A sustainable development path for Qatar

Dr. Gonzalo Castro de la Mata
22 August, 22
With less than six months to go until Qatar makes history by becoming the first Arab country to host the FIFA World Cup, the Gulf state is increasingly under the spotlight.

With less than six months to go until Qatar makes history by becoming the first Arab country to host the FIFA World Cup, the Gulf state is increasingly under the spotlight. Its efforts to deliver a World Cup that sets new benchmarks for social, economic, and environmental standards run the risk of being overshadowed by a cacophony of criticism that often relies on standards and frameworks that fail to accurately portray the progress being made.

On sustainability, for example, widely quoted international metrics place Qatar among the world’s worst offenders. A commonly used ecological footprint measurement considers Qatar as having one of the largest “biocapacity deficits” in the world, meaning that it is using its renewable natural resources beyond their regenerative capacity. The country is also condemned for having the highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita on the planet. As we will see, these conclusions fail to understand what sustainability means in the context of the country and to properly capture Qatar’s contributions to global sustainability.

Sustainability is often defined as the development path that meets current needs without compromising the needs of future generations. For most countries, this translates in development strategies that do not deplete resources beyond their natural regenerative capacity. For example, a country that relies primarily on timber exports to finance its economy should not cut its forests at a rate that exceeds the growth needed to replace them.

Qatar’s territory, however, is very small and sits on the harshest desert on the planet. Therefore, its economy cannot be sustained by its natural environment or its “biocapacity.” Instead, it is an economy in which non-renewable natural resources (primarily exports of natural gas) have transformed this capital to create massive human and infrastructure capital, as well as savings, thus generating vast prosperity for its population. Sustainability needs to be understood in the context of this capital transformation.

On greenhouse gas emissions, Qatar emits about 106 million tons of CO2 equivalents per year, only representing less than one-fifth of one percent of overall global emissions. Of course, it is important to reduce emissions and promote energy efficiency and transition to renewable sources because this enhances economic productivity and helps meet the country’s international commitments. But it is misguided to point the finger at the country by calculating emissions on a per capita basis, particularly when its total emissions are negligible.

How about its gas exports? After all, Qatar is the largest exporter of liquified natural gas (LNG), a hydrocarbon that releases greenhouse gases when burned. Natural gas, however, releases only one-half of greenhouse gases per unit of energy when compared with coal, and since Qatar’s gas exports go to countries that rely primarily on coal for generating electricity, the net effect of this coal displacement is a reduction of emissions to the atmosphere. The role of gas as a transition energy source to meet the Paris Agreement’s 1.5-degree target by 2050 is essential, as recognized by the IPCC in its latest report. In addition, there is also the element of energy security associated with gas that must be considered, as demonstrated by recent events in Europe.

Other positive news includes Qatar’s efforts to lead the way to lower emissions and decarbonize its LNG value chain by reducing flaring, and the significant investments Qatar is making in renewable energy to support its energy transition, as well as on new technologies for carbon capture and storage and hydrogen, investments that will benefit humankind at large.

Are these efforts sufficient? Of course not, but they are vigorous steps in the right direction. The examples above demonstrate that a sustainability framework for Qatar needs to reflect its own realities and should not simply follow international methods applied without sufficient analysis. In addition to developing a proper sustainability definition and framework, there are other sustainability issues that are also worth mentioning as part of a comprehensive agenda, including the continued diversification of the economy, expansion of renewable sources, reducing waste, enhancing water efficiency and food security, and conserving the country’s unique desert biodiversity and ecosystems. These are all critical issues for Qatar but also for other countries in arid environments facing similar challenges.

To inform and influence national and global sustainability policy, Qatar Foundation has created a new sustainability policy center – Earthna, which means “our legacy” in Arabic. It is Qatar’s job now to use its moment in the spotlight to reframe the narrative around what it means to be sustainable, and we hope that Earthna can play a part in helping chart that course.

Dr. Gonzalo Castro de la Mata is an ecologist recognized as a global leader in the promotion of sustainability, with an emphasis on innovative free market solutions to environmental issues. As executive director of Earthna, he guides the center’s mandate of enhancing Qatar’s role within the global sustainability policy ecosystem.

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