Doha Dispatches: Mind the gap… and the science

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At COP 18, the difference between the urgent need to act and the inertia of UN climate negotiations has never been so marked. Neither has the gap in expectations between developed and developing nations. For the most vulnerable countries, the offer on the table threatens to lock in failure.

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DOHA: The first slogan to greet arrivals at Doha Airport in Qatar are as optimistic as those that greeted delegates to the climate change talks in Copenhagen in 2009: “Welcome to 12 days that could have an everlasting effect,” it pronounces.

Not real catchy, and possibly a direct translation from Arabic. But worthy all the same. Sadly, judging by the lack of ambition, and the lack of progress of these talks, it’s not a likely outcome.

The second thing that attracted my attention on arrival were two payment booths at the exit of the parking lot. Barely big enough for one person to sit inside, they were each equipped with their own 1kW air conditioning system with a large hose attached, like a deep-sea diver with an oxygen supply.

They probably need it. Doha is a city that thrives because of its fossil fuel riches and it has built a western city of stunning shapes and proportions only because it is air conditioned. It has even promised to air condition the World Cup, which it aims to host in 2022 and will have to do exactly that if the competition is to run in the northern summer, where temperatures average 36°C from June to August and have peaked at 53°C, and could hit goodness-knows-what in a decade’s time. (Even the sea-water reached 37°C in 2008).

Qatar is one of a handful of Gulf states that deprives Australia of a most unwanted moniker – the highest emitting state in the world per capita. Australia gets the gong for the category of developed nations, but even it can’t compete with Qatar. Humankind would need more than two planets if the world lived like Australians do. If they lived like the Qataris – the massive buildings, the labyrinth of four lane highways that seem always often clogged, what must be the highest per capita penetration of Toyota Land Cruisers, and its need to desalinate its water – then we would need around five planets.

Apart from high emissions per capita, Australia has a few other things in common with Qatar. Both are making efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions – Australia has its carbon price, a 5 per cent emissions reduction target and a 20 per cent renewable energy target by 2020. Qatar has a 20 per cent renewable energy target by 2030, and has plans to build a major polysilicon plant to supply the global solar PV industry.

And finally both countries are competing – sometimes in football tournaments, but principally to export as many fossil fuels to international markets as they can. Qatar is currently the biggest exporter of LNG, and Australia is trying to knock it off its perch. And Australia wants to export enough coal to make any reductions elsewhere meaningless.

And therein lies the problem. Another less prominent slogan at these talks is “Not above 2°C”. But the host country and Australia – the developed nation that some would argue has done the most in the past 12 months to push climate policies – are in a rush to exploit what the science says is unexploitable. And so is the rest of the world.

Numerous studies in the past few weeks have reinforced the direction in which the world is heading. The International Energy Agency spelled it out in the clearest of terms – if the world wants to match its climate change rhetoric and limit average global warming to a maximum 2°C, then it will have to leave two-thirds of the world’s proven reserves of fossil fuels in the ground. The difficulty is that countries like Australia and Qatar – as well as the Gina Rineharts and the Clive Palmers of the world, and listed companies worth trillions of dollars – measure a vast part of their wealth by the value of the things they have not yet dug up.

Here in Doha, however, the difference between urgency of the need to act, and the inertia of international climate change negotiations has never been so marked, and neither has the gap in expectations between the developed and the developing world, particularly the poorer and more vulnerable nations.

Surprise has been expressed at the rising tensions in these talks, which the developed world had presumed would be merely procedural, tying up loose ends from the messy negotiations at Durban and Cancun so that a path could be cleared to an agreement forged by 2015, for a binding global treaty to come into force by 2020. Of course, this does not come anywhere close to the science. For the most vulnerable countries, as the Greens would say, it threatens to lock in failure, and the developed world appears to have completely misread the mood of its negotiating partners.

Christina Figueres, head of the UNFCCC, the UN body charged with climate talks, says each nation needs to “assume responsibility,” but she doesn’t see much evidence of this. The US is hamstrung by a hostile Congress, Europe is hobbled by an indolent Poland, China and India are not prepared to make any bold moves until the developed world has acted on its “historic” responsibility, and nations such as Russia, Canada and New Zealand have simply opted out of the process. “I don’t see as much public interest for governments to take on more ambitious and more courageous decisions,” Figueres told journalists over the weekend.

The Qataris seem bemused by the whole thing. Climate change had barely entered the local vocabulary before the talks began – now it appears on the evening news in some depth each night, and the government even tolerated a street march organised by some recently formed local environmental NGOs. The government has a goal of accumulating globally significant events in the same way as it likes erecting spectacular buildings, but is said to have called in panels of experts when it realised the significance of the talks and the role it was expected to play as host and president.

Not that Energy Minister Dr Mohammed Bin Saleh Al-Sada has quite seized on the subtleties. Asked at the start of the conference about Qatar’s extraordinarily high emissions per capita, he suggested that wasn’t important because it was the total emissions that counted. Qatar has a population of just 1.8 million. In a speech to the World Climate Summit yesterday afternoon, he said fossil fuels would continue to be the centre of the world’s energy needs and would still provide 80 per cent of its needs in 2040. Gas (of which Qatar has lots), was good because it was cleaner than coal (of which it has none). So why should Qatar produce less?

And he is not alone in thinking that way. Even Scotland’s environment and climate change minister, Paul Wheelhouse, who boasted that his country intends to produce enough wind and hydro energy by 2020 to meet all of its energy needs, noted that Scotland was also the largest oil and gas producer in the EU.

Wheelhouse told me later in an interview that the oil and gas reserves, which would last for decades, were worth $US1.5 trillion. Gosh. So how did he feel about the IEA’s suggestion then, that the Scots should leave a trillion dollars of that under the sea-bed? His response was that a focus on renewables was part of Scotland’s plan to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and delay the need for their extraction. But he was sure they would be used over time, and they wouldn’t lose their value.

So far, only Norway and Monaco have made pledges that fit the science. “The offer on the table is deeply inadequate,” said Sai Navoti, lead negotiator for the 43 island nations that make up the voting block known as AOSIS. “How many conferences do we have to endure where we go back to our countries and say, ‘next year we will increase ambition to reduce emissions, next year we will see finance, next year we will save the climate? No more next years.’”

“We’ve achieved nothing … and I’m very concerned,” Bolivian delegation chief Rene Orellane told Bloomberg in an interview. “We’re fried.”

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  1. Graham Palmer 7 years ago

    None of the countries with carbon based assets in the ground are willing to acknowledge that:
    • Already in 2011, the world has used over a third of its 50-year carbon budget of 886GtCO2, leaving 565GtCO2
    • All of the proven reserves owned by private and public companies and governments are equivalent to 2,795 GtCO2
    • Fossil fuel reserves owned by the top 100 listed coal and top 100 listed oil and gas companies represent total emissions of 745GtCO2
    • Only 20% of the total reserves can be burned
    unabated, leaving up to 80% of assets technically unburnable if we are to avoid cataclysmic climate change.

    • John Bushell 7 years ago

      Good information, Graham.

      So in reality we need total restructuring of the energy industry – in effect a voluntary move to the Industrial Revolution Stage 2, predominantly renewable energy.

      This could be achieved if the corporate mindset can be focussed on the main game – making money – rather than necessarily being wedded to dangerous technology. In theory horizontal integration of energy companies (so that the fossil fuel companies effectively and rapidly divest into renewable energy and wind down their fossil fuel production). I suspect that, despite the massive existing investment in fossil fuels, the problem is more psychological – like letting go of an old teddy bear!

      Eventually the fossil fuel industry is going to be in exactly the same place as the makers of thalidomide, asbestos, and tobacco, etc. but the damages claims are going to be astronomical.

      • Graham Palmer 7 years ago

        The forces at work here are totally self serving in that fossil producing countries like Qatar (and Australia) are willing to risk cataclysmic climate change for an infinitesimally short number of years continuing to export fossil fuels. It is quite bizarre thinking verging on the insane.
        I like the analogy to the the makers of thalidomide, asbestos, and tobacco but in the scenario of the later part of this century any damages won are going to be a pyrrhic victory.

  2. Ray Wills 7 years ago

    Good item Giles – couple of additional points to add – the nation of Qatar not only has a very similar population to Western Australia but also a very similar GDP…

    On the cool parking attendant, the heavily susbidised electricity cost per kwh in Qatar is less than 3 cents. But like all things, the officials I’ve spoken with here in Doha from Qatari government departments are passionaltely committed to their program’s for energy and water efficiency and for the deployment of renewable energy, but ‘grid parity’ for energy efficiency and renewables seem incredibly remote…

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