The extractive economy is a daring game of chicken we’re playing with ourselves. It’s always been a necessary part of our micro-reality, but only recently have we reached a scale of malignant self-destruction doing irreversible damage to the living environment. We take it for granted as an indispensable feature of modernity. The term ‘climate’ should rightly include extraction among its many references. If applied to the whole of life, climate is not solely about atmospheric or oceanic conditions or the many thousands of other biological effects; it is also about our external and internal worlds reflecting each other. The climate of earth is collapsing. And we are collapsing with it.
If we trace the acceleration of the global warming effect, the loss of ice, acidifying oceans, the threats to food chains, the Sixth Great Extinction, wild tantrums of weather now commonplace, all are paralleled by massive concentration of wealth, the degradation of civil discourse, attacks on science, the corruption of democratic norms, the influence of dark money in politics, feudalization of the economy, spiritual malaise, the destruction of capital in all its forms and the ever-intensifying jockeying to secure vital natural resources. It is a hollowing. Earth as an object of hostile takeover. None of us can truly breathe anymore.
If there were a single place, a petri dish of the fatally hedonistic culture of extraction, consumption, disconnection and the gaping wound of interrupted reciprocity, sustained by an illusion of abundance, it might be found among the Gulf States of the Middle East. Qatar is one of these, perhaps second only to the United Arab Emirates for a standard of living supported entirely by extraction yet deeply insulated from the consequences. Qatar is a parable of earth.
The citizens of Qatar are not oblivious to the issues. Popular sentiment clearly acknowledges the primacy of global warming, the causal relations between fossil fuels, pollution and climate change. They are acutely aware of urban congestion and resource management. Even though government officials, academics and civil society share a consensus that something must be done (not only about the traffic!), personal lifestyle adjustments hold limited appeal. Qatar produces 7000 tons of trash daily. Yet no recycling program, no matter how expertly designed or promoted, can mitigate the emissions from local plants producing 20,000 tons of cement every day. Such a functional disconnect is the definition of un-sustainability. In this semi-constitutional absolute monarchy, ruled by a single family for nearly 200 years, the Emir, Abdullah bin Hamad Al Tahni, has the last word. There are no democratic mechanisms to shift policy as far or as fast as it must go.
The marvel of climate change can be reduced to numbers, but they don’t—and can’t—plumb the depths of the flawed outlook, the psychological mechanisms of denial, except perhaps by applying an analogy of autoimmunity. We are attacking ourselves. The sensual appeal of lifestyles are so comfortable that the thought of any substantive shift in priorities never reaches critical mass. In Qatar as much as anywhere, an inexorable series of self-destructive and irreversible decisions are being made. They are now accompanied by promises to change, failure to change, the cycle repeating with rising guilt followed by self-deception and dissociation. These are the behaviors of an addict. Not all of humanity is addicted, but the addicted are leading the rest of us into the abyss.
Qatar is small. Its total area is only three times greater Mumbai or half the size of Vermont; or, if you prefer, seven times the size of greater London. The amount of arable land per capita is a vanishingly small .005 hectares. The population, having grown 400% since 2000, is still less than three million, but only 12% are citizens. The remaining 88% are foreign workers, largely from South Asia, including hundreds of thousands of unskilled and skilled labourers who came to participate in the promise of Qatar’s selection as the site for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The influx of expats is the reason 70% of the population is between the ages of 25-54 and the reason Qatar has the highest ratio of men to women in that age group in the world, 5:1. But perhaps there’s another reason. In this small group of patriarchal states, restrictions on women’s behavior and movement and the absence of laws clearly criminalizing domestic violence are driving women from these countries altogether.
Qatar is living a schizophrenic culture of extremes—at a precarious edge between the inevitable consequences of extraction and the countervailing abundance it provides. There is world-leading prosperity, the fourth-highest per capita income behind only Macau, Luxembourg and Singapore. There is high growth, and to the degree possible with average summer temperatures exceeding 40ºC, an illusion of separation from the elements, from anything remotely related to the lived experience or diversity of a jungle, a coral reef or a wooded mountain.
It’s also a tourist destination of mega-theme parks and giant shopping malls, man-made islands and a soon-to-be opened aqua resort with underwater hotel suites. It is known for its architectural design and cultural beauty, and as the leading financial service center of the Middle East. Qatar boasts world-class universities, sports venues, a highly educated technocratic class and its own stunning collection of ancient and modern Islamic Art. The unemployment rate is a microscopic 0.08%. Even though it imports most of its food, it has reclaimed thousands of hectares of desert through irrigation schemes to produce hothouse crops.
L’Essence de Vie
The impact of less than three million people on the global condition may be miniscule, yet the impact of Qatar is far greater than its small numbers would suggest because of extreme energy inefficiency. How is that irrigation supported? Qatar has near-zero surface water and less than 100mm/y in rainfall, 80% of which runs off into the sea. Natural renewable water resources have been estimated at 71m3/per year per capita, far below the water poverty line of 1000m3/y/ca.
Ninety-nine percent of municipal water is produced by energy-intensive conventional thermal desalination. Qataris use 500 liters of water per day per capita (132 gal/d), twice the global average. The water coming out of the tap, the water for washing $2B worth of cars (more than one for every two people) every day, the water for swimming, water for the fountains, the landscaping, the reflecting pools, the water for wudu (ritual cleansing), every bit of water used in Qatar including most of what is used to grow food is also bringing the Persian Gulf closer to becoming a dead zone. And even though Qatar claims the tap water is safe for drinking, most everyone drinks only bottled water.
Sixty percent of all global capacity for extracting fresh water from the ocean is in the Gulf States. There are over 1000 desalination plants ringing the Gulf from Kuwait to Saudi Arabia, from Bahrain to the UAE and Oman. As demand continues to rise, new and larger ones are constantly being built. Together they are impacting the salinity of the Persian Gulf, releasing hyper-saline water with chlorines into an ocean that already has a 25% higher saline content than the average ocean. By 2050, the salinity of the Gulf will be more than twice that of either the Red Sea or the Mediterranean.
Desalination plants also release sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere in quantities exceeding international standards. The Persian Gulf is already a shallow sea, averaging less than 50m deep. Combined with a high evaporation rate, insufficient freshwater replenishment and multiple sources of dumping such as animal farms, sewage, oil spills, industrial outfalls and fertilizer factories, along with desalination along the entire coast, not to mention the millions of gallons of oil deliberately released by Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War, the Gulf is slowly becoming a dead sea. Algal blooms known as the Red Tide, generated by heat and an influx of nutrients from anthropogenic sources, are reducing oxygen content, killing fish and intermittently forcing temporary shutdowns of desalination in some areas.
In recognition of the precarity of water resources, Qatar is building five mega-reservoirs, intending to store emergency supplies according to estimated demand in 2036. They will likely convert the surface of these reservoirs to floating solar installations, further dropping overall carbon emissions. But alas, only a drop in that bucket.
Climate, Energy & The Environment
Qatar has the highest per capita CO2 emissions of any nation except Kuwait, again, partly because of extremely inefficient consumption. Emission levels also reflect the extremely low natural biocapacity of the nation to produce the basics of survival, yet the population is entirely divorced from the costs. Water is free. Energy is free. Education and health care are free. Only one nation, Iceland, uses more energy per capita than Qatar, though Iceland’s energy is 90% geothermal, which delivers 4-5 times the energy of fossil fuels.
Qatar’s wealth derives from the third-largest proven natural gas reserves in the world (25 trillion cubic meters), mostly offshore, providing 85% of its national revenues. It also has 15 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and is a major exporter of petrochemicals and fertilizers. Unfortunately, Qatar considers natural gas to be “clean energy.” In fact, it’s only half as dirty as coal and emits as much as 10x more carbon than some forms of biomass—of which Qatar has none.
The government, in concert with twenty-two members of the Pan-Arab League, intends to diversify its energy base. This is a progressive plan, but it’s been slow to develop. There was no renewable energy base as recently as 2015. The current goal is to reach 20% renewables by 2030. This is not solely out of environmental concern, but part of a drive to save its natural gas for export instead of domestic consumption. A huge solar installation, Siraj-1 (700MW, 10 sq. km), is slated for commissioning in August 2021 and will be used in part to power a ‘carbon neutral’ World Cup. Siraj-1 will produce the cheapest utility-scale solar energy in the world. On the other hand, dust driven by desert winds will likely make it the most difficult solar plant to keep clean and operational at peak capacity.
Qatar’s obligation to the UNFCCC and the Paris Accords was, as with all other nations, to submit Intended National Defined Contribution statements declaring a commitment to sustainable practices, education, research and implementation of improved technologies to reduce emissions. The fact that 10% of its land area is no more than one meter above sea level, that 18% is no more than five meters above sea level and that 96% of the population lives in that zone is a stark reminder of Qatar’s vulnerability to sea level rise.
Nevertheless, the music continues, and even more loudly. As with so many other signatories to the Paris Accords, specific emissions targets were never declared, and all intentions were entirely voluntary and subject to change to any time. While they are demonstrating a commitment to mitigation and adaptation, the key statements in the INDC, virtually identical to similar statements of other nations, provide loopholes to choose development over environmental concerns at any time.