We Gulfies have it good. We enjoy a standard of living on par with most industrialized nations, something that manifests itself in more than just a voracious appetite for luxury products. The unfortunate combination of a naturally arid environment, abundant fossil fuels, and lax energy policy have meant that we consume far more electricity and fossil fuels than elsewhere in the world. We have used oil revenues to transform swathes of uninhabitable desert into dense, comfortable cities where we have become used to a lifestyle completely removed from the physical realities of our environment. We have come to rely on cheap and abundant electricity, systemic air conditioning, desalinated water, food imported from all corners of the globe, and cars that cost next to nothing to run.
So how do we compare to other nations? Let us start with the Gulf’s carbon footprint. A carbon footprint measures the overall carbon dioxide and methane emissions for which we are responsible on a national level. According to World Bank data presented by sustainability advocacy group Carboun, “the Arab world, which constitutes 5% of the world’s population, emits just under 5% of global carbon emissions, … and except for Saudi Arabia, no single Arab country is responsible for more than 1% of global emissions. The energy use of an average Arab person is still below the world average and less than half that of an average European.” The news seems at first reassuring, but it belies the individual consumption habits it represents. Viewed on a per capita emissions basis, it emerges that four of the GCC countries are ranked among the top 5 carbon emitters in the world, “with Qatar topping the global list at a staggering rate of 12 times the global average” (El Gendy).
Carbon emissions represent only the big picture. A Deloitte whitepaper citing the latest available data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) reveals that “in 2008, each person in the GCC countries consumed on average 9.650 TWh [terawatt hour] of electricity against a global average of 2.782 TWh and a Middle East average of 3.384 Twh.” By comparison, Americans consumed 13.985 TWh, the Japanese 8.063 Twh and Europeans 6.285 TWh. Tellingly, 47% of the GCC states’ energy use was residential, compared to a global average of 25% and an American one of 33%. “In fact, head-to-head when absolute numbers are compared, each GCC resident is almost at par with the average consumer in the USA: both using more or less 4.5 TWh of electric energy in their respective homes in 2008” (Deloitte).
The obvious question that now presents itself, as far as residents of the Gulf are concerned, is ‘so what?’ Presented with these facts, why should the average citizen of the Gulf care if her electricity consumption is on par with that of the United States, or if her family drives more cars than 3 European families do? After all, she is entitled to her fair share of her country’s natural resources, resources that if she didn’t use someone else would swoop in to exploit. Does not the Gulf have as much right to development as the rest of the world? In the name of what principle should it be asked to lag behind?
For now, it would appear that very few people in government or civil society place the looming ecological crisis high on their priority list. Driving the excessive patterns of consumption is a combination of environmental and socio-political factors. The unavoidable need for air-conditioning, water desalination and private transport represents part of the equation. The other part of the equation is socio-political: GCC governments have subsidized petrol and electricity prices for so long that it has become a political impossibility for them to now suggest a reduction or reversal of these subsidies. Citizens are completely removed from the real cost of these services and have come to regard the cheap exploitation of their one valuable natural resource as an unquestionable right. Electricity rates are so cheap and bill payments so little enforced that there is virtually no incentive on the consumer end to reduce consumption. Governments are in fact already struggling to keep up with their domestic demand, as can be evidenced by the increasing frequency of blackouts and brownouts during the summer months in some countries.
In my last post I talked about the Anthropocene, and the fact that collective human activity has now become a force of geological change on our planet. Our levels of energy consumption render us extremely comfortable, but they are outrageous, unsustainable, and downright irresponsible. And energy consumption is but the tip of the iceberg. Unless we adhere to planetary boundaries — measures of a ‘safe’ operating space for the planet — we are almost certainly driving our species down the path of extinction. The infographic below shows the nine boundaries and the extent to which we’ve exceeded them in yellow.
The trouble with such apocalyptic talk, though, is that it’s actually rather easy to file away in the back of our minds and not give another thought. The idea of human extinction is so large, so unreal, that we cannot identify with it in the same way we identify with something more personal: an illness or a death in the family. One must, ironically enough, be taught to care about the apocalypse (which, on a side note, explains why religious teaching dwells so much on the end of times, and incessantly tries to relate the afterlife to the present). In trying to rekindle our sensitivity to the state of the planet, we have to start with our expectations for ourselves. We have to consider that rather than expecting to work hard to trade up (cars, homes, vacations), we have to work hard to trade down if we expect ourselves, much less our children, to survive at all.
 El Gendy, Karim. “Two trends of energy and carbon emissions in the Arab World.” September 2011. http://www.carboun.com/energy/two-trends-of-energy-and-emissions-in-the-arab-world/
 “Energy on Demand: The Future of GCC Energy Efficiency.” http://www.deloitte.com/assets/Dcom-MiddleEast/Local%20Assets/Documents/Industries/Energy%20&%20resources/E&R%20whitepapers/me_er_whitepaper4_energy_efficiency.pdf.