Doha climate talks will turn spotlight on Gulf countries

What better place to host a global climate conference than in Doha the world's highest per-capita greenhouse gas emitter?

The climate talks in Doha, which won the rights to host the 18th UN climate change conference, will turn the spotlight on Guf companies. Joseph Eid / AFP
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What better place to host a global climate conference than in the world's highest per-capita greenhouse gas emitter?

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Next November, the searching gaze of environmentalists will be turned firmly on Doha, which won the rights to host the 18th UN climate change conference (Cop18) at the current talks in Durban.

Are the Gulf countries ready for such scrutiny? And what should their negotiating position be?

The award of Cop18 to Qatar can be seen as an attempt to drive a wedge between climate "progressives" in the Gulf (Qatar and the UAE) and the laggards (Saudi Arabia).

It also puts new pressure on the UAE to live up to its role as the Gulf's climate champion, achieved by creating the clean energy company Masdar and being home to the International Renewable Energy Agency. With the scaling-back of Masdar's budget and ambitions, it will be interesting to see whether Qatar attempts to seize the lead.

By contrast, one of Saudi Arabia's first actions at Durban was to team up with the US to block approval of a report on setting up a US100 billion (Dh367bn) fund to help developing countries to deal with climate change.

Mohammad Al Sabban, the top Saudi climate negotiator, has dropped earlier requests for compensation for loss of oil sales, but maintains the kingdom needs transfer of climate-friendly technologies, and investment to diversify its economy. Other Saudi officials have been reported to be "disheartened" by Mr Al Sabban's hard-line approach.

The Gulf countries were classified as "developing" under the Kyoto Protocol, and were exempt from binding climate targets. Now, with Qatar the world's richest country, the UAE sixth, and Saudi Arabia wealthier than eight EU members, this status is untenable.

Nobody forces the Gulf countries to export oil and gas, and they benefit handsomely from doing so.

There is no more case for their claiming compensation than for China to be reimbursed for using less of its coal.

The main actions for the GCC to reduce its carbon-dioxide emissions are ones it should be taking anyway for purely economic reasons: improving energy efficiency; removing wasteful subsidies; introducing more solar and other renewable energy to save on domestic consumption of oil and gas; and diversifying into new industries.

Ali Al Naimi, the Saudi petroleum minister, is a strong supporter of solar power.

Global climate policy is not as threatening for oil-exporting countries as often supposed.

Research published in TheEnergy Journal in 2009 suggested the impact on Opec of putting a worldwide tax or limit on carbon-dioxide emissions is surprisingly small.

If the carbon tax is relatively low, the effect on Opec revenues is positive. This is because oil remains hard to replace in its core market of transport.

Other than steadily improving efficiency, there are few alternatives: electric vehicles are rare and expensive. By contrast coal, the most carbon-intensive fuel, can easily be replaced by gas, nuclear or renewable energy.

Qatar will probably benefit as limits on coal increase demand for cleaner-burning gas exports. And carbon taxes are a heavier burden on competitors to Opec oil - Canada's oil sands, and conversion of coal to liquid fuels.

By its intransigence, Saudi Arabia is missing the chance to steer climate negotiations in a favourable direction. Some tactical alliances are in order with like-minded allies and even environmental groups.

This fits the apparently growing inclination towards harmonising national climate policies rather than reaching a rigid, over-arching agreement.

Gulf countries should take every opportunity to restrict the use of coal - since they do not possess this resource, and reducing coal emissions eases the pressure to cut oil consumption.

Similarly, more than a fifth of human-caused carbon-dioxide emissions are from deforestation - not a problem for GCC countries. They can reach agreement with states such as Brazil to trade agreements on saving forests for support to carbon capture and storage, a technology well-suited to Gulf oilfields.

Biofuels have been enthusiastically touted by the EU and US not only as solutions to climate change, but as replacements for Opec oil.

Now, worries over their effect on driving up food prices, damaging biodiversity, and not cutting carbon-dioxide emissions by as much as hoped for, give Gulf countries good arguments against them.

Such self-interested negotiations are the stock tools of every party at Durban. By being selectively accommodating, and making genuine commitments on issues such as solar power, Gulf states can reduce the inevitable charges of hypocrisy.

Yet they need to be prepared to be under the world's microscope when hosting Cop18 in Doha.

Saudi opinions always carry great weight in the GCC, but in this instance, the Gulf's climate progressives have to steer their own course - and deliver on ambitious environmental promises at home.

Robin Mills is the head of consulting at Manaar Energy, and the author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis and Capturing Carbon

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