The Qatari National Convention Center advertises itself as beyond convention. It is indeed a building to remember. The distinctive facade was inspired by the symbolism of the branches of a native tree, the Sidra, which has traditionally provided a shaded meeting place for travelers in dry lands. The interior, accordingly, provided welcome relief for the heated delegates, who, in their thousands, walked the massive air-conditioned hallways, plenary auditoria, and curved escalators to meet for the 2012 United Nations Climate Change Conference.
The QNCC was built to meet gold certification standards in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).
“We’ve never worked in a place as environmentally responsible,” said the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres.
Environmentally responsible was precisely what the Qatari government made a special effort to appear as host of the Conference of the Parties—so much was apparent. At Doha, for example, paper usage was reduced by 89% compared to Durban. But if Qatar was making a special effort, then this was because it had a special public image that it sought to dispel. Qatar, take note, is the nation with the largest non-associated natural gas field on the planet, not to mention the highest per-capita carbon dioxide emissions.
Limiting our analysis to this, however, will prove over-simplistic. Qatar genuinely does care about climate change—and for good reason. It has much to lose.
A relatively young man, His Excellency Fahad bin Mohammed Al-Attiyah is chairman of the Qatar National Food Security Programme. Educated at Sandhurst, Fahad is articulate; his accent is Received Pronunciation. In an interview with AlJazeera, he stressed Qatar’s predicament: “Qatar, like any other country, is impacted by climate change. As a matter of fact, they call this place the epicentre of climate change – there is no water and there is no food.”
A valid point. Qatar imports 90% of its food and desalinates virtually 100% of its water. While the importation of goods has associated carbon emissions and desalination discharges damaging brine into the marine environment, Qatar has no alternative and is vulnerable for its lack of alternatives. Likewise, Qatar heavily subsidizes fuel consumption, to the extent that nationals have free electricity. Although ending this government support would lead to discontent, continuing it encourages energy inefficiency.
Along with Bangladesh, Myanmar, and the Philippines, Qatar is calculated to become one of the ten nations worldwide worst affected by global warming. Even using the conservative projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report, the predicted increase in sea levels will take their effect on Qatar, submerging urban areas and displacing populations over the course of this century. Threatened by the very emissions from which it profits, Qatar seeks to mitigate climate change without compromising the social development and welfare of its people. Complex and difficult is the position in which Qatar finds itself.
Qatar’s concern is evidenced in its comprehensive guiding statement for national future, the Qatar National Vision for 2030. It has but Four Pillars. The fourth and final pillar, Environmental Development, serves to reiterate that environmental protection is written into the national constitution.
The COP18 President, His Excellency Abdullah Bin Hamad Al-Attiyah, Deputy Prime Minister of Qatar, made the following public statement regarding his country’s commitments: “Climate change stands as one of our single largest long-term challenges and no amount of prosperity or social progress can get around this issue. This is why environmental sustainability is one of the four key pillars of our 2030 National Vision, and hosting COP18/CMP8 is an opportunity to invest directly in helping to move things forward.”
The President of the COP is customarily a Minister elected from the government of the nation volunteering to host and preside over the COP/CMP meetings. This individual is conferred an array of powers, outlined in the Rules of Procedure, including the prerogative to declare the opening and closing of sessions, to accord others the right to speak, to put questions to the vote, and to announce decisions.
Thus, through the President, Qatar exercised measurable influence over the COP/CMP process. The media reaction thereto was critical of Qatar’s position before the conference even began. Qatar’s own AlJazeera acknowledged the implications of the host being a great exporter of natural gas; Le Monde and other outlets have questioned the timetable behind the first ever commitment to emissions reductions from Qatar and other Gulf nations, announced this month; the BBC spread rumors that “China has leaned on Qatar and Saudi Arabia to avoid financial pledges until […] 2015, […] to stave off pressure for China to make contributions.” Nevertheless, in the very last minutes of the summit, the COP President made amends for early criticisms.
COPs are renowned for driving negotiators to the limits of their endurance, drawing to a close with disagreements unresolved and textual differences unaddressed, such that everything unsettled comes to the fore in the final hours, resulting in a marathon plenary session, extension of the talks into overtime, and, all too often, tense drama.
COP18 did not break with tradition. The liability principle of “Loss and Damage” claimed by LDCs and the tradable carbon emission permits claimed by Poland and Russia were just two controversial topics among many that stalled the achievement of an agreed outcome. In theory, the COP’s closing day was Friday, December 7. However, given that key draft texts on AWG-LCA, ADP and climate finance were not finalized until that same day, closing on Friday was not even an option.
Debating subjects in the parallel tracks, delegates pushed on into Friday night, and all the way through to Saturday morning, when Al-Attiyah resumed the ninth meeting of the Conference of the Parties.
“Ladies and gentlemen, at 2:30 today when we met in our informal plenary, I heard you clearly, through your applause, that you want a protocol package outcome containing amendment of the Kyoto Protocol, outcome of the LCA, Finance decisions, decisions on Loss & Damage, and the ADP decision.”
He then proposed that the COP adopt the first item in his package, but he paid no heed to any objections that there might have been. Neither pausing for a second nor looking up from his papers, the COP President struck his gavel and proclaimed “no objection!”
In a robust voice, Al-Attiyah powered through his package, adopting decision after decision, astounding his audience, receiving repeated bouts of wild applause, and, most significantly, circumventing the obstructions of a UNFCCC process governed by consensus but encumbered by the lack of it. He finished: “Hearing no objection, I decided! This package of decisions will form the Doha Climate Gateway.”
Al-Attiyah is symbolic of the nation that has come to view fossil fuels as both boon and bane, just as his presiding role at the COP is emblematic of the Qatari quandary on the intergovernmental level. He might be the former President of OPEC, but, having rescued the UNFCCC process from the brink of failure, Al-Attiyah had environmentalists cheering for him by the conference’s conclusion.