Holding a climate-change conference in Qatar, the country with the world’s highest per capita carbon emissions, might seem like a joke, but the United Nations isn’t renowned for its sense of humour. This year’s fraught negotiations on a replacement for the Kyoto protocol are taking place in Doha, the Qatari capital, where they are fuelled by some of the most inefficient, profligate, carbon-spewing power generation in the world.
Qatar makes most of its money – GDP is $170bn a year – from selling oil and gas. It has the world’s third-biggest natural gas reserves and is the top supplier of liquefied natural gas, according to the US government’s Energy Information Administration.
As delegates shiver in the Arctic (and Arctic-melting) air-conditioning, the Qatari government is raking in $230m every day from exporting fossil fuels. Despite the huge potential for solar power, there are no renewables to speak of.
On top of that, Qataris get all their electricity, water and even phone lines free, and the price of these for expats (the majority of the 2 million inhabitants) is State-subsidised. They have no concept of “fuel poverty”. Or any kind of poverty – the average income is $90,000 a year, the highest in the world. With those prices, everyone uses energy as much as they can, all of the time. Doha’s skyscrapers, vast shopping malls, its lavish apartments and swanky hotels are among the most energy-inefficient in the world. Each Qatari is responsible for nearly 50 tonnes of carbon emissions a year. That compares with 17 for the US, 1.4 for India and 0.1 for Uganda. Meanwhile, scientists have warned that on current form, the world will be in for between 4 degrees and 6 degrees (centigrade) of warming.
Campaigners who have travelled to Doha to protest against governments’ inaction on global warming, and the snail’s pace of the negotiations, have no choice but to use Qatar’s climate-killing energy. Even pouring a glass of water involves hurting a polar bear – the water in this desert country comes from desalination plants, and making seawater drinkable is one of the most energy-intensive processes. But water it is, if you want a drink – alcohol is banned, and thirsty delegates were searched at the airport to make sure they didn’t smuggle any in.
The Qatari government, even though it volunteered to hold the conference, seems rather bemused by it. Qatar, which will hold the football World Cup in 2022, is trying to develop an international reputation for hosting big events and it seems quite possible that agreeing to hold the UN on climate was purely a reflex action. The government may be regretting it. Abdullah Bin Hamad al-Attiyah, the former Qatari oil minister who is hosting the conference, was ridiculed when he said: “We should not concentrate on the per capita [emissions]. We should concentrate on the amount from each country.” For climate talks, that is heresy.