Qatar has much to prove in the coming days as the fossil fuel producing nation with the world’s largest per capita carbon footprint hosts the 18th UN climate change conference.
Environmentalists question whether the tiny emirate has the diplomatic muscle, and more importantly, the political will, to play a positive role in the critical two-week huddle that kicks off next Monday in Doha.
The oil- and gas-guzzling Gulf nation, seeking to expand its global reach and recently awarded the 2022 football World Cup, insists it is committed to a succesful conference.
Not all are convinced.
“It (Qatar) would not be my choice,” Raul Estrada, an architect of the historic 1997 Kyoto Protocol, told AFP.
He says the country’s funding of the conference would have been an important factor in awarding it the event. But as conference president, Qatar hasn’t been seen to be “pushing for a result”.
“You need to have a strong leadership to have progress, to advance. I don’t see that leadership,” said the Argentine ex-diplomat.
“In the whole history of the climate negotiations, Qatar was trying to avoid the adoption of commitments to reduce the use of fossil fuels in order to mitigate climate change.”
The Gulf state which depends almost entirely on fossil fuels for income and energy will find itself in a strange role — expected to steer some 194 nations towards a new deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and by default, their dependence on oil and gas.
According to the Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook, Qatar was the world’s 19th largest crude oil producer last year and the fourth biggest natural gas exporter.
In its latest Living Planet Report in May, green group WWF named the emirate as the country with the largest ecological footprint.
Qatar has signed up to the Kyoto Protocol on curbing Earth-warming gas emissions, but as a developing country does not have fixed emission reduction targets, nor has it made any voluntary pledge.
It is a coastal dryland that depends solely on energy intensive and costly desalination plants for its water needs.
Qatar “is also one of the 10 developing countries predicted to be most affected by rising sea levels,” former Qatari petroleum minister and conference president Abdullah Bin Hamad Al-Attiyah said in a statement Wednesday.
“Environmental sustainability is a key pillar of our national vision,” he said.
Sven Teske of Greenpeace International argues that steering the talks towards success was clearly in Qatar’s “mid-term and long-term interest.”
“Reducing (greenhouse gas) emissions is not a burden anymore, it’s a business opportunity… and that changes the dynamics” at the negotiating table, he said.
“When climate negotiations started years ago, solar energy was ten times more expensive than today… Now, it’s really good business,” said Teske, adding Qatar should grab this opportunity for “new markets, new technologies and new businesses in renewable” energy.
But some think this is expecting too much.
“We weren’t reassured by this story showing the Qatari (conference) President (Attiyah) schmoozing at the Oil and Money conference in London the other day,” said Kelly Rigg of the Global Campaign for Climate Action.
“This was clearly bad judgement.”
One European negotiator said Qatar’s latest row with Russia over the crisis in Syria could further hamper its ability to bring the parties to the negotiating table.
Climate conferences have made halting progress in the past, even with host nations deemed to have fewer conflicts of interest than Qatar.
There is one thing even the critics seem to agree on: the nation of some 1.6 million stands to lose much if the world’s leaders fail to reverse the global warming trend.
“Climate change and increase in temperatures is making Qatar even more vulnerable to the lack of water and food insecurity” it already faces, UN climate Chief Christiana Figueres said in a video posted on the UNFCC website.
“Every single drop of water that is used in Qatar needs to be desalinated. Every single gram of food that is eaten needs to be either imported or grown with desalinated water,” she added.
“I have no doubt they (Qatar) are committed to a (meeting) that is not only going to be successful in format but that is actually going to be successful in substance.”