Qataris have the highest carbon footprint on the planet. The country’s per-capita emissions from burning fossil fuels are way ahead of any other nation, and almost three times those of everybody’s poster bad boy, the US. This is all the more extraordinary since Qatar’s electricity is mostly generated from burning natural gas, which has half the emissions of coal.
Those emissions have also risen almost fourfold since 1990. But, thanks to the vagaries of the Kyoto Protocol, the country is not penalised for this. Qatar is by some measures the second richest country in the world, but for the purposes of climate law, it is classified as a developing nation. And so it has no emissions targets.
How come Qatar’s emissions are so high? The main reason is its soaring use of energy. By the end of next year Qatar will have six times the electricity-generating capacity it had as recently as 1995. One outlet for all this power is industry, based round its huge natural gas reserves. Just this week, the national gas company announced a deal with ExxonMobil for a new $6bn (£3.69bn) petrochemicals plant.
A lot of Qatar’s gas is exported as liquefied natural gas – the country is the world’s largest producer of the stuff. It’s a fairly clean fuel at our end, but takes a lot of energy to liquefy in Qatar. So to that extent Qatar is taking a hit to allow Europe and North America to cut their emissions – handy for helping us meet the Kyoto Protocol, but not much good for the planet.
The Qatari government recently used this argument to downplay its emissions. In its recent Human Development Report, it called them “relatively modest”.
But that is not the real story. Those Qatari emissions are so extraordinarily high for another reason. Qataris just don’t seem to care.
Sure, there is the biofuels initiative from the state airline. Sure, a year ago Qatar held a conference to discuss how to cut its emissions without damaging the economy.
But if its rulers were serious about cutting emissions they might charge for their energy supplies. Yes, you read that right. Qatari households get their electricity free. So why would they cut down on how much they burn?
Oh, and they get their water free as well. And in Qatar, even more than most places in the Middle East, water is liquid electricity. Almost every drop coming out of the taps is produced from desalinating seawater. This is extremely expensive in energy – and therefore expensive in carbon emissions.
But because the water is free, Qataris waste it like, well, water. Despite being a desert state with virtually no rainfall, the country has among the highest per-capita water uses in the world. Use averages around 400 litres per head per day. According to Hassan Al-Mohannadi, a geographer at the University of Qatar, people in “big, often palatial houses” consume up to 35,000 litres per day.
Even here, they have a way of blaming foreigners. According to Hassan Al-Mohannadi, one reason water use is so high is that “the large number of foreign domestic servants, who come from water-rich countries, are not educated in water conservation”.
Water consumption continues to rise, so Qatar is building more desalination plants. If Qatar was serious about cutting its carbon footprint it would do something about water demand. At the least, it might charge for the stuff.
Will Qatar’s emissions carry on up? Looks Likely. Electricity demand is currently rising by about 7% a year. That is not as fast as the national economy, which is growing by 11% annually – the fastest boom on the planet.
But stopping this out-of-control carbon-emitting juggernaut will take more than an Airbus full of biofuels.