With the exception of gas and oil, Qatar has limited natural resources, in particular water, having to rely on desalination and underground sources for the majority of its requirements. Combined with a fragile ecosystem, Qatar can ill-afford to play fast and loose when it comes to the environment.
Qatar was given a clear call to action in 2007, when the UN Development Programme released a report showing that the country had the highest per-capita CO2 emissions in the world, at 79.3 tonnes per person. While a small population meant that the country was a relatively minor contributor to CO2 emissions globally, Qatari authorities responded quickly to reduce its carbon footstep and address other environmental problems.
Protection and management of the environment was made one of the four pillars enshrined in Qatar's National Vision 2030 – a blueprint for the country's strategy for the next two decades – along with human, social and economic development.
The policy document, issued in October 2008, called for a balance to be met between the needs of socioeconomic development and the environment. This is to be done through promoting awareness of ecological issues across society and enacting legislation to support environmental sustainability.
"The environmental pillar will be increasingly important as Qatar is forced to deal with local ecological issues, such as the impact of diminishing water and hydrocarbon resources, the effects of pollution and environmental degradation, and international issues like the potential impact of global warming on water levels in Qatar and thereby on coastal urban development," the document said.
In line with these objectives, the state has taken a number of major steps. In mid-2008, it became one of the main sponsors of a joint project between Shell, Qatar Petroleum, Imperial College London and the Qatar Science & Technology Park to develop new CO2 management plans and carbon-capture technology.
In January this year, Qatar became the first member state of the Gulf Cooperation Council to join the World Bank's "Global Gas Flaring Reduction" initiative, a public-private partnership that aims to reduce or totally eliminate the release of gas produced during oil extraction into the atmosphere.
National flag carrier Qatar Airways is also doing its part to protect the environment. On May 5th it became the first Middle Eastern airline to join the Aviation Global Deal Group, a body that is working to develop a global policy for tackling aviation emissions.
According to Akbar Al Baker, the CEO of Qatar Airways, joining the group demonstrated the airline's commitment to corporate social responsibility and the environment.
Saying that the onus was very much on the corporate world to ensure the industry strove to achieve zero carbon emissions, thus making the world a safer and cleaner place, Al Baker said Qatar Airways was pleased to be, "working with our peers across the industry to tackle what is a serious environmental issue".
That was by no means the airline's first foray into green aviation, having made low emission levels one of the criteria of its aircraft acquisitions programme. In April, the airline also signed an agreement with the International Air Transport Association to launch a global carbon offset trading scheme, with proceeds going to fund environmental projects. Under the scheme, when booking tickets for their flights, passengers will be given the option of paying a small fee to offset their carbon footprint.
Protection of the environment is also crucial to Qatar's goal of becoming a major tourism destination in the region. The country has set itself a target of attracting 1.4m tourists a year by 2010, and wants to change its current mix of 95% business tourists and 5% leisure visitors to a more balanced 70:30 ratio.
To date, ecotourism has played only a minor role in Qatar's tourism market, but that could be about to change. The Ministry of Environment and the Public Works Authority are working with the Qatar Bird Club to establish a number of new wildlife and bird sanctuaries using processed wastewater to bring life to barren lands. So far, 13 sites have been identified as potential sanctuaries and tourist attractions.
Such an initiative would certainly be in tune with the tenets of National Vision 2030, assisting the development of a diverse economy while utilising waste in a way that not only does not impair the environment but also helps sustain it.
Having gained the dubious distinction of generating the largest per-capita carbon emission footprint just two years ago, Qatar is now working hard to make its mark as a protector and clean manager of the environment.