In Arabian Gulf, Environmental Challenges Are Driving Green Innovation

The Museum of Islamic Art with skyline in background in Doha, Qatar

The Museum of Islamic Art with skyline in background in Doha, Qatar. (© Paul Cowan)

Some of the world’s most successful business leaders gathered in Dubai last week for the Forbes Global CEO Conference, which focused on the theme, “The Race Ahead,” and how corporations can succeed in these turbulent times.

One of the event’s underlying themes was a question we deal with every day at CI: how can we ensure an adequate supply of critical natural resources as the global population grows ever larger?

Over the course of the three-day conference, I met executives from all over the world representing companies that produce or source natural resources on a massive scale. As I witnessed many businesses focusing on supplying energy no matter what the impact on climate, I was reminded that short-term opportunities usually trump long-term concerns. I was impressed by a few companies, which are thinking seriously about how to preserve the world’s critical natural assets like forests, watersheds and healthy soil, but I left the conference feeling that we have our work cut out for us.

The importance of this conversation was underscored by the location of the conference: the Arabian Gulf. This region is one of the most arid and hot places on Earth — where temperatures reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit [54 degrees Celsius] in the summer, where nearly all of the available fresh water comes from desalination plants and where the vast majority of food is imported.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then the Arabian Gulf may be the center of innovation in the years to come. Following my visit to Dubai, I spent time in Doha, Qatar, meeting with the leadership of the Research and Development division at Qatar Foundation, the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute (QEERI), the Qatar National Food Security Programme and Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar.

Recognizing the temporary nature of its role as the dominant Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) producer and home to the largest Gas-To-Liquids (GTL) plant in the world, Qatar is investing heavily in building a knowledge economy with a focus on addressing the world’s most pressing environmental challenges.

As a country already deeply affected by climate change, with only a two-day supply of fresh water on hand at any given time, Qatar knows it needs to find sustainable, secure methods of replenishing its stores of both water and food. In addition to investing in renewable energy research and energy efficiency, Qatar is pouring resources into its education system with the goal of turning Qatar into an international R&D center.

Qatar will be hosting the annual meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in just a few weeks — a role the country is taking very seriously. Although its most significant contributions to the climate change discussion revolve around technological solutions like the development of solar power and energy-efficient industrial processes, Qatar is also paying increasing attention to the important role of its natural wealth, specifically its coastal ecosystems.

In addition to supporting important fisheries and providing storm protection, these coastal systems — including mangroves, seagrass meadows and salt marshes — also store significant quantities of carbon, most of which is buried in the sediment below.

Scientists from CI and partners have been studying these ecosystems for the past few years, and we’ve found that because of extremely high carbon sequestration rates, in some places coastal ecosystems can contain many times the amount of carbon per hectare as tropical rainforests. And yet, these systems are being lost far faster than forests, at a rate of about 2% per year.

Our partners in Qatar — QEERI, Qatar University’s Environmental Studies Center and Qatar Foundation International — recognize the importance of studying and protecting these ecosystems. I am looking forward to working with these leading institutions to better understand coastal carbon, advance the science, and develop a plan to protect these ecosystems over the long term.

Peter Seligmann

Peter Seligmann

As a flat peninsular nation vulnerable to rising sea levels, Qatar has the incentive — and the ability — to represent the dozens of small island nations which have been ignored and largely left out of the UNFCCC process to date. I left Qatar feeling encouraged that the country — and the region — will be the source of many other exciting developments in the years to come.

Peter Seligmann is the chairman and CEO of CI.

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