Greenwash: Gulf’s green claims awash in a desert of deception
By Fred Pearce
January 29, 2009
The attempted green makeover by the Gulf states is beyond irony: with spiralling emissions, desert ski slopes and refrigerated beaches, can they be serious?
Last week the crown prince of Abu Dhabi held a big “future energy summit”. Tony Blair was there wearing his save-the-climate hat, so was the Guardian’s Terry McAllister. Oh, and BP and Shell and Exxon and a host of other big energy companies keen to show their wares for saving planet Earth. But I have bigger fish to fry. The Gulf states themselves.They are in the middle of a green makeover about as subtle as a blowout at an oil well. The summit was part of it. The whole event was hooked on Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s plan for a carbon-neutral city in the desert, called Masdar. On its own, this city is quite interesting, with renewable energy, water recycling, green architecture and much else. But it will be a green bubble in a sea of unsustainability. When I spoke to one of Masdar’s PR people recently, almost his first remark was that “it’s close to the airport. We want to make it easy for people to come and see it”. And that’s the problem really. The Gulf states are keen to promote green kit – and will throw cash at it as if they were buying a Premier League football team – but have rather missed out on the purpose. It’s like changing to energy-efficient lightbulbs, but driving a Hummer to the shops to buy them.
If you don’t fancy an ecoconference or visiting an ecocity, you can fly to the Gulf for an ecoholiday – for instance on Kuwait’s “green island”, a holiday retreat on an artificial island “fortified with concrete” where “even the sands at the beaches were imported from other countries.” Which again rather misses the point. You can also take in an afternoon’s skiing at Dubai’s snow park – 3,000 square metres of artificially frozen snow in the desert. Or stay at the Dubai hotel that recently announced plans to refrigerate its beach so guests didn’t burn their feet. Dubai is, of course, the sleepy old gold-smuggling port currently being turned, courtesy of several hundred billion petrodollars, into a shiny new megacity. It must qualify as the world’s most environmentally unfriendly city. But that didn’t stop it from declaring itself Green Dubai last year so that it could, according to the government website, “take global leadership in sustainable development in light of global climate change crisis threatening mankind.” That’s greenwash on stilts.
To give you an idea how far the Gulf states have to go before they can claim “leadership”, look at their current carbon dioxide emissions. The emissions of the United Arab Emirates, which include Abu Dhabi and Dubai, have more than doubled since 1990. Right now, per head of population, they are above the US. Down the coast, Kuwait has double the per capita carbon emissions of the US. Top of the tree is neighbouring Qatar, which has quadrupled its emissions since 1990 to a per capita level more than three times those of the US. How do they do it? It’s not even as if they have anywhere to drive. Carbon emissions aren’t the only environmental issue, of course. I checked the WWF Living Planet index (pdf), which takes account of the total environmental footprint of countries, including land use. Last year it singled out the United Arab Emirates as having the highest per capita footprint on the planet.
We shouldn’t be too cynical. Some of the emirates do say they are genuinely trying to clean up their act. Tony Blair last week congratulated his hosts in Abu Dhabi on planning to generate 7% of its power from renewables by 2020. I wish the British government’s Carbon Trust well in pursuing its recently signed £250m deal with the Qatar Investment Authority to “investigate the creation of a low-carbon innovation centre” there. Qatar sure needs some low-carbon innovation. Likewise good luck to 20 Imperial College London scientists, after the announcement last week that they will be working with Shell and Qatar Petroleum on introducing carbon-capture technology to Qatar, “while maintaining its position as the largest gas-producing country in the world.” I’ll be very interested to see how it pans out, and whether Qatar’s emissions start to come down as a result.