Reports from COP18 climate change talks

La Trobe Institute for Social and Environmental Sustainabilty

Blog No.1 – Day 1, COP18. Doha, Qatar. Monday, 26 November (AM)

By Adjunct Professor Simon Molesworth

Professor Molesworth is one of Australia's leading environmental lawyers. He is chairman of the International National Trusts Organisation, the collective voice for some six million people globally involved with cultural and natural heritage.  In June 2012, Professor Molesworth was awarded an Order of Australia in the Queens Birthday Honours list for 'Distinguished service to conservation and the environment, to heritage preservation at national and international levels, to professions and natural resources sectors and community health organisations.'

My blogs from COP18 in Doha will contain commentary by way of a daily update on the UN Climate Change Convention negotiations, however my intention is to provide more in order to set the scene: essentially personal observations of the “surrounds” and “atmosphere” of the COP, which I believe help us understand the context and provide some of the “feel” of the place and the events which would not otherwise be apparent unless you are here in person. Others may have different impressions, so I accept my observations are subjective.

This UNFCCC COP conference is my fourth, having previously attended those in Copenhagen, Cancun and Durban, with each city having their own very different characteristics. One’s first sight of Doha highlights the extraordinary exponential growth of this city. Springing out of the desert which shimmers pale and chalk-like, this futuristic city is quite surreal. There seem to be no green areas anywhere, so when looking down from a plane the contrast between empty white desert (only interrupted by the occasional ley line-like highways heading off seemingly in to infinity over the horizon) and the abrupt edge of what is becoming, at various cluster points, a high rise city of towers is stark. However, that first glance abrupt edge is misleading as on closer examination one can discern the geometric patterning of new roads to nowhere laid out in preparation for the next expansion of the city.

On the ground, somewhat ironically for a nation hosting the UN’s Climate Change conference to focus on more sustainable ways of living, I find that, save for the residual older low-rise precincts, this is not a city that encourages pedestrian or bicycle traffic. The numerous multi-lane highways or freeways with modern flyovers, all teem with an endless progression of largely newer-model vehicles. In a country that boasts the world’s largest natural gas reserves in addition to significantly large petroleum reserves, this is the nation with the world’s highest per capita annual income. With a total population of about 2 million, only about 200,000 are true Qataris. The nation is free of taxes and those who are ethnic Qatari by birth receive the considerable benefit of a sizeable payment paid in their bank accounts every month – for life.  I was informed by a passing comment that no Qatari need ever work for an income, should they choose to be so idle, as their monthly payments are large enough for them all to be able to retire before they can walk!

The development that is apparent in every direction is truly staggering. In the precincts designated for high rise towers, it must be a modern architect’s paradise. Stunning structures of every elongated shape seem to be competing for the viewers’ attention, most probably led by the stunning public buildings. Building works are concurrently occurring in every direction, with the development sites springing to life before dawn to take advantage of the cooler temperatures and then again in the evening into the night, where building sites positively blaze with a fairyland of lights so as to enable construction to continue unabated. Surrounding the tower precincts there are vast stretches of modern residential development areas, all very geometrical in planning  layout with buildings/homes reflecting classic Middle Eastern design, rectangular, flat-top 2 storey, traditional yet simultaneously and obviously modern.

These housing areas appear to all contain houses of an impressive domestic scale, naturally coloured in the rich stone tones of the desert with palm courtyards surrounds and palm lined residential streets. Amongst these new residential areas, there are some where the houses are nothing less than mansions in scale in compounded grounds. The palms and bougainvillea vines poking over the top of the 3 metre walls, just hint at the existence of private gardens.  I observed that some of these newer mansion suburbs, were “gated” with guarded entrance archways in huge perimeter walls that entirely surround these areas (with names like “Royal Gardens”), somewhat reminiscent of the old sandstone walled cities which dotted the Gulf coastline of old.

It is evident that the older areas in Doha are considered dispensable, with replacement development occurring everywhere. Although there will no doubt be some special older individual places that will most probably be being safeguarded, I was informed that whole older districts have been swept away to make way for development . As a heritage practitioner I am not surprised that wholesale replacement is rapidly underway, as the building stock being replaced appears to be comparatively poor in quality, probably no older than forty or fifty years old (preceding the wealth of the local petrocarbon era) and showing the signs of degradation through the extremes of the climate. These older precinct are less well designed, from a town planning perspective, than their modern replacement districts, as they demonstrate a more random street pattern, albeit after a grid. Footpaths are inevitably too narrow, too uneven and too often compromised by the omnipresent motor vehicle which is invariably so parked that they are pressed together blocking easy passage, forcing the passing pedestrian to venture out on the roadway itself where drivers appear to rely more on good luck or God than their brakes or moderating their speed so as to avoid a collision.

Back on to the new multi-lane highways, quite frankly you wouldn’t survive if you didn’t have a car and weren’t prepared to enter the ever rapidly passing traffic stream. I suppose it is not surprising that in a country that has flourished with wealth acquired from petroleum and natural gas, that the car is supreme. Also, pragmatically, in a country where the temperature can frequently hover in the 40s and even pass the unbearable 50c, an airconditioned car, despite its carbon footprint, is an alluring mode of transport. However, one can’t help but reflect on the benefit that nevertheless would be offered by a state-of-the-art fast train system – especially out to the impressive Education City (a whole district of modern university campuses underpinned by eleven international (mainly US) universities which have or will have a presence here) and its adjoining Qatar International Convention Centre.

In a city that is undergoing wholesale development where town planners and architects have found their Shangri la, a land of endless opportunity for their professional skills, this is the very time when the most futuristic transport systems should be trialled.     

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