Will Qatar Push for a Climate Spring?

Qatar's natural gas production could benefit from greenhouse gas reduction; Photo: Lisa Leonardelli/Flickr; Licence: CC-BY-SA

November 1, 2012
Wael Hmaidan
What do the Arab Spring, climate change, and Qatar have in common? Well, actually the answer is everything. First, let us start with the obvious connection, namely the one between the Arab Spring and Qatar. Everyone around the world has seen how much Qatar has been involved in supporting the different revolutions in the Arab region. In the beginning, Qatar’s involvement was a bit reserved during the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, but its role became more prominent during the Libyan and Syrian revolutions, and the Qatari government is directly investing itself in the success of these revolutions.

Nevertheless, this important political role that Qatar is playing is not new. Actually, Qatar has been playing an important political role for some time now on the regional and international levels. It has helped to reduce tensions within many sensitive conflicts in the region, especially in Lebanon. Qatar has also hosted a number of international negotiations, such as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. This year they are planning to host the climate negotiations, the 18th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, more commonly known as COP 18.

What is Qatar’s climate change agenda?

This brings us to the second connection, which is the one between Qatar and climate change. Actually, there is more to this connection than the hosting of COP 18. Qatar should be the first country to push for the strongest climate action possible. First, it is highly vulnerable to climate change impacts – as vulnerable as any small island state. Qatar is a semi-island surrounded by water with only a narrow physical connection to Saudi Arabia.

Almost all of Qatar’s development is along the coast, and the whole country is very flat. Seawater-level rises will have an enormous impact on the monarchy’s coastal cities and infrastructure. Even with all the wealth available in Qatar, adapting to the future impacts of climate change will not be easy. Second, Qatar’s main economic resource is natural gas, which is the cleanest of all fossil fuels, and actually contains almost 50 percent less carbon than coal. Economic models show that the price of liquefied natural gas will actually increase if world leaders decide to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So it is in Qatar’s economic, social, and environmental interests to push for strong action to combat climate change.

The question is: Why has Qatar not taken such a leadership role already? On the contrary, Qatar has been traditionally classified as one of the Arab OPEC countries that has tried to obstruct climate change negotiations, along with Saudi Arabia. Qatar has not strongly engaged in climate change negotiations. Its delegation to these negotiations has been small and, on the technical level, the delegation has been recognized for blindly backing up most of the statements of Saudi Arabia, even the ones that are not in the interests of Qatar. The reason why Qatar does this is not clear. It could be because the government has not yet realized the threat of climate change and the economic opportunities to be gained from fighting it – this is also the case for the majority of Arab countries, such as Jordan, Syria, the Maghreb countries, and others. Climate change is nowhere on their political agendas, and the negotiators from these countries do not have a strong political mandate to actively engage in the negotiations. Some of them just follow the lead of any Arab country, such as that of Saudi Arabia.

Climate change – A new discovery of the young generation

Nevertheless, now that COP 18 is being held in Qatar, the situation might change, which brings us to the last connection – the one between climate change and the Arab spring. The revolutions in the region have created new energy among the youth. They have hopes of a better world, where their societies can develop in peace and democracy. Unfortunately, the Arab youth finally woke up to see an even bigger threat than the oppressive regimes they brought down. More science research is showing that climate change is the biggest obstacle to development and poverty eradication. Water and food security in the region will be devastated by climate change.

Although climate change is still not a mainstream issue in the region, more and more youth and leaders are realizing the need for urgent action. In the past couple of years, we have seen Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates taking much more progressive positions in climate change negotiations. One country after the other is developing renewable energy plans. Even the youth has started to take action on this issue, and in September youth from across the region came together in Cairo to establish the Arab Youth Climate Movement. These youth will be participating strongly in COP 18 in Doha, and they will be looking for leadership from the governments of the region.

Qatar has a golden opportunity to continue demonstrating leadership in the region beyond supporting the different revolutions. As the host of COP 18, Qatar should not only play the host but should also put climate change as the top political priority – now and in the future. For a country that is keen on playing a leading role in international politics, what better way to do that than to become the number one progressive leader against the biggest threat to human civilization in history. The actions against this threat are in the country’s interests on all levels.'

Wael Hmaidan is the Director of Climate Action Network - Internationa.


Seasons of Change: Climate, Energy and Resource Politics in the MENA Region

In the midst of turbulent times in the Middle East and North Africa, the State of Qatar is hosting the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP 18) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Doha from November 26 to December 7, 2012. This trilingual webdossier presents analysis and perspectives from a wide range of international and regional experts on how climate change, resource and energy politics relate to political and social change.