carbon future?

Qatar's carbon problem

On the first point, the initial impression of Qatar (or more particularly Doha) is of a modern, westernized country, albeit one in a hurry to develop.

Down town, the Doha skyline boasts some of the most dramatic modern architecture on the planet. Lit up at night it makes Times Square look positively parochial. To negotiate this still expanding metropolis, six lane highways provide the space for the Qatari vehicle of choice – the sports utility vehicle.

But Qatar is not a country of heavy, polluting industries. No smokestacks or factories blight the landscape. Qatar’s carbon problem is instead the result of the exploitation of its vast gas reserves.

These have provided both wealth and a seemingly unlimited supply of cheap energy, to a hot, dry and economically ambitious country. The combination has created an economy with every incentive and few obstacles to burning energy on a vast scale.

The results of course have been impressive. Aside from the Manhattan-like cityscape, Qatar also boasts some of the world’s major sporting events, leading international museums, and best medical facilities money can buy.

The gargantuan Qatar National Convention Centre, the site for COP18, is part of what is clearly a grand scheme to make the country the world’s go-to destination for economic, political and cultural gatherings of the good and great.

The question is whether all of this sustainable?

Can this fossil fuel addicted country transition to, and compete in, a low carbon world?

Clean revolution?

The answer to the first question is almost certainly no, if the future for Qatar and the world is a high carbon one. No amount of air conditioning will save the country in a 4 degree world, when much of the region is expected to become inhabitable through the hottest part of the year.

Even during the cooler months, predicted sea level rise of up to a meter by 2100 (assuming current emission trends) would jeopardize much of Doha’s billion dollar water front.

But the future for Qatar needn’t be bleak. Indeed, the country could play a leading role in the clean revolution required for a low carbon world.

Given its significant wealth and its vulnerability to climate change, its government has little excuse and every reason for implementing an ambitious national low carbon plan.

The basic prescription of such a strategy should include:

  • a price on carbon
  • policy or price incentives for large scale renewable energy (solar being the obvious first choice)
  • tough fuel efficiency standards for vehicles
  • improved public transport
  • incentives for electric vehicles
  • minimum energy efficient standards for buildings
  • Research and development into carbon, capture and storage (CCS) for gas.

The last point is arguably a critical measure if the country wishes to continue to exploit its one strategic resource.

Last chance for leadership

It is perhaps easy to be cynical about whether a petro-state like Qatar would seriously consider implementing such a plan any time soon.

Why would it place itself ahead, not only of its neighbors, but the world more generally in taking climate action?

Part of the answer is that sustainability should be hardwired into every Qatari’s DNA. What else could explain the survival of a rich culture in such a harsh environment for centuries prior to the current gas era?

Precedents in other areas also offer hope for leadership. The government, after all, has already seized the opportunity its fossil fuel wealth has provided to diversify its economy, looking out to a future beyond gas.

It is also the country that gave us the first independent Arabic news service, Al-Jazeera. And over the last 12 to 18 months it has played a leading role in supporting the Arab Spring.

The question now is whether Qatar can take this progressive leadership and apply it aggressively to clean technology and economic decarbonisation.

With just two days left of COP18 to run it still has enough time to show the world it can.


Damian Ryan is writing news and analysis and live-tweeting throughout COP18, and providing a more in-depth post-COP Briefing after the events. Keep up to date on our website and by following him on Twitter during COP18. 

You can also read a series of articles featuring analysis from our teams in the USEurope, India and Australia on their nations' COP negotiating positions.

Read Damian's pre-COP18 briefing paper now.

Follow a live feed from COP18 below.

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