A look at the Qatar Sustainability Expo – more than green-washing

After driving by artificial islands, sprawling construction, and manicured gardens in the desert, it would be easy to approach the Qatar Sustainability Expo with some skepticism. However, after a closer look at this country, one can see a very real problem that regional governments and companies are trying to solve. Sustainability for Qatar and the region is more than a buzzword. It is a necessity.

Qatar’s vulnerable future

The pavilion, like all things United Nations, was massive. At the center of the hall was a hospitality tent in the shape of the Zubara Fort, built in 1938 and most recently a station for the coast guard. The Expo’s free food provided our class with sustenance throughout the day when overpriced conference center food was not an attractive option. The pavilion were booths and presentations from non-profit organizations, companies, and countries: Shell; several wildlife conservation groups, and sub-Saharan Africa’s Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network to name a few.

At the Expo, I quickly learned that life in Qatar is on the edge. Qatar imports 50% of its water from only two countries, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. In an emergency, Qatar could run out of potable water in two to four days. More than 75% of the meat and poultry consumed in the country is imported, as is 94.48% of the legumes and 99% of the cereal grains. Groundwater aquifers are Qatar’s only natural source of freshwater. In response to Qatar’s food security vulnerability, His Highness the Heir Apparent the Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani founded the Qatar National Food Security Programme to research and address food and water security issues. It was this organization that creatively presented Qatar’s vulnerabilities at the Expo.

Sustainability for Qatar is more than food and water. Sustainability also means a diversification of their economy. With 60% of its GDP based on finite resources, Qatar is hard-pressed to grow other sectors. Qatar’s National Vision outlines the government’s vision and desire to be an “advanced nation” by 2030. Qatar has the highest GDP per capita in the world but understands that depending on fossil fuels will not be enough. To this end, Qatar has used its significant financial resources to bring the best of educational opportunity to the country. One project is the nearby Education City. Sponsored by the Qatar Foundation, this complex home to several international universities, including several American schools. The Qatar Foundation is a privately and publicly funded non-profit organization, founded by Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. You might recognize the Qatar Foundation from the FC Barcelona jerseys. In 2010, the popular team sold shirt sponsorship rights for the first time in a five-year, $230 million deal.

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the kingdom of sustainable energy

Toward the back I saw a pavilion of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The U.A.E.’s IRENA and Masdar get a lot of press but I hadn’t seen much about Kingdom’s efforts. Two young women changed that.

The Saudi Aramco installation first caught my eye. Saudi Aramco is the world’s largest oil company by production and reserves. There was a large white SUV. Standing by it was a smiling woman in a black abaya. She had wide rimmed glasses with black frames.  She welcomed us and approached my classmates and I. We asked her to explain Saudi Aramco’s efforts.

Saudi Aramco’s vision of cleaner fuel combustion was a mobile carbon capture storage unit that could be placed in a motor vehicle. Now explaining how it actually works is above my pay grade but I can tell you that the goal of this massive apparatus located in the SUV’s trunk space is to capture carbon as a motor vehicle releases it. The woman told us that the technology currently runs at 10% efficiency and the goal is to achieve 60% efficiency, halve the size, and be market ready in 10 years.

“We want people to use oil. We want people to use fuel,” she told us. I really appreciated her honesty. Oil is what they do. Less oil, less profits. The way they see it, instead of making oil obsolete, make it cleaner.

This isn’t to say that the Kingdom or its businesses hasn’t promoted non-oil technology. Just last month, a Saudi-led group signed a $1 billion solar-thermal power deal with Morocco. In October, the Kingdom revealed plans to be powered exclusively by renewable energy. Others might call this green-washing but I wanted to learn more.

I spoke with Talah Abdulrhman Al-Secait, Communication and PR Supervisor at the Mishkat Interactive Center for Atomic & Renewable Energy. This project is the outreach arm of the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (K.A. CARE). It was the first I was hearing of these efforts. Their installation was called “Saudi 2050.”

Mishkat is dedicated to educating Saudi Arabians about the energy sciences and the possibilities they present the future. Located in Riyadh, the center receives roughly 400 visitors daily and is quickly growing. K.A. CARE was established by Royal Decree in April 2010. The independent organization defines and implements the country’s national atomic and renewable energy program.

According to Al-Secait, “K.A.CARE is keen on building its value chain through human capacity development. Mishkat aims to inspire the youth of today to become energy innovators of tomorrow, to help transfer the Kingdom of Energy to become the Kingdom of Sustainable Energy.” While these are impressive goals, they are not free of obstacles. Nearly half of  the country’s GDP is from the oil sector. These initiatives understand their views will take time to take hold. Al-Secait continues, “K.A.CARE’s challenge is to highlight the bigger picture of the value chain to all its stakeholders and to enable them to look at it as a sustainable ecosystem. As for Mishkat, the challenge is to change the attitudes of people using conviction rather than force.”

Enabling Saudi Arabia to become the kingdom of sustainable energy read the Saudi 2050 booth. Will Saudi Arabia live up to this vision less than forty years? I don’t know. What I do know is that these new initiatives are educating young people and future leaders. And that in 2050, these leaders might make all the difference.