In two weeks the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP18) will begin in Doha, Qatar. From November 26 to December 7 thousands will fly into Doha and continue discussions between the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol and assess programs and strategies to deal with climate change.
It would be easy to question why COP18 should be held in Qatar, a nation built upon the riches of petroleum and natural gas. Qatar ranks highly on per capita income indices, but with that ranking comes huge carbon emissions per capita as well. Mentioning Qatar and sustainability in the same sentence is also a stretch. Just walk around Doha and you will become immediately exasperated because the city was not built for walking. Trying to cross a street? Forget dodging automobiles and giant SUVs–safe pedestrian crossings are few and between. The water is desalinated, most food is imported from afar, homes are large, lights are often left on all night and basic concepts like recycling seem foreign. If you believe in climate change, then you are not far off in from finding its ground zero in this little thumb of the Gulf.
Which is why Qatar is the perfect choice to host COP18.
Here are just a few reasons:
Youth: Like all of its neighbors in the surrounding region, Qatar is a young country: the average age is about 30.8 years (it is 36.9 in the U.S. and 40.5 in the U.K.). With that youth comes a wave of new social activism, including one called the Arab Youth Climate Movement. The road to government reforms in the Middle East has been a rocky one, but the events of the last 18 months have paved the way for new causes to emerge. Now the young are pressuring their governments to do more about environmental stewardship. And while youth unemployment is high in much of the Middle East, countries with more abundant mineral wealth, such as Qatar and its neighbor, the United Arab Emirates, have got to consider a future for their people in a world where oil will, at some point, be in decline. Hosting COP18 will increase awareness about climate change among youth in the region–and Qatar’s schools and universities are already capitalizing on this two week event. Which leads to:
Energy: Sure it would be easy to lay the blame for the world’s carbon ills at Qatar and its neighbors, though in fairness we have to consider the roles manufacturing giants such as China have on global CO2 emissions. Plus the U.S., Canada and other nations including Venezuela certainly produce plenty of fossil fuels. But there is a slow, but undeniable change underway in the Gulf Region. Qatar, and adjacent Saudi Arabia, are beginning to invest in solar. The UAE, specifically Abu Dhabi, has high hopes on Masdar and other sustainability projects related to energy. These countries know that a timeless flow of oil is not guaranteed, and are beginning to look ahead to an era when they must build an economy not reliant on black gold. Let’s remember another important point about Qatar: unlike many oil-producing countries, Qatar shares its mineral wealth with its people, from education to housing to subsidizing the price of food. How will Qatar and its neighbors continue to do so in a post-oil world?
Economics: While the world’s largest and richest countries struggle with mounting debt, austerity programs and political inertia, Qatar has cash. And lots of it. Whether investing in a billion dollar solar plant or becoming a hub for experimental architecture and green building, the stubborn fact persists that our fate in a post-oil world party rests on countries that fed our reliance on petroleum. Qatar has the funds, and slowly the country is mustering the political will to fund science and education programs that can help to steer us out of this fix. Businesses focused on resolving or mitigating climate change can find a friendly home in Doha.
Accountability: Qatar has raised plenty of eyebrows with not only its hosting of COP18, but its controversial award of the 2022 World Cup. Qatar has already developed a name for itself with the hosting of many high-profile athletic events, and now is muscling its way onto the global political scene. But COP18 will also shed light on Qatar’s commitment to fighting climate change and other sustainability-related problems. Some accuse Qatar of simply “buying” these events–we need to see the Qatar and the rest of the Middle East participating and fully engaged.
Which leads to engagement: If we insist that these energy-rich Middle Eastern countries to be part of the climate change solutions, we have got to listen to these countries and allow them to be involved front and center. Like the Olympics, global conferences of this scale need to move beyond the usual Europe-North America axis with a token event in Asia. The ripple effects of climate change have hit the Middle East as well, from the quest for investment in far off farm land to the growing thirst for energy and water. Those who criticize what they see as extravagance in Qatar, and its neighbors, are quick to forget that these countries transformed their economies in 20 years while the rest of us took two centuries. The Middle East’s people have long had an entrepreneurial streak that has followed them as they moved across the world. Now watch for new sustainable business ideas to emerge from the Gulf region, too.
So all eyes will be on Doha, as they should be. Now it is up to the Qataris to show that they can not only participate, but lead conversations the world’s leaders and people must have if we are going to address seriously climate change. Hopefully the brash and dynamic city of Doha can help make a difference as we seek long term solutions to some incredibly vexing problems.
Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter.
Image credit: Leon Kaye, GreenGoPost.com