Climate change activists are pressing Qatar to pledge an emissions reduction target, money for vulnerable countries or some other significant contribution to the fight against global warming as it welcomes diplomats today to annual U.N. climate talks.
One of the world's top oil- and gas-producing nations, Qatar also boasts one of the world's highest gross domestic products per capita. As host of the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP 18) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), it is charged with overseeing both the logistics and a good deal of the substance of the climate negotiations.
Many analysts describe Qatar as having been lackadaisical about the details of the negotiations until late October, when the government formed a team and raced to get up to speed on the tangled discussions about a possible new climate treaty in 2015. Though Qatar now appears eager to see a good outcome, many say exactly what that means for the host country remains fuzzy.
What would help, advocates for climate action say, is to see Qatar and other oil-producing nations bring something big to the table as a sign that climate talks can spur change even in the Persian Gulf.
"It would be disappointing if we hold too many COPs in countries that are not part of the growing number that appear on the UNFCCC as having made plans for 2020," said Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute.
"And of course, it would be a very good thing if Qatar and other Gulf countries would demonstrate their enthusiasm for the new Green Climate Fund by putting resources in," he said. "I think those discussions are ongoing."
Wael Hmaidan, director of Climate Action Network-International, said climate activists worldwide have encouraged Qatar to offer a pledge. He noted, though, that putting money into the Green Climate Fund -- which is expected to deliver about $100 billion annually by 2020 to help vulnerable nations adapt to climate impacts and develop low-carbon energy pathways -- is "politically sensitive."
Some discussions have revolved around launching a large solar project, or setting up an institute in Doha, Qatar, for studying climate science, but few specifics have leaked out. Officials with the Qatari government did not return calls for comment.
"They haven't confirmed that they will come in with a pledge, but they are planning to put something on the table," he said. "They're keeping it close to the vest, but I think they do want to show that having a COP in a Gulf country is not a bad idea."
Diplomatic team gears up to push talks
Before Qatar mounted a strong campaign to host this year's COP, its contribution to the U.N. climate talks was unremarkable.
"Silent like a stone" is how Axel Michaelowa described Qatar at the UNFCCC. He leads a research group on climate policy at the University of Zurich's Institute of Political Science and has written extensively about the role of Gulf states.
Speaking to ClimateWire at last year's talks in Durban, South Africa, Qatar's lead negotiator was hard-pressed to name a single issue his country has advocated.
"I cannot say," said Ali Hamed Abdulla Ali Al-Mulla, manager of corporate environment and sustainable development for Qatar Petroleum. "We study other countries' positions" (ClimateWire, Dec. 9, 2011).
At that meeting, which went into more than 30 hours of overtime as U.S., European, Indian, Chinese, Brazilian and South African leaders huddled near 3 a.m. to develop the much-hailed Durban Platform, Qatari diplomats were nowhere to be found. Sources said the Qatari delegation left by 5 p.m. the previous day to fly home.
Many believe that after winning the two-year battle with South Korea to host this year's conference, the government did not fully appreciate how much expectation would be on Qatar to both become a Gulf leader on climate and engage in serious diplomacy. Unlike Mexico -- which observers say set the gold standard in preparing for a climate conference -- or Denmark, Qatar did not go on any serious outreach missions in the early months of 2012, Michaelowa said.
"For them, of course, this is about 'We want to be the big host of big stuff.' But when it comes to the content, maybe they've seen it's not like hosting the World Cup," he said.
Since October, though, Qatar is said to have assembled a team of about 20 people whom observers described as largely unfamiliar with the labyrinthine UNFCCC politics but dedicated to making COP 18 a success.
"I think Qatar wants a successful COP, and they are now understanding what a successful COP means, what kind of political investment it takes. I just hope it's not too late," Hmaidan said. "They've been stepping it up a lot lately. ... They want something meaningful; they don't want a greenwashed deal."
Gulf nations face long-term climate problems
Rob Stavins, director of Harvard University's Environmental Economics Program, who has met several times with Qatari leaders in preparation for the COP, said he disagrees with the conventional wisdom that the nation has faltered in preparations.
"My perception is that they are well on their way to being well-prepared for this. I think they recognize its importance, and I anticipate that it will be a successful meeting," he said. "I've been very impressed with the people I have met with in Doha. They take the problem and the challenge of the COP very seriously."
Stavins also noted that many Gulf countries -- exceptionally arid and starved for water -- face a major threat from climate change that they will certainly highlight at COP 18.
There are several side events planned around showcasing clean energy work in the region. Bahrain, for one, is hosting a discussion on building efficiency in the Gulf. The United Arab Emirates is also expected to showcase its long-standing work as a leader in clean energy and climate change awareness in the Gulf.
Many analysts said they are encouraged by the serious on-the-ground work that is being done on renewable energy in the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia's target of installing 41 gigawatts of solar capacity within two decades, and 90 GW of wind. Experts note that the drive behind Saudi Arabia's renewable development has little to do with climate change and everything to do with economics, including predictions that it will run out of oil for export by 2030.
Still, Michaelowa argued, the work being done is big. He said that while working with the Saudi Ministry of Petroleum over the last three years setting up carbon trading mechanisms, he was surprised by the seriousness with which officials approached the markets.
"It became very clear that they have a long-term vision of emissions mitigation," Michaelowa said. "They are on the way to changing their economic landscapes. ... They understand that a pure fossil fuel economic model will not lead anywhere; they have big challenges with growing populations, and therefore climate policy could help with that approach."
Have Saudis changed their tune?
While that doesn't jibe with the notoriously obstructionist position Saudi Arabia has taken at the climate talks, Michaelowa and others urged patience.
Already the Saudi government has removed its longtime negotiator Mohammad Al-Sabban, who embraced climate skeptics, demanded compensation for lost oil revenues if nations reduce greenhouse gases and, many said, appeared to revel in trying to upend negotiations each year.
"Saudi Arabia is known for using pet issues as tactical ways to divert the whole process. It's not much of a caricature to say that there's a point in every COP when Saudi Arabia turns to the host and says, 'We're going to destroy your COP unless we get what we want,'" one analyst familiar with Gulf countries said.
Replacing Al-Sabban with a negotiator willing to work with other countries, the analyst said, is not a major change of substance, and no one should expect a "dramatic turnaround on a dime" from Saudi Arabia. Yet the change is "a fairly significant change in tone. And if there's a change in tone from the Saudi side, that is sort of a major change in substance."
Hmaidan said he holds hopes for many Gulf countries, particularly Qatar. But he said he is less optimistic about Saudi Arabia despite the government's solar and wind targets. He noted that as of this summer's U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saudi Arabia took a leading role in blocking any global move to end subsidies for fossil fuels.
"What we saw in Rio shows that they haven't changed much," he said.