The annual UN climate change discussions mark perhaps the world’s only known instance where Qatar is considered a poor country.

Published in 1990, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which forms the basis of the discussions, split its member states into two categories: those with a historical responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the economic muscle to fund climate action, and those with neither.

Much has changed since, a situation illustrated by the fact the 1990 publication groups current economic powerhouses Singapore, Brazil and Saudi Arabia with third-world nations Somalia, Burundi and Sudan. The UNFCCC’s most famous output, the Kyoto Protocol, has this division at its heart. But with big polluters such as China, India and the US not bound to cut carbon, its usefulness is limited.

Greater influence

The 17,000 attendees at this week’s conference will find Qatar significantly changed since 1990 too. They will see a country prudently investing the wealth amassed from its massive gas – and to a lesser extent oil – reserves. A country that has arguably seized Jordan’s position as the Middle East’s diplomatic and political powerbroker, whose influence stretches beyond the region courtesy of homegrown international newscaster Al-Jazeera.

Then, of course, there is the small matter of hosting the 2022 football World Cup, as well as the country’s ambitious, but ultimately failed, bid to host the Summer Olympics. All are part of a national rebranding strategy aimed at promoting Doha on the international stage.

Qatar’s investments now include projects that are perhaps at odds with the massive hydrocarbons reserves that have enabled its rapid transformation – renewable energy, solar desalination and energy efficiency measures.

So, is Qatar’s pursuit of the right to host the talks, snatched from under the nose of South Korea, a cynical ploy designed to absolve it from its role in contributing to climate change?

The news of Qatar’s selection to host the talks, known as COP18 in UN parlance, was met with intense scepticism internationally. It is the first time an Opec country has hosted the discussions and, for many, it was nothing more than a cynical attempt to derail progress towards a low-carbon economy, just as the talks reached a critical stage and broke down the rich-poor firewall that Qatar and others have been able to hide behind.

As the conference begins this week, the host country is faced with the challenge of keeping all the other 194 parties to the UN climate convention happy and securing a deal for a new round of commitments using the rules set out in Kyoto back in 1997.

At the negotiations last year in Durban, all parties agreed to start work on a replacement deal that would see rich and poor alike make legally binding pledges to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. The terms have to be agreed by 2015.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change explores the latest climate science and makes recommendations to the chief negotiators each year. The current recommendation is to keep atmospheric warming below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels.

Two weeks prior to the Doha talks, Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah, deputy prime minister of Qatar and president of COP18, irked environmentalists by praising the benefits of gas and its ability to provide long-term energy security at an oil and gas event in London. His praise for controversial shale gas resources attracted a flurry of criticism on Twitter that resulted in the hashtags #badcop and #Dohaha being spawned. It wasn’t the start the country was hoping for.

The role of the host is more than ceremonial, with Al-Attiyah chairing key sessions, setting the tone and steering efforts, ideally along the path of least resistance.

“The presidency has a key role in bringing together the different strands of the negotiations and ensuring that there is an overall political balance,” a senior climate negotiator said on condition of anonymity. “The fact that Qatar is an oil and gas producer with no history of playing a constructive role on climate action is not seen as a good sign. But this in itself is not a hindrance to a good presidency, so long as their national interests are balanced by their natural desire to be able to show that they have run a successful conference.”

Defending position

According to UN data, Qatar is currently the largest emitter of greenhouse gases per head of population, a statistic the host delegation calls misleading given its tiny historical output. The government will likely have to repeat this argument during the talks.

“All presidencies have their own positions and strengths, and also their weaknesses – and we tend to be most aware of the latter during the final days of the talks,” the negotiator explains.

While the activists are concerned about Qatar’s potential negative influence on the talks, those concerns are not filtering through to the diplomats with the most at stake, from the poorest and most climate-vulnerable nations.

“Another negotiator from a developing country put it to me a few weeks ago that it will be enough for Al-Attiyah to sit in the room and give the floor to the different ministers,” the negotiator says. “We have had largely figure-head COP presidencies in the past and maybe for this year – and possibly the next couple of years – that is not a problem. But it is not something that inspires or gives a sense of movement or progress.

“The key risk in the end is that either things go through with limited problems, and the conference is quickly forgotten and the presidency role with it, or the conference is a mess and the presidency takes part of the blame.”

Hot seat

The COP presidency can often prove a thankless task. But even the most hardened cynic cannot deny that the Qatari government has proven itself to be an astute and wily operator. Yet questions linger over the country’s real motivation for hosting the talks.

An answer could lie in the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) influential World Energy Outlook 2012 report published earlier this month. The report, which is widely quoted by the UNFCCC and delegations throughout the talks, predicts that by 2035 renewable energy will constitute almost one third of global electricity production.

The report also threw its weight behind a renewed drive for energy efficiency. Still, why would a country sitting on hundreds of years’ worth of gas supplies be interested in reducing its energy consumption? Put simply, regardless of the size of the reserves, it is better business to sell overseas than to waste at home.

“Some of the Gulf governments are gaining an interest in energy efficiency for exactly that reason,” says David H Jones, deputy executive director of the IEA.

Another route to cutting consumption is to increase the price of heavily subsidised fuels at home. The IEA recorded a growth in fossil fuel subsidies of 30 per cent in the past year to $523bn. It points squarely to Middle East and North Africa (Mena) governments expanding subsidies for fuel to their citizens in the wake of the Arab Uprisings.

“They want to continue to keep the price of energy low, but they don’t want to forego the revenues that they receive by exporting it. So they’re trying to find ways to get people to use as little energy as possible. If they can’t increase the price then they need to encourage efficiency. They can’t do them both but we’re all better off that they’re doing one. A lot of electricity is wasted in the Gulf,” says Jones.

As well as an efficiency drive, Qatar is also positioning itself at the heart of a shift in the solar energy market.

China dominates the manufacture of regular photovoltaic solar panels, with the US a major player in the manufacture of the key raw material polysilicon. The US enjoys a trade surplus with China in the solar sector.

Rather than throwing investment into endless solar farms, the state-controlled Qatar Foundation established Qatar Solar Technologies (QSTec) to build a polysilicon factory on the peninsula and allow it to capture a greater chunk of the value chain from solar energy.

“The focus on renewable energy has been driven predominantly through the National Vision 2030 pillars of economic and environmental development,” says Matthew Farren-Handford, senior manager of clean energy and sustainability services at Ernst & Young in Doha. “The country is fully aware of the dangers of relying on a single national revenue stream – natural gas. By diversifying into new technology areas such as solar, Qatar can capitalise on its natural resource wealth and hedge its future revenues against gas price shocks.”

Extra electricity in Qatar

Qatar currently has about 4.5GW of electricity capacity installed. But QSTec says if its $1bn polysilicon plant’s full output was installed in Qatar, the country could have as much as 6.5GW of solar energy on top of that. So what can Qatar do with this new wealth of electricity?

“In the short term, domestic energy demand is more pressing for the GCC than renewable energy export. By stabilising the demand for energy and enhancing alternative fuel supplies for electricity generation, the Mena region hopes to reduce future risk of localised energy price shocks,” says Farren-Handford.

Low-carbon ventures form a cornerstone of Qatar’s economic diversification strategy. The green policies under construction through the UNFCCC will only enhance market conditions to support this. A healthier carbon market means offsets through renewable energy and efficiency measures have a larger market and higher price. A global deal on emissions reductions levels the playing field and will stymie the rapid development of new oil and gas markets.

However, as Farren-Handford points out, the ultimate goal of Qatar’s diversification is to buffer it from the volatility of gas prices. With the IEA recommending that two-thirds of all proven fossil fuel reserves stay underground, the greatest threat to those prices could bear an unmistakably green hue. 

Key fact

By 2035, it is thought renewable energy will account for almost a third of global electricity production

Source: International Energy Agency