How the Environment Became a Communications Instrument in the Gulf

COP22 From Rhetoric to Action · The discourse on preserving the environment and saving energy has been assimilated by leaders of the Gulf, in a region on the frontline of climate change. However, as in many cases, beyond communication efforts the reality is much less ecological.

View of Dubai from the Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower in the world. .
Vincent Eisfeld, 27 December 2015

The scene takes place in September 2015 in Dubai, city-state of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) federation. In a grand hotel, public officials are giving a press conference, presenting the universal exposition the city will host in 2020. As the exchange focuses on various “technological connectivity innovations” introduced during the event, a reporter asks if the carbon footprint of the 20-billion-dollar event has been estimated. A moment of silence ensues before one of the speakers responds, “the exhibition takes into account sustainable development goals and will continue to facilitate access to natural resources for all the populations around the world”. The anecdote is a good summary of the dichotomy visible in the six monarchies of the Gulf. A profusion of megaprojects (luxury hotels, highways, skyscrapers) and polished speeches that don’t quite manage to conceal reality.

Oil exports as a priority

Preserving the environment and fighting against global warming seem like priorities in the speeches of the leaders of the region. However, these countries—that own the biggest fossil fuel reserves in the world—are showing little haste in terms of concrete efforts. During the last climate conference in Paris in 2015, the COP21, French diplomacy had to insist on influent leaders of the peninsula to declare their greenhouse gas reduction objectives. Saudi Arabia conceded a commitment to “avoid” emitting 130 billion tons of CO2, without specifying if it would be a reduction compared to current emissions, or what they should be at that date. Chiefly, Riyad reiterated its main message: reducing oil exports in the name of climate is out of the question. This firm position, shared by its partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), uniting the five other monarchies, was met with indignation by many figures of the struggle against climate change. Others noticed these countries seem undisturbed by the studies of two researchers, Jeremy Pal and Elfatih Eltahir, that predict the Arabian Peninsula will become inhabitable by 2100 as perceived temperatures would rise above 60 to 70 °C. A perspective that would prevent the pilgrimage to Mecca—the 5 th pillar of Islam—but doesn’t worry the countries in question, which continue to promise funding to research and organise a plethora of conferences with prestigious leaders from all over the world.

Rhetoric vs. reality

In Manama, the capital of the kingdom of Bahrain, serious academics explain the positive impacts of agriculture in urban areas, or the ecological benefits of vegetated buildings. In Abu Dhabi, the American economist Jeremy Rifkin often gives lectures on the virtues of a hydrogen economy, and its advantages to fight greenhouse gases. Other specialists praise the virtues of the circular economy and commend local recycling projects. However, all six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council represent 5 % of global greenhouse gas emissions and display the highest rate of emissions per capita (more than 42 tons on average). In any case, grand ceremonies for the environment are held in air-conditioned venues as the outside temperature—that can only be braved in cars—can reach 50°C in the shade.

Air-conditioning is in fact an indicator of the actual environmental situation in the region. In a practically desert environment, no building or house is deprived of its precious AC. For visitors, bearing the extreme heat outside can almost be easier than facing the freezing cold inside. The need to cool the air can explain part of the constant increase in energy consumption of houses and administrations (+6 % on average per year). 80 % of the electricity comes from gas, as it is cheap, thus it is frequent that cooling plants run constantly, including at night when temperatures are fresher. For the privileged, it is not uncommon to see air-conditioning systems cool in porches, courtyards and even gardens to improve evening’s atmospheres. It is impossible for an architect to suggest projects that would incorporate traditional ventilation solutions (wind towers) or that would incite clients to tone it down. This is most evident in the construction of future stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Another significant example: in November 2012, Qatar hosted the 18 th UN climate change conference in buildings refrigerated by power plants using hydro fluorocarbons (HFC), used by 90 % of these structures. This gas does not impact the ozone layer negatively (as do chlorofluorocarbons they replaced), but contribute to global warming. This explains why countries in the Gulf, allied with India and Iran, worked together at the Kigali conference in Rwanda in October 2016 to obtain an exemption from the rapid reduction of HFC emissions. As many developed countries have committed to initiate the removal of these gases from 2019 (-10 %), Saudi Arabia, Qatar and neighbouring countries obtained 2032 as a starting date. An exemption that scandalised many environmental organisations.

Grand projects, unsuited to the region

Before then, massive HFC emitters—i.e. buildings and skyscrapers—will continue to grow like mushrooms in the Gulf. After building the Burj Khalifa tower (828 metres) Dubai announced its intention to build the tallest building in the world by 2020, a billion-dollar projects. It is not certain whether a new world record will be reached, as the Saudi city Jeddah attempts to go down history with its kilometre-long tower project. Kuwait and Qatar have similar ventures of their own, however current decrease in oil prices is curbing enthusiasm. In any case, one can easily imagine the environmental costs of such constructions—not to mention the human cost as working conditions is gruelling, and sometimes inhumane. In Dubai, the Burj Khalifa’s, which is only partially occupied, water consumption is equivalent to 10 grand hotels on the seaside. Waste water from concrete, glass and steel construction (all inadequate materials for the region) constitute a serious sanitation and public health issue, as it infiltrates groundwater and is dumped in neighbouring channels.

The same problem concerns new city projects, which are flourishing in the peninsula. In certain countries, development is justified by population growth. This is the case in Saudi Arabia, where youth population is increasing, but it doesn’t apply to all monarchies. In UAE or in Qatar, countries numbering less than a million inhabitants, cities must handle the arrival of foreigners, permanent residents, tourists, or investors seeking to diversify their property. In any case, the promise of “sustainable homes” is mentioned in every brochure, but the reality is different. Waste from the construction site is often scattered in desert areas, endangering fragile flora and fauna, or worse yet, dumped by barges in the shallow waters of the Gulf.

The sea is confronted with two other types of damage. The first is linked to the multiplication of desalinisation plants, the second being massive “land reclamation” projects. Drinking water is a scarce resource in the region, and the desalinisation solution emerged as early as the 1960s. The oil boom and urban development have increased demand and Gulf monarchies now account for 20 to 25 % of worldwide desalinated water. UAE alone represents 14 % of global production, with plants producing up to a million cubic metres per day (Jebel Ali plant in the east of Dubai). The consequences of this dependence are well documented: they increase emissions as these plants run on fossil fuels, boost temperatures, and add to the salinity of water due to saline waste. It impacts the marine flora and fauna, and their decline endangers migratory birds in turn. However water scarcity doesn’t prevent the expansion of opulent real estate projects (hotels, entertainment hubs...)

The draining of the Gulf’s rivers for the development of construction sites (new cities, extension of existing areas) also creates multiple problems, as a portion of materials used to build new stretches of land is collected from the ocean floor, at the expense of flora and fauna. This technique is used all over the world (Singapore, Hong Kong, Monaco) but they deepen environmental unbalances and increase pressure on water supply.

An image issue

Aware of criticism they are facing due to this worrying picture, leaders of the Gulf have various strategies to clean up their image. In the UAE, Abu Dhabi promotes the Masdar project, a “zero carbon” city including a university and research centres dedicated to renewable energy. Planned for 2014, then 2016, this pilot city developed in collaboration with major Western faculties should be unveiled in 2021. Met with enthusiasm at first, the project now rouses concern over lack of funding and technical difficulties associated with the region, where a “zero-car” scenario remains a futuristic or even utopian ideal.

The gap between statement’s effect and the reality of the situation also applies to promises for energy diversification. Officially, every country has prepared a new energy plan, and the regional ambition is to reach 80 gigawatts of renewable electricity by 2030. States in the Gulf, all members of the OPEC (excepting Bahrain and Oman), often announce massive investments in solar energy and wind farms to a lesser extent, before deferring their commitments. The UAE and Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, continue pursuing nuclear power plant projects.

Beyond communication efforts, that often pay off—Abu Dhabi is now chair of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)—mindsets are starting to change, in particular thanks to the efforts of schools. Recycling campaigns, calls to limit water consumption, reinforced legislation to defend the environment and wildlife are signs of progress. But the main challenge remains: the region must take steps to end its dependency on fossil fuels for transports and daily life.

“Green djihad”

In August 17–18, dozens of representatives of Islam from around the world gathered in Istanbul for the first “International Islamic Climate Change Symposium,” to sign the first “Islamic Declaration on Climate Change.” This declaration was directed at political leaders, imams, business leaders, and the 1.6 billion Muslims across the globe. The declaration was based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2014 report, urging governments to agree on a text at the COP21 negotiations limiting temperatures to 2 °C—or 1.5 °C—signalling the end of fossil fuels and the transition to renewables, promoting the green economy, and supporting the most vulnerable populations facing the impacts of climate change.

The emirates of the Gulf and the Saudi kingdom were sought in particular: “we call wealthy oil-producing nations to lead the way,” through a “generous financial and technical support for the less fortunate”. Warda Mohamed