Cultures of Energy fellow Gökçe Günel reports from the 2012 UN Climate Change Conference in Doha, Qatar

Posted by on Dec 14, 2012
Cultures of Energy fellow Gökçe Günel reports from the 2012 UN Climate Change Conference in Doha, Qatar

The Qatar National Convention Center (QNCC), which hosted the 2012 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or the so-called COP 18, is crowned by a bronze, marble, and stainless steel-cast spider, Maman.  The Louise Bourgeois sculpture measures over 30 ft. high and over 33 ft. wide, with a sac containing 26 marble eggs.  “Let’s meet at the spider,” the COP 18 participants make appointments, and cannot but comment on the imposing vastness and darkness of the object.  Yet the spider not only provokes awe, but also conveys a somewhat tragic vulnerability, due to her shaky legs.  Situated at the center of the QNCC, she spins a web that is delicate enough to carry conversations amongst the diverse body of COP 18 participants, and hopefully strong enough to not be blown apart by the disagreements that characterize such debates.

Perhaps appropriately so, “linking” is a pertinent theme at the COP 18.  In one of the most crowded side events of the meeting, which focuses on New Market Mechanisms (NMM), representatives from Shell and Enel, among others, suggest that we should find a way of linking the various carbon markets of the world.  One of the audience members, standing next to me at the overflowing event, sighs, “Look at who’s talking, who’s proposing policy,” underlining how energy companies like Shell and Enel emerge as prominent actors in the debates.  In the meantime, the panelists explain that they fear a fragmentation of the carbon markets.

The debates about “linking” continue at an International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) event.  An audience member remarks that he enjoys the analogy of “the puzzle,” and of carbon markets as pieces that are attempting to be fitted together.  “We are not looking for a one-fits-all mechanism,” the presenters once again underline: “We need a system that can work with different elements, a simple denominator that fits everyone”.  A most compelling presenter at the IETA event is an Ecuadorian minister, who outlines the rather “radical” system that they are implementing in Ecuador.  Perhaps the most progressive of the presenters at the panel, the minister discusses how in Ecuador they refuse to extract fossil fuels, and are expecting carbon credits for the fossil fuels that they keep underground.  They, too, need to be “linked” to a carbon market, making their avoided emissions “exchangeable”.

Not all carbon dioxide is the same, these discussions clearly show, and the intention is not to create “sameness,” across the market, but instead to produce a common denominator, which can “link” the increasingly fragmented carbon markets of the world.  Actually, every molecule of carbon dioxide is rather different in the way that it is integrated to emergent systems of carbon governance.  Every molecule of carbon dioxide carries a particular spatiality and temporality, which needs to be identified and differentiated at every point within the legal and political climate infrastructure.

Such differentiation becomes clearer when more closely observing climate change policy making.  During the two contact group meetings, where carbon capture and storage (CCS) policy is finalized, the delegates debate two unresolved issues: (1) transboundary flows of carbon dioxide, and (2) the global reserve fund.  The transboundary flows of carbon dioxide are currently regulated by the London Convention that does not allow waste products to be carried across borders for purposes of underground storage.  If carbon dioxide is transported for enhanced oil recovery purposes, that is as a drilling additive for the oil and gas industry, then its transboundary flow is permitted.  But if it will merely be stored underground, then it is not allowed to be transported across borders.  The delegates disagree about the liability protocols required for transboundary projects.  The global reserve fund, which makes CCS operators invest an extra 5% of their certified emission reductions in a 100-year reserve, and which will be used in a case of a major accident across the world, is also a contentious issue.  The EU, for instance, argues that the global reserve fund will cause CCS operators to disperse responsibility, thereby exacerbating environmental integrity measures.  For them, the already existing 20-year fund, which is intended for use in a case-by-case manner, is enough of a protection.  Jamaica, on the other hand, representing the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS), and which has been opposing the implementation of CCS as a Clean Development Mechanism, ardently supports the global reserve.  In the mean time, the text changes, attracts different colored type, gains and loses some brackets.  At the end, the Secretariat agrees on postponing these debates for another four years, until the 45th Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) meeting.

Yet this does not mean that the carbon capture and storage crowd is inactive at the COP 18. Just the opposite, once again, the COP is teeming with side events on CCS.  One of the major discussions during the side events is about raising public awareness.  “We need a more educated debate in Germany,” one representative from Environmental NGO Network on Carbon Capture & Storage says, “The public is very opposed to CCS.”  She suggests that CCS professionals have to spread information.  She emphasizes how it should not be the industry that is giving the message first – it should be the NGOs: trusted actors with objectivity and credibility.  Right after this presentation, a EU representative talks about how in meetings where NGOs are allowed to participate, such as the London Convention gatherings, he spends all his time fighting with Greenpeace.  It is only certain NGOs, which can be trusted with the CCS message – and definitely not Greenpeace, which has been a vehement critic of this technology during the past decade.

Public awareness does not only come through educating the German public, but also through teaching the youths.  In a related fashion, the University of Texas at Austin representatives present their work on teaching carbon capture and storage to high school teachers, who are valuable multipliers, and to young girls, who are thus encouraged to become engineers.  The events take place in rural and urban areas in Texas, where there is an existing culture of injecting things into the ground and extracting things from the subsurface, the University of Texas representatives remark.  For them, there are major differences in the way different publics react to CCS – mostly due to their prior relationship to fossil fuel extraction.  “In Texas, no one would be against a technology like fracking, for instance, but when they try to implement it in New York, there is major opposition,” one UT-Austin representative suggests, in evidencing how arguments regarding environmental integrity are cultural.  Another panelist supports this point, and says, “In Germany people think burying carbon dioxide is like burying nuclear waste, and of course, this perception is not correct.”  Now that CCS is accepted as part of the CDM, the “public” it seems is the most difficult problem that CCS professionals are seeking to overcome.

And what about public perception in Saudi Arabia, an audience member asks the panel on CCS technologies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region.  The panelist supports the point regarding how there is a culture of injection and extraction in Saudi Arabia.  “We use products that are much more dangerous than carbon dioxide, such as methane,” he indicates, “there is no real problem with public perception in the GCC.”  And CCS, he continues, is not the only technology that the GCC is implementing in battling climate change.  It is not a silver bullet.  It is only one amongst many strategies.

One of the more impressive initiatives that Saudi Arabia has started in the recent years is about translating scientific news and commentary, as well as summaries of research papers, and making them publicly available.  The project, entitled Nature Arabic Edition, is sponsored by King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST).  “If we want to create a knowledge-based economy,” the presenter argues, “we need to first sow the seeds for a knowledgeable public.”  Knowledge in this case directly implies knowledge of sciences and engineering, princely values within the monarchies of the GCC, most vividly represented by the vast amount of resources invested in initiatives such as KACST, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), and Masdar Institute.

And what’s going on with the Masdar project, many people attending the COP inquire – is it clinically dead, is it in the doldrums?  Masdar features a large stand at the Sustainability Expo, inconveniently placed in a building rather far away from the QNCC, and therefore not very often visited by the COP participants.  The exhibit no longer includes models of the emergent eco-city, but rather confines itself to showcasing the growing research within Masdar Institute.  “We always criticized Masdar for investing so much into marketing and promotions,” one Masdar employee attending the summit says, “but this year, when the company was almost closing due to a lack of profits, we saw that marketing also works as a promise.”  In some ways, Masdar had promised its audience that it would deliver, and the Abu Dhabi leadership could not break its promise so easily, my interlocutor explains.

But this does not mean that mega-projects have died out in the Gulf.  One booth at the convention center features information on Qatar’s Sahara Forest Project, “using deserts, saltwater and CO2 to produce food, water and clean energy…by combining already existing and proven environmental technologies, including saltwater-cooled greenhouses, concentrated solar power and technologies for desert revegetation around a saltwater infrastructure,” thereby seeking to battle desertification and climate change.  The project has already produced some cucumbers, one presenter emphasizes.

While these projects, especially the UAE’s Masdar project, are argued to be pioneers in the Gulf’s engagement with climate change mitigation, one important “first” that takes place in Doha during the COP 18 is the Climate March.  When I ask him what he thinks about this “first,” one Dubai-based journalist tells me, “It’s just the environment, it’s not politics, so they can allow this to happen here.”  During the march, Arabs are encouraged to take lead in the climate debates.  The migrant workers in the adjacent buildings watch the march from the buildings’ balconies.

An NGO representative that I chat with during the march complains about the idea of “grassroots” that dominates the march.  “They say climate change needs to be tackled in a bottom up manner, but I no longer agree with this, although I find this opinion hard to voice,” he says.  “We are not at a point where we can wait for a grassroots level organization.  An international organization like the United Nations should have executive powers, and should determine emissions allowances for every country.  I no longer believe in the grassroots,” he complains.

The energy professionals that I interview in Houston sometimes talk about the “grassroots” level as well, understanding energy companies like ExxonMobil to be the grassroots.  For them, such “top-down” regulation implies a particular authoritarianism – or some call it, socialism – which needs to be evaded at all costs.  Who are the grassroots?  And who are the regulators?  We agree that these phrases need to be defined more clearly, before they serve as indicators for future policy making.

The NGO representatives that are marching in Doha on Saturday morning will be going to the NGO party that night.  Last year, the NGO party took place on the beach in Durban.  This year, the announcements posted on the QNCC walls suggest that it will happen in “the Qatari desert.”  The COP participants take a two-hour trip to reach the designated “desert,” and arrive at a beach resort, which offers shishas, camel rides and expensive drinks to the partygoers.  On the way, they have the opportunity to see the refineries of Qatar, a city of lights, seemingly livelier than Doha itself.  Soon after, they are on the way back to the hotels, feeling rather disappointed with the whole experience.

Sure enough, it is not only the NGO party that makes COP 18 disappointing.  Despite the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, the conference fails to provide the necessary relief regarding climate change mitigation.  New Zealand, Japan, Russia and Canada are pulling out, and the major carbon dioxide emitters, such as the United States, China and India, accept no binding targets.  As such, the second commitment period only applies to the EU, Australia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Norway and Switzerland  – totaling 15% of global emissions.  In terms of providing finances to the so-called developing countries as well, the conference is not able to produce any concrete results.  It is agreed that The Green Climate Fund will have a secretariat in Songdo, Incheon City, South Korea, but it is not exactly clear from where the funds will be channeled.

Designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki and the international practice RHWL Architects, the QNCC building, which hosts the COP 18, is structurally supported by the representation of a large sidra tree, made of steel.  Qatar Foundation signs that encourage passersby to “think, learn, create, innovate and explore” surround the building.  Across the highway, COP 18 participants can see the branch campuses of US-based universities, such as Georgetown, Texas A&M, Cornell or Carnegie Mellon, all part of the effort to develop a knowledge-based economy in Qatar, thereby safeguarding the nation from a possible future depletion of oil and gas resources.

Unlike the Louise Bourgeois spider, few people at the COP 18 seem to comment on the sidra tree.  Fewer people make it to the branch campuses, separated by an unsurpassable highway from the QNCC.  And yet, the spider, the sidra tree and the COP 18 itself are analogues of each other, serving as indicators of Qatar’s oil and gas wealth, expended lavishly towards producing global recognition and prestige.



[1] I would like to thank the Cultures of Energy Seminar, and the Rice University Social Science Research Institute for their financial support.


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