Doha's West Bay skyline gleams across the Persian Gulf after dark. (Photo: Pepe Pont/Flickr)
The latest round of U.N. climate change negotiations kicked off this week in Doha, Qatar, launching a 10-day slog that, as usual, faces low expectations. That doesn't mean it can't be productive, though — aside from potentially inching closer to Kyoto 2.0, Doha also offers the world a case study in how not to fight climate change.
That may sound harsh, especially since Qatar's contribution to global warming is tiny compared with the United States' or China's. But while its geography and population limit its overall carbon footprint, the emirate is still remarkably inefficient at using natural resources, thanks largely to its desert climate and oil-fueled wealth. And as world leaders meet in Doha this week for U.N. climate talks, they'll have a front-row seat to many of the behaviors and mindsets they're working to counteract.
Here's a look at some of Qatar's environmental shortcomings:
• The average Qatari uses 2.5 times more energy than his or her counterpart in America, and 7.6 times more than a typical resident of China.
• Qatari citizens have little incentive to conserve energy, since the country provides them with free electricity (up to a certain point).
• Along with free electricity, Qatari citizens also receive free water — no small thing in a country that doesn't have any rivers or lakes.
• Aside from tapping aquifers, Qatar relies on energy-intensive desalination plants for its freshwater, further driving up its electricity demand.
• Doha's average summer high is 106 degrees Fahrenheit, and the winter high can approach 80. The city thus spends vast amounts of energy to air-condition its high-rise hotels, skyscrapers, stadiums and other buildings.
• In addition to its oil resources, Qatar also has more than 15 percent of Earth's proven natural gas reserves, and its leaders are keen on exploiting "unconventional sources" such as shale gas.
• Like other developing countries, Qatar has no specific obligations to curb its carbon emissions. It also has yet to offer any voluntary emissions goals, and currently generates zero percent of its energy from renewable sources.
Despite these foibles, however, characterizing Qatar as an outright eco-villain would be unfair. The country's standing as an environmental steward is complicated by a variety of noteworthy virtues, including the following:
• About one-fifth of Qatar's land is designated a protected area by the Ministry of Environment, exceeding the 10 percent mandated by the Convention on Biological Diversity, of which Qatar has been a party since 1996.
• Qatar's habitat-conservation efforts have helped it reintroduce the Arabian oryx, which had become extinct in the wild, as well as the Rheem gazelle, which was locally extinct. Their wild populations are now 650 and 3,500, respectively.
• In 2002, the government created a special chamber to "hear and decide on the crimes against natural resources of water and the environment."
• Qatar's Supreme Council for the Environment and Natural Sanctuaries prohibits hunting or trading of endangered wildlife, and also enforces legal protections for wild birds, marine turtles, baby animals, wild eggs and nests.
• Solar-powered stadiums are planned for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The country is also working on a range of other solar projects, although dust storms can hinder the effectiveness of solar panels there.
• Qatar allows no hazardous waste to enter its borders, part of its 17-year commitment to the Basel Convention.
• The private, nonprofit Qatar Foundation was set up in 1995 to help the country transition from a hydrocarbon-based economy to "a modern knowledge-based economy," reducing its financial reliance on fossil fuels.
Qatar's leaders are aware of the scrutiny they've invited by hosting a U.N. climate summit, and they're making efforts to tweak their country's reputation. The U.N. talks, for instance, are held in the LEED-certified Qatar National Convention Center, which is built with sustainably harvested wood, uses skylights and LEDs to curb energy use, and supplies 12.5 percent of its own energy with 11,000 feet of solar panels.
Transportation will be mitigated by a fleet of 400 buses, some of which burn biofuels, and paper use will be minimized via the PaperSmart system. The summit website vows that all materials will be "disposed of responsibly through reuse, donation to charitable organizations, recycling, and composting or energy recovery." Caterers are urged to use locally grown food, and to avoid serving endangered species like bluefin tuna.
In fact, Qatar may prove to be an unusually apt host for U.N. climate talks, since it offers delegates an up-close look at the problems underlying climate change. Dangers like desertification and sea-level rise are also expected to hit the energy-intensive kingdom especially hard, making it an example of both the causes and effects of global warming. Few blame Qatar for more than a sliver of the planet's manmade heat stroke, but many see it as a potential laboratory for getting on the right track.
"Climate change and increase in temperatures is making Qatar even more vulnerable to the lack of water and food insecurity," U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres said in a recent online video. "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. I have no doubt they 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."
Check out the video below for more from Figueres about Qatar, and stay tuned to MNN for updates from the Doha conference.
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