DOHA — Chanting “Your action, our survival”, hundreds of Arab youths on Saturday took part in the first-ever protest march in Qatar related to climate change — and one of the tiny emirate’s first protest marches at all.
The state, the size of a small European city, with a population of 1.7-million, is hosting this year’s United Nations climate-change talks that bring together almost 200 nations in a quest to thrash out a global, legally binding deal on how to limit greenhouse gas emissions to protect the world from the damaging effects of climate change.
“People are here demanding migrants’ rights for the first time openly,” said Ali Fakhry, media co-ordinator for the League of Independence Activists, a Middle Eastern civil society group.
Apart from 250,000 Qataris, the rest of the emirate’s population comprises workers from developing nations such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, China and South Africa.
The march, which took place a day after Qatar reportedly jailed local poet Mohammad Al-Ajami for life, went ahead peacefully.
Doha News reported it was not known what Mr Al-Ajami had been convicted of, but that he was arrested in November last year and charged with “inciting to overthrow the regime” and “insulting the emir”. Amnesty International confirmed the ruling and said he had been given a week to lodge an appeal.
Mr Fakhry said Qatar was already leading by hosting the UN talks and should use its considerable influence within the Arab region to encourage Arab nations to take climate change seriously enough to make emissions reduction pledges.
“Qatar is very politically influential,” he said. “Having them work against the problem of climate change ...will have a domino effect.”
His home country, Lebanon, promised at the 2009 talks that 12% of its energy needs would by 2020 be met by renewable sources.
“The Lebanese economy is 70% tourism, and banking; when there is less snow (because of the overall rise in global temperatures due partly to human activity’s greenhouse gas emissions) there is a problem with skiing. Our forests are diminishing,” Mr Fakhry said.
“Arabs, Arabs, take the lead,” yelled Khalid Al-Mohannadi, co-founder of the Qatari environmental civil society group Doha Oasis, into a megaphone as burka-clad, cellphone-toting young women walked side by side with others dressed in jeans and T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Arabs’ time to lead”.
Mr Mohannadi, an engineer who works as a management consultant, said he was pleased with the turnout at Saturday’s march.
His fellow co-founder, Moza Issa, an international development student at the London School of Economics, said more collaboration was needed between scientists, engineers and developers to ensure the planet’s future.
“Our grandfathers used to live in houses connected to the environment, the desert ... The Arab Spring has shown us it is not about the government any more. You can imagine what you can be, what you can do now, that is different than before,” she said.
The region has already shown forward-looking thinking, as evidenced by the United Arab Emirates’ Masdar City, near Abu Dhabi.
The $22bn Norman Foster-designed project is a high-tech experiment in environmental technology, built by the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, with most of the seed money coming from the Abu Dhabi government.
The city, started in 2009, will be home to 45,000-50,000 people and 1,500 businesses, with more than 60,000 expected to commute to it daily. There are no cars, just public transport and small, electric “personal rapid transit” vehicles, allowing narrow roads and shaded streets that help funnel cool breezes across the city’s planned 6km².
Ms Issa said she believed environmentalists had it wrong when they said they wanted to “save the planet”.
“It’s not about saving the planet,” she said. “It’s about being in touch with it, connected to it ... It’s a global shift and we need to interlink development with the environment.”
The transfer of technology from the developed world to the developing world is one of the topics under discussion at the talks, but it has been stalled by, among others, a contest over what to do about proprietary versus intellectual property.
It is 15 years since the Kyoto Protocol came out of the UN climate-change talks, and its first commitment period ends on December 31, yet there is no agreement yet on the terms, or logistics, of a second commitment period. The protocol is the first and only global, legally binding agreement on how to diminish the emission of greenhouse gases.
Some of the world’s largest, most influential economies have to various degrees opted out of the protocol, and the US signed but never ratified it. It covers about 15% of global emissions.
“Stop COP (the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), we are tired,” was one of the slogans chanted on Saturday.
“We are telling world leaders that they are bargaining with our future,” said protester Pearla Hernanbez, a member of the Canadian youth delegation.
Canada is the only country participating in the talks that has formally opted out of the Kyoto Protocol, which it did last year at the talks in Durban.
• Blaine is attending the talks on a scholarship from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.