On November 26, Doha is set to get even more international. World leaders, negotiators, campaigners and activists from all corners of the Earth will descend on the city to talk about climate change. Over 20,000 representatives are expected to attend Qatar’s largest conference to date, which also marks the first time the UN climate conference will be hosted in the Middle East. This is clearly a great opportunity for Qatar to enhance its growing role in international diplomacy. Hosting the COP18, however, is also a very risky move, with many predicting the failure of the talks.
International climate change negotiations have been taking place annually for more than 20 years now with the aim of setting national carbon targets to control global warming. Historically, the Arab world has played an obstructive role. Countries such as Saudi Arabia sent negotiators who said climate change was not taking place and insisted that they be compensated for any oil that they would have to stop extracting. Indeed, Qatar itself isn’t exactly a world leader when it comes to action to climate change. The small Gulf state has one of the world’s highest per-capita carbon footprints, with the average Qatari accounting for CO2 that is around 300 times more than an Ethiopian and three times the average American. Not exactly glowing statistics, but Qatar insists that this cause is something they feel passionately about.
“As a coastal dry-land nation, almost 100 per cent dependent on the sea for its water and more than 95 per cent dependent on technology and trade for its food, Qatar is vulnerable to climate change,” Fahad Bin Mohammad Al Attiyah, chairman of COP18, admitted. “Qatar is one of the ten countries predicted to be most affected by a rising sea. So this global issue is critical here at home. It is one that we take seriously. And it is one that we are working diligently to address.” In an effort to spread the message in the country, mosques will be hosting sermons about the climate change and the need to stop water and energy wastage. In fact, back in 2011, the country vowed to only build “eco-mosques”, which would limit the waste of electricity.
Qatar has another motive for supporting climate change initiatives: gas. Many commentators have noted that making the transition from fossil fuels to more renewable resources will be quite difficult and gas is a cleaner, less carbon-intensive energy source which should be considered. As a gas-producing nation, Qatar could play a big role in determining the path that nations take towards greater energy independence and reducing emissions. As such, Qatar comes to the conference with its own agenda as well as the hope it will be able to pull off a successful climate summit. Indeed, the chairman of the talks was criticised by the international campaign community for recently fêting 450 senior executives from the fossil-fuel industry and presenting the Petroleum Executive of the Year award.
“As the official conference president, Attiyah should be working tirelessly behind the scenes to shore up a successful outcome of the negotiations, not presenting awards to the top brass of the oil industry,” remarked Avaaz, the international campaigning organisation. “His decision to speak at this week’s Oil & Money conference puts his reputation — and the climate talks — at risk. He needs to change course before it’s too late.”
Will the Kyoto Protocol survive COP18?
So far, the global climate negotiations have failed to secure a deal that legally binds all industrialised countries to reducing their emissions. The closest that the negotiators have come to that is the Kyoto Protocol. This protocol set obligations for industrialised countries who signed up to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 5 per cent from a 1990 baseline. The deal came into force in 2005 but didn’t include nations such as the United States or set legal targets for nations such as China and India which are considered developing nations and are therefore exempt from targets.
As the protocol ends this year, the talks in Doha will focus on extending this deal and attracting enough signatories to maintain its significance. Japan, Canada and Russia have already decided not to be part of the new commitment although Australia and New Zealand have expressed their interest. At the Doha talks, countries will be also be battling it out on the length of the next commitment period and the greenhouse-gases targets.
Governments are, at present, focused on coming up with a new climate change treaty on the emission cuts after 2020. They hope to have this deal done by 2015. In the meantime, negotiators will look to extend the Kyoto Protocol for at least another five years or even eight years so that it would converge with the 2020 agreement.
The European Union supports an eight-year extension with a mid-term review of the carbon targets. The Alliance of Small Island States, the Africa Group and Least Developed Countries, however, favour a five-year extension with an update of commitments based on the results of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report which will be out in 2014. Another issue that has been raised is that there isn’t much time between the talks and the end of the Kyoto Protocol (31 December), which means that getting any agreement through national bureaucracies could further delay action. So, it looks like there is everything to play for at the talks and the pressure will be on.
World heading towards catastrophic 6C warming
The lack of progress on a far-reaching and all-inclusive climate deal means that every year, the action needed to avoid serious global warming increases. Targets go up and the chance of getting the big players such as the US and China to agree to them goes down. Recent research by the consultancy group PricewaterCoopers (PwC) found that the low rate of emission cuts in major economies could cause the Earth to warm by 6C by the end of the century. Scientists and campaigners say that a 2C increase is the limit to avoid potentially dangerous climate change.
Jonathan Grant, director of sustainability and climate change at PwC said, “[T]he analysis illustrates the scale of the challenge facing negotiators. The new reality is a much more challenging future in terms of planning, financing and predictability. Even doubling our present annual rates of decarbonisation globally every year to 2050, would still lead to 6C, making governments’ ambitions to limit warming to 2C appear highly unrealistic.”
“There are a lot of important issues that need to be resolved in COP18,” says Wael Hmaidan, director of Climate Action Network. “The most important one is closing the ambition gap in greenhouse gas emission reduction between what science requires us to do to avoid catastrophic climate change impacts and what is offered on the table by governments. At the end of COP18, governments must agree on an action plan to raise their commitments and close this gap.”
‘Arab world must show climate leadership’
One way that the Arab world could contribute, says Hmaidan, who is from Lebanon, is by presenting their own greenhouse gas emission pledges to the international community. “Qatar and other Arab countries should start the conference by presenting a greenhouse gas emission pledge to the international community. This is essential to raise the level of trust among all countries, and will prove that the region takes climate change seriously. Also, the region needs to prove that they will continue taking climate change action after COP18.”
Indeed, what has been particularly interesting during the lead-up to this conference is the emergence of various Arab and Middle Eastern climate change groups and coalitions. One of the newest groups is the Arab Youth Climate Movement (AYCM) which brings together more than twenty national coordinators from 15 Arab countries. During a “Day of Action” on November 10, groups from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Libya, Egypt, Qatar, Mauritania and Bahrain took to the streets, radio waves and national TV to demand the Arab world “take the lead against climate change”.
According to a joint statement released by the group, the AYCM was “established to raise the urgency around climate change, and push Arab leaders to fulfil their responsibilities towards future generations, by working constructively and strongly on the national and international level to achieve greenhouse gas emission reduction in the region and globally”.
The AYCM added that during the COP18 in Doha, Arab governments, especially Qatar, must put forward emission reduction pledges to the international community and demonstrate the leadership that all Arab youth dream of. “The reputation that the Arab region only cares about protecting the oil trade in the negotiations has to change, and this can only happen if Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, completely change their approach towards climate change,” AYCM said. “We, the youth of the Arab Spring have not freed the land, to only see it taken from us by the catastrophic impacts of climate change.”
The Arab world has certainly come a long way in the last couple of years and the fact that Qatar is hosting these talks has put an important and much-needed spotlight on the issue. For this focus to remain, however, the region must commit to cut its emissions and help secure the success of the climate talks. If it does that, COP18 could mark the start of a political shift in the Middle East that removes climate change from obscurity and places it on the top of the agenda.
Arwa Aburawa is a freelance journalist specialising in environmental issues and the Middle East. She is an editor at GreenProphet.com and also an “Adopt a Negotiator” fellow for the COP18.