Climate change activists are pressing Qatar to pledge an emissions reduction target, money for vulnerable countries or some other significant contribution to the fight against global warming as it welcomes diplomats today to annual U.N. climate talks.
One of the world's top oil- and gas-producing nations, Qatar also boasts one of the world's highest gross domestic products per capita. As host of the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP 18) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), it is charged with overseeing both the logistics and a good deal of the substance of the climate negotiations.
Many analysts describe Qatar as having been lackadaisical about the details of the negotiations until late October, when the government formed a team and raced to get up to speed on the tangled discussions about a possible new climate treaty in 2015. Though Qatar now appears eager to see a good outcome, many say exactly what that means for the host country remains fuzzy.
What would help, advocates for climate action say, is to see Qatar and other oil-producing nations bring something big to the table as a sign that climate talks can spur change even in the Persian Gulf.
"It would be disappointing if we hold too many COPs in countries that are not part of the growing number that appear on the UNFCCC as having made plans for 2020," said Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute.
"And of course, it would be a very good thing if Qatar and other Gulf countries would demonstrate their enthusiasm for the new Green Climate Fund by putting resources in," he said. "I think those discussions are ongoing."
Wael Hmaidan, director of Climate Action Network-International, said climate activists worldwide have encouraged Qatar to offer a pledge. He noted, though, that putting money into the Green Climate Fund -- which is expected to deliver about $100 billion annually by 2020 to help vulnerable nations adapt to climate impacts and develop low-carbon energy pathways -- is "politically sensitive."
Some discussions have revolved around launching a large solar project, or setting up an institute in Doha, Qatar, for studying climate science, but few specifics have leaked out. Officials with the Qatari government did not return calls for comment.
"They haven't confirmed that they will come in with a pledge, but they are planning to put something on the table," he said. "They're keeping it close to the vest, but I think they do want to show that having a COP in a Gulf country is not a bad idea."
Diplomatic team gears up to push talks
Before Qatar mounted a strong campaign to host this year's COP, its contribution to the U.N. climate talks was unremarkable.
"Silent like a stone" is how Axel Michaelowa described Qatar at the UNFCCC. He leads a research group on climate policy at the University of Zurich's Institute of Political Science and has written extensively about the role of Gulf states.
Speaking to ClimateWire at last year's talks in Durban, South Africa, Qatar's lead negotiator was hard-pressed to name a single issue his country has advocated.
"I cannot say," said Ali Hamed Abdulla Ali Al-Mulla, manager of corporate environment and sustainable development for Qatar Petroleum. "We study other countries' positions" (ClimateWire, Dec. 9, 2011).
At that meeting, which went into more than 30 hours of overtime as U.S., European, Indian, Chinese, Brazilian and South African leaders huddled near 3 a.m. to develop the much-hailed Durban Platform, Qatari diplomats were nowhere to be found. Sources said the Qatari delegation left by 5 p.m. the previous day to fly home.
Many believe that after winning the two-year battle with South Korea to host this year's conference, the government did not fully appreciate how much expectation would be on Qatar to both become a Gulf leader on climate and engage in serious diplomacy. Unlike Mexico -- which observers say set the gold standard in preparing for a climate conference -- or Denmark, Qatar did not go on any serious outreach missions in the early months of 2012, Michaelowa said.