Qatar oil
Oil refinery in Qatar

Speaking at a meeting of its Standing Committee for Economic and Commercial Cooperation at Istanbul in November, Bangladeshi president Zillur Rahman called on the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to take a lead in combating climate change and in supporting countries like Bangladesh that are fighting the consequences of global warming, even though they make little contribution to its causes. Up to now, however, the OIC’s record on this has been poor.

A 2007 study concluded that the rich Arab states in the OIC had been reluctant to take a lead on addressing climate change: “… efforts by wealthier Muslim states are imbalanced with many of them doing very little and not acknowledging the urgency of the issue. Saudi Arabia, who holds most of the purse strings of the OIC, has long been a sceptic of climate change.” Indeed, the response of Saudi Arabia’s lead climate change negotiator at Copenhagen, Mohammad Al-Sabban, to the leaked emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit was: “It appears from the details of the scandal that there is no relationship whatsoever between human activities and climate change.”

Looking at annual CO2 emissions per capita in the Gulf states (International Energy Agency figures for 2007), it is immediately apparent that the figures are much worse than even for the United States, which is usually seen as the villain of the piece. For example, Qatar’s annual emissions stand at 58.01 tonnes per capita, the United Arab Emirates’ at 29.91 tonnes, Bahrain’s at 28.23 tonnes and Kuwait’s at 25.09 tonnes, whereas the figure for USA is 19.10 tonnes. These emissions are even more astonishing when compared with the figure for Bangladesh, which stands at 0.25 tonnes per capita. It does make you wonder what is being done in these rich Arab Gulf states to produce such huge CO2 emissions.

As for discussions on climate change amongst the Arab states, here again the problem is the reluctance of the ruling elites in oil-rich countries to support any measures that might reduce demand for oil and petrol. This despite the fact that the Middle East is particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures, with vast areas of agricultural land between Egypt and Iraq expected to lose fertility as a result of global warming.

In November, at the launch of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) report on climate change in Cairo, UNFPA officials pointed out that 15% of people in the Arab world already have limited or no access to potable water and that water scarcity induced by climate change was expected to cut food production in the region by half. They called for more cooperation between the Arab League, UNFPA, and Arab NGOs to help governments draw up appropriate policies.

A report released in November by the Lebanon-based Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) criticised the near complete lack of research data on climate change in Arab countries and called on Arab nations to immediately draw up adaptation and mitigation plans. One of the authors stated that “we have no data about the effects the greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere will have on our coastal zones, even though we know they are very vulnerable”, adding that this makes creating plans to reduce risks from climate change difficult.

Not surprisingly, we have come to expect very little from the OIC in such global environmental summits as we are seeing in Copenhagen this week, where the negotiations on behalf of the developing world are undertaken by the G77 plus China. We hear much talk about the importance of the ummah as the basis for international unity among Muslims, but the oil-rich states have so far shown little sense of unity with their co-religionists over such a critical issue for mankind as climate change and global warming.

In addition to the conference of the parties reaching an agreement on limiting global warming to 2C over pre-industrial levels, the other bone of contention at the Copenhagen Summit is clearly money. That is, how much wealthy countries will be paying poor ones to help them deal with climate change. Given the huge sovereign funds that many of the oil-rich Muslim-majority states are sitting on, derived essentially from the sale of hydrocarbons, and given that the burning of these fuels makes a major contribution to greenhouse gases, you might think the oil producers would feel some moral obligation to the nations who suffer the consequences of global warming.

Moreover, at present the huge funds that the oil-producers possess are usually invested into property and assets in the developed world, when investment in the developing world in green industries and the low carbon economy could well give them better returns and certainly a better conscience. Now that would be a grand idea for all those funds standing idle in bank accounts in the world’s major cities. In the meantime, some zakat to those on the front line of climate change in countries like the Maldives and Bangladesh is surely not too much to ask.

Published in the Jakarta Globe, 16 February 2010