Thursday, October 20, 2011

Qatar's Green Wash?

Reality doesn't reflect Qatar's lofty goal of becoming the "green capital" of the Gulf

Every night whole office blocks, devoid of people, are lit up in the West Bay business district. Doha’s mini Dubai, West Bay is full of cutting-edge architecture providing a permanent contradiction to Qatar’s desert environment.

The dust covers the windows. The exterior buildup of sand is visible even on the thirtieth floor. It is a Sisyphean task to keep the buildings clean, requiring permanent teams to clean the windows every two or three days.

Confronting climate change does not appear to be a priority in Qataris’ daily lives. On the roads, the most popular car sold in 2010 was the Chevrolet Tahoe, a gas-guzzling 5.3 liter V8 SUV. With a liter of gasoline costing 1 Qatari Riyal (QR) [$0.23] and a liter of mineral water an average of QR1.2 [$0.34], the penchant for large engines is not surprising. “I spend more on drinking water than the gas for my car,” said an account manager.

Yet Qatar’s constitution declares that “the state shall preserve the environment and its natural balance in order to achieve comprehensive and sustainable development for all generations.” In the Qatar National Vision 2030, released in 2008, the fourth and final pillar is environmental development, with the report declaring the need to find a “balance between development needs and protecting the environment”.

These are noble goals but the implementation appears to be closer to what environmentalists call a “green wash” — a superficial marketing ploy with no real commitment to becoming more environmentally sustainable.

According to a recent article in The Peninsula, Qatar has one of the highest per capita usages of water in the world, more than double the average for Western European countries. Qataris used 1,200 liters per person per day in 2009, while expatriates consumed 150 liters per person per day. Use of desalinated water has tripled since 1995, reaching 312 million cubic meters in 2008.

Part of the problem is that Qataris do not pay for water, it is low cost for expatriates and the government recoups less than a third of water production costs as a result. Aware of the high consumption, the government is to create a National Water Act, but only by 2016. In the meantime, consumption is expected to increase 5.4 percent a year for Qataris and 7 percent a year for expats.

With gasoline prices low, electricity free for Qataris and 95 percent of all food stuffs imported, Qatar has the second highest carbon footprint per capita in the world, according to the Global Footprint Network’s “Ecological Footprint Atlas 2010”.

According to a World Wildlife Fund report, it takes about 8.1 hectares (20 acres) of forest to absorb the annual carbon emissions of the average Qatari while the average is 5.4 hectares for North Americans and 1.2 hectares for Chinese.

Only behind the United Arab Emirates, Qatar has shot up the carbon footprint rankings as its population has surged in line with economic development. From 1961 to 2007, Qatar’s population grew by over 2,000 percent and its total ecological footprint by over 7,000 percent. Biocapacity, or the territory’s ability to provide resources and absorb waste, has declined by 95 percent per person. By comparison, over the same 46 year period, the ecological footprint of the average Asian resident increased by 39 percent.

Getting to green

Awareness of environmental issues is growing, but only timidly. In the 2010 Qatar World Values Survey (WVS), carried out by Qatar University, only 6 percent of Qatari respondents expressed a concern for the environment.

The increase of environmental initiatives is, however, evident in the corporate and state sectors, from banks going green to new, more efficient, district air cooling systems. The Qatar Sustainability Assessment System (QSAS), opened over two years ago along with the Qatar Green Building Council, has been tasked with reducing carbon emissions from buildings. They have adopted proposals from the Green Building Council’s “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” guidelines, as well as seeking to develop an approach applicable to the Gulf’s harsh climate. Furthermore QSAS and the Gulf Organization for Research and Development aim to turn Qatar into the Gulf’s “capital of green”.

In a country with over 300 days of often searing sunshine per year, solar power may appear to be the easiest path to environmentally compatible energy solutions but this has its pitfalls. Studies in Saudi Arabia have shown that photovoltaic solar cells exposed to the elements for six months lose 50 percent of their efficiency due to accumulated dust.

For Qatar, the omnipresence of dust and its impact on photovoltaic panels mean that maintenance of such power stations would consume a precious resource: water. According to research by Chevron Qatar, “the usual solution is to wash photovoltaic panels, but of course in Qatar water is scarce.” What’s more, photovoltaic panels are less efficient in the up-to-50-degree Celsius temperatures that scorch Qatar in the summer, according to Chevron technology advisor Ben Figgis.

“Every 25 degree Celsius rise in the temperature of a photovoltaic cell causes its efficiency to fall by around a tenth,” Figgis wrote in a 2009 analysis stressing that lab tests are not adequate for measuring the performance that solar cells would deliver under real life conditions in Qatar. “The only way to be certain of a solar panel’s performance in Qatar is to test it in Qatar,” he emphasized.

Chevron is undertaking this research into solar power technology in the company’s $20 million Center for Sustainable Energy Efficiency at the Qatar Science and Technology Park.

But while energy-related research is a natural fit for Qatar, other environmentally-tinged projects are being promoted without answering many questions about their sustainability. Currently Qatar imports some 90 percent of its food needs, yet the country plans to whittle this down to 30 percent by developing an agriculture and food industry under the 2008 Qatar National Food Security Programme (QNFSP).

According to QNFSP, Qatar aims to meet 70 percent of its food requirements by 2023, despite the high water needs implicit in large-scale agriculture. The QNSF water strategy aims to meet its targets through desalination – a method challenged by critics on environmental terms. Using the “latest agricultural technology”, the country would develop a “farm city” south of Doha, according to statements that QNFSP Chairman Mohammed al-Attiyah made last month.

“We want to have the full chain, from production to end use. We’re aiming for a complete city which will include research and development, food processing, distilleries and growers, as well as utilities and universities,” said Mohamed Ahmed al-Obaidly, head of the agricultural and environment committee at the Qatar Chamber of Commerce and Industry, to Reuters. Qatar has also invested $6 billion to ensure food security by buying up land and farms in Africa, Pakistan and Australia.

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