Previously, it would have seemed peculiar that the world’s premier international forum had chosen to host a conference on climate change in the heart of a hydrocarbon-producing region associated with a scant commitment to environmental conservation. The man-made islands raised questions of biological sustainability, horror stories circulated about the massive landfill sites raked over in the desert, a disposable culture reigned supreme. Regionally, recycling rates are still low, and water and energy consumption is astronomically high.
But things are changing. Gulf nations are giving sustainable use of resources increasing priority.
Almost all are signed up and ratified members of the UN’s major climate change agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, which is to date one of the most comprehensive cross-border collaborations in place, and there are hopes that these nations will continue their support into the second round of commitment. Interestingly, America – producing a large portion of the world’s emissions – refuses to ratify and several countries have withdrawn altogether.
Early this year the UAE announced an initiative to build a green economy, intending to become a world leader and centre for export of green products and technologies. Abu Dhabi is imminently set to open a $600m solar power plant, covering 2.5 square kilometres of remote desert. The Abu Dhabi Farmers’ Services Centre is a government initiative designed to streamline agriculture and water consumption to improve food stability. That’s not even to mention the groundbreaking, carbon-neutral Masdar development initiated in 2006 which promotes a zero carbon, zero waste ecology and will host the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).
Meanwhile, Qatar formally declared an intention to raise its recycling rate from 8% to 38% by 2016 under the National Development Plan, and leads the way in carbon capture schemes both in the region and internationally. Between 2007 and 2011 Maersk Oil and Qatar Petroleum reduced flaring in their oil production by 90% and their greenhouse gas emissions by half. The Qatar National Food Security Programme, established in 2008, works to reduce reliance on food imports by developing renewable energy, improving water management and streamlining agricultural production. Environmental sustainability features prominently in the National Vision 2030 laid out by the ruling Al Thani family.
Saudi Aramco launched a clean-energy venture capital arm in July, marking a shift toward green innovation from even the region’s largest oil producer. Last year the country announced it will stop buying wheat from local farmers by 2016 in an attempt to discourage the farming that is draining limited water resources ten times faster than it can be replenished. Eighty per cent of the region’s water is used for agriculture, a sector that forms a marginal proportion of economic output.
Is it lip service to a buzz concept of the moment? Unlikely. The Middle East recognises that despite the good fortune of its natural resources, their frenzied consumption just can’t go on. It’s a paradigm shift. “We are serious about the transformation of our development process,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
One UK Government Minister visiting the region ahead of next week’s conference noted that Qatar’s decision to host the conference is “extremely significant” given how important fossil fuels are to the Qatari economy.
The French ambassador for Climate Change Negotiations, Serge Lepeltier, went further, claiming that the decision represents a willingness to play a leading role in bridging the knowledge, resource and infrastructure gaps between the environmental goals of developing and developed countries. He emphasises the influence Qatar could have as a mediator and claims the committed presence of a Middle Eastern nation could affect the dynamic of negotiations between major powers China and the USA.
That’s at the macro level. At the micro level it is logical that countries in the GCC should want to be at the forefront of climate change reforms: they are among the most vulnerable to change, almost wholly dependent on the sea for water and transport or technology for food supplies. Qatar is in the ‘top ten at risk’ should sea levels rise.
With the UN Climate Conference comes a strategic signal from Gulf leaders that they attach gravitas to environmental issues. Now comes the time to work out how Middle Eastern countries will play their part in the global effort to reduce environmental degradation while continuing to deliver prosperity and a good quality of life to citizens.
Wednesday, November 14- 2012 @ 18:48 UAE local time (GMT+4) Replication or redistribution in whole or in part is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Mediaquest FZ LLC.