05 November 2012

Qatar Going Green

Qatar’s new LEED-certified convention center could be as ‘green’ as Masdar City. It will boast a world first of LED lighting in exhibition halls. Qatar’s new LEED-certified convention center could be as ‘green’ as Masdar City. It will boast a world first of LED lighting in exhibition halls. http://www.greenprophet.com/2010/02/qatar-convention-center-leed/

[A shorter version is posted on The Middle East Experience website, entitled "Muslims Going Green in a Big Way," under "The Modern Middle East"]

The next UN Climate Change Conference meets in November 2012 in a new Convention Center reputed to be one of the greenest in the world. In Sweden? Not even close.

Okay, so the architect is the famous Japanese designer, Arata Isozaki. Ah … in Japan? Wrong again.

It’s in the land of the Sidra tree, whose leafy branches spread out to welcome desert travelers, poets, friends sharing news and tellers of ancient tales. The Sidra’s leafs, flowers and fruit have brought healing and comfort to its people since ancient times.

All right, I’ve given it away. The Sidra is the proud symbol of its native land, the small peninsula jutting out into the Persian Gulf, also known as the State of Qatar. And yes, supporting the overhanging roof of the Convention Center in the photo above you see two massive Sidra trunks all of steel.

That is the venue for the 18th (yearly) session of the UN Conference of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol. Thousands of high-level delegates from over 90 countries will converge on Doha to assess how the world is doing on reducing carbon emissions. A fitting venue? Yes, and more than you might think.


Qatar, Gulf Leader in Green Buildings

Ali al-Khalifa, CEO of the company that built the Center and (very likely) a relative of the Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, had this to say about the project:

“We have to make something stay friendly to the environment. We are part of this earth. All the oil and gas countries are moving to a green concept to insure the new generation understands they have to preserve this energy and have something efficient.”

This building, he asserted, was made from “sustainably-logged wood”; 3,500 square meters of solar panels covered the roof; and the exhibition halls are all LED lit. And since environmentally-source building materials were scarce at home, the company “went as far as Belgium and South Korea to purchase the environmentally-certified wood, steel and glass.” As Michael Casey of the Associated Press put it, “It increased the initial cost – and contributed additional carbon emissions from shipping – but in the end helped ensure the building 32 percent less energy than a comparable convention center.”

In a speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2012, the Emir, after much commentary on the perils and hopes of the Arab Spring, had this to say about the upcoming conference:

“One of the great challenges that we must face is the question of climate change and its bad and destructive consequences for all countries. This requires us to cooperate and work together to reach the best solutions to this challenge.”

He then went on to urge everyone to come and attend this conference, “so that we reach an international consensus on the matter.”

But think about it. Qatar has the highest GDP per capita in the world and also the highest fossil fuel consumption per capita. Not surprisingly, it produces the most oil and gas too, relative to its size. This is a great place to start! And buildings are an important first step, as they consume near 70 percent of the Gulf countries’ energy (40 percent is the global average).

As it turns out, though you can find about half a dozen certifying companies for green buildings, by far the largest player in the field is the US Green Building Council (USGBC). Its voluntary program, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), includes 13,000 member organizations and 181,000 like-minded professionals. They are helping to oversee over 5,000 projects around the world, and a disproportionate number in the Gulf countries. Already they have 1,348 LEED-certified buildings, way ahead of Europe.

Though Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have also made great strides in this direction, Qatar is forging ahead. Ahead of the 2022 World Cup, it started construction in 2010 on a vast new neighborhood (called Msheireb) that will boast of the most LEED-certified buildings in the world. Here is how Leon Kaye describes the project sponsored by the Qatar Green Building Council (QGBC):

“Phase One of Msheireb is currently underway. A historic neighborhood that has fallen into disrepair, the site includes historic homes up to 100 years old that will be preserved and incorporated into the complex. The new town will include retail space, hotels and apartments, all of which will be crammed together to encourage walking. All parking will be underground and Doha’s future rail system will wind through the middle of the development. Solar panels on top of the buildings and covered walkways will catch Qatar’s abundant sun and will, in part, power all of the buildings. Smart grid technologies will also be an important facet of the development’s promise to be as energy-efficient as possible. Moving from north to south, the buildings cascade and become taller so that each one shades the one next to it.”

Now Qatar will just have to retool its building codes to make sure that all new buildings meet higher standards of environmental excellence, as well as to provide incentives to retrofit older ones – a tall order, but one the leadership seems determined to achieve.


Greening the Hotel Industry

Meanwhile, the Qatar Green Building Council (QGBC) took advantage of the UN Climate Change conference’s Doha venue to spin off a new branch, the Green Hotel Interest Group (GHIG). It’s official kick-off took place in September 2012 at the Windham Grand Regency Hotel in Doha, gathering scores of hotel chains executives, other business people and green technology experts with a stake in advancing more sustainable practices in the hospitality sector.


Among the ideas floated so far, we read:


  • Renting iPads in order to save paper
  • Composting all left over food
  • Phasing in all LED lighting


A lot more research needs to be done, GHIG officials are quick to say. Fortunately, the QGBC has spun off other groups that have been funded to do this very thing: the Solid Waste Interest Group, the Water Interest Group, and the Green Infrastructure Interest Group.

What’s the motivation behind all this ambitious investing?


Islamic Green, Or Not?

Now as someone who studies religion, and contemporary Islam in particular, I wouldn’t say that these Gulf rulers are suddenly awakening to the imperatives of the Qur’an and Sunna to care for God’s creation. But it’s still likely that those teachings, which are clearly gaining prominence in many circles, have helped them sell these policies to their people.

Three factors, for sure, have led these heads of state in this direction. For a while now, they have pondered the implications of the post-oil era and asked themselves, “How can we invest our wealth in a future that will sustain the next generations?” Then too, talks about climate change, about island states that will disappear by 2100, and about environmental sustainability – all this is prevalent in UN circles. Finally, in light of the above, this is simply smart business practice. Qatar’s reputation will only be enhanced. In turn, this will attract more visitors, more commercial partnerships, and more investment.

Still, you might ask, does religion play any part in this? After all, Muslims in many places – and especially so in Indonesia – are rediscovering the idea that if God is one (tawhid), then all his creation is one and equally valuable in his eyes. Further, he has placed humankind on earth as trustees of his good creation, and thus accountable for how they use (or abuse) its natural resources, which are meant to be shared equitably among themselves, with particular concern for the poor and marginalized. Finally, good conservation practices were written into Islamic law over time, and the Shari’a is now also a symbol for “green Muslims.”

That said, the world-renowned Islamic cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has been living in Qatar for over 40 years, has not devoted even one of his 120-plus books to the topic of Islam and the environment. Perhaps it's a generational thing ...

In any case, you'll find much more on the theology and activism of the Islamic environmental movement in my previous blog here.