It was 116 degrees Fahrenheit (46.7 degrees Celsius) in the shade outside the new Al Janoub soccer stadium, and the air felt to air-conditioning expert Saud Ghani as if God had pointed “a giant hair dryer” at Qatar.
Yet inside the open-air stadium, a cool breeze was blowing. Beneath each of the 40,000 seats, small grates adorned with Arabic-style patterns were pushing out cool air at ankle level. And since cool air sinks, waves of it rolled gently down to the grassy playing field. Vents the size of soccer balls fed more cold air onto the field.
Ghani, an engineering professor at Qatar University, designed the system at Al Janoub, one of eight stadiums that the tiny but fabulously rich Qatar must get in shape for the 2022 World Cup. His breakthrough realization was that he had to cool only people, not the upper reaches of the stadium — a graceful structure designed by the famed Zaha Hadid Architects and inspired by traditional boats known as dhows.
“I don’t need to cool the birds,” Ghani said.
Qatar, the world’s leading exporter of liquefied natural gas, may be able to cool its stadiums, but it cannot cool the entire country. Fears that the hundreds of thousands of soccer fans might wilt or even die while shuttling between stadiums and metros and hotels in the unforgiving summer heat prompted the decision to delay the World Cup by five months. It is now scheduled for November, during Qatar’s milder winter.
The change in the World Cup date is a symptom of a larger problem — climate change.
Already one of the hottest places on Earth, Qatar has seen average temperatures rise more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial times, the current international goal for limiting the damage of global warming. The 2015 Paris climate summit said it would be better to keep temperatures “well below” that, ideally to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).
Over the past three decades, temperature increases in Qatar have been accelerating. That’s because of the uneven nature of climate change as well as the surge in construction that drives local climate conditions around Doha, the capital. The temperatures are also rising because Qatar, slightly smaller than Connecticut, juts out from Saudi Arabia into the rapidly warming waters of the Persian Gulf.
In a July 2010 heat wave, the temperature hit an all-time high of 50.4 degrees Celsius (122.7 degrees Fahrenheit).
“Qatar is one of the fastest warming areas of the world, at least outside of the Arctic,” said Zeke Hausfather, a climate data scientist at Berkeley Earth, a nonprofit temperature analysis group. “Changes there can help give us a sense of what the rest of the world can expect if we do not take action to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.”
While climate change inflicts suffering in the world’s poorest places from Somalia to Syria, from Guatemala to Bangladesh,in rich places such as the United States, Europe and Qatar global warming poses an engineering problem, not an existential one. And it can be addressed, at least temporarily, with gobs of money and a little technology.
To survive the summer heat, Qatar not only air-conditions its soccer stadiums, but also the outdoors — in markets, along sidewalks, even at outdoor malls so people can window shop with a cool breeze. “If you turn off air conditioners, it will be unbearable. You cannot function effectively,” says Yousef al-Horr, founder of the Gulf Organization for Research and Development.
Yet outdoor air conditioning is part of a vicious cycle. Carbon emissions create global warming, which creates the desire for air conditioning, which creates the need for burning fuels that emit more carbon dioxide. In Qatar, total cooling capacity is expected to nearly double from 2016 to 2030, according to the International District Cooling & Heating Conference.
And it’s going to get hotter.
By the time average global warming hits 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), Qatar’s temperatures would soar, said Mohammed Ayoub, senior research director at the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute. In rapidly growing urban areas throughout the Middle East, some predict cities could become uninhabitable.
“We’re talking about 4 to 6 degrees Celsius (7.2 to 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit) increase in an area that already experiences high temperatures,” Ayoub said. “So, what we’re looking at more is a question of how does this impact the health and productivity of the population.”
The danger is acute in Qatar because of the Persian Gulf humidity. The human body cools off when its sweat evaporates. But when humidity is very high, evaporation slows or stops. “If it’s hot and humid and the relative humidity is close to 100 percent, you can die from the heat you produce yourself,” said Jos Lelieveld, an atmospheric chemist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany who is an expert on Middle East climate.
That became abundantly clear in late September, as Doha hosted the 2019 World Athletics Championships. It moved the start time for the women’s marathon to midnight Sept. 28. Water stations handed out sponges dipped in ice-cold water. First-aid responders outnumbered the contestants. But temperatures hovered around 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32.2 degrees Celsius) and 28 of the 68 starters failed to finish, some taken off in wheelchairs.
Workers are particularly at risk. A German television report alleged hundreds of deaths among foreign workers in Qatar in recent years, prompting new limits on outdoor work. A July article in the journal Cardiology said that 200 of 571 fatal cardiac problems among Nepalese migrants working there were caused by “severe heat stress” and could have been avoided.
The U.S. Air Force calls very hot days “black flag days” and limits exposure of troops stationed at al-Udeid Air Base. Personnel conducting patrols or aircraft maintenance work for 20 minutes, then rest for 40 minutes and drink two bottles of water an hour. People doing heavy work in the fire department or aircraft repair may work for only 10 minutes at a time, followed by 50 minutes of rest, according to a spokesman for the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing.
In early July, Qatar’s Civil Defense Command warned against doing outdoor work between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., putting gas cylinders in the sun, turning on water heaters, completely filling fuel tanks or car tires, or needlessly running the air conditioner. It urged people to drink plenty of fluids — and to beware of snakes and scorpions.
For now, managing climate change in a place like Qatar, whose slogan for the World Cup is “Expect Amazing,” is primarily a matter of money.
And Qatar has plenty. Its sovereign wealth fund is worth about $320 billion. A few of its stakes include Harrods department store, London’s gigantic Canary Wharf, the Paris Saint-Germain soccer club, the CityCenterDC office and residential development and a 10 percent stake in the Empire State Building.
Qatar has used its riches to great effect at home, where 11 winners of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize have built striking high-rises and stadiums. The result is a strange combination of avant-garde architecture, oil wealth, Islamic conservatism, shopping malls and climate change that Qatari American artist Sophia al-Maria has dubbed “Gulf Futurism.”
“With the coming global environmental collapse, to live completely indoors is like, the only way we’ll be able to survive. The Gulf’s a prophecy of what’s to come,” she said in an interview in Dazed Digital, an online magazine covering fashion and culture.
So far, Qatar has maintained outdoor life through a vast expansion of outdoor air conditioning. In the restored Souq Waqif market, a maze of shops, restaurants and small hotels, three- to four-foot-high air-conditioning units blow cool air onto cafe customers. At a cost of $80 to $250 each depending on the quality, they are the only things that make outdoor dining possible in a place where overnight low temperatures in summer rarely dip below 90 degrees.
Recently, the luxury French department store Galeries Lafayette opened in a shopping mall that features stylish air-conditioning grates in the broad cobblestone walkways outside. Each of the vents, about 1 by 6 feet, has a decorative design. Many of them hug the outside of buildings, cooling off window shoppers looking at expensive fashions. Though nearly deserted in the heat, by 5 p.m. some people begin to emerge to sit outside places like Cafe Pouchkine.
One recent afternoon as the temperature eased to 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43.3 degrees Celsius), Aida Adi Baziac, an interior designer, was sharing iced lattes with a friend. They had just finished work and were perched over a cooling grate at an outdoor table at Joe’s Cafe.
“I would say it’s wasteful,” Adi Baziac said. “I know how it impacts the environment negatively.”
But it allows them to enjoy the outdoors in the summer, she added. “We can sit outside in an air-conditioned, controlled area, and we sit and mix and mingle.”
Even Qatar’s small band of climate activists sympathize. Asked about the outdoor air conditioners, Neeshad Shafi, executive director of Arab Youth Climate Movement Qatar, said, “That’s about survival. It’s too hot. That’s the reality.”
Qatar already has the distinction of being the largest per-capita emitter of greenhouse gases, according to the World Bank — nearly three times as much as the United States and almost six times as much as China.
Many Qataris believe that the World Bank’s accounting is misleading. Qatar’s huge exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) are burned by distant customers across the globe. The bank’s methodology charges Qatar for those emissions, rather than its fossil-fuel-gobbling customers.
Even so, Qatar emits a lot of greenhouse gases. About 60 percent of the country’s electricity is used for cooling. By contrast, air conditioning accounts for barely 15 percent of U.S. electricity demand and less than 10 percent of China’s or India’s.
And higher temperatures combined with a growing population will mean greater energy demand, primarily for fossil fuels. While native Qataris number roughly 300,000, the number of foreign workers in Qatar has grown by a million just in the last decade, pushing the population to 2.7 million.
Qatar is adding natural gas capacity faster than it’s adding solar — and at low prices. The country’s new dairy farm, a natural candidate for solar power, uses 35 megawatts from the natural-gas-fired grid to keep the cows cool enough to survive the heat.
Moreover, solar power plans will be dwarfed by the government’s plans to expand LNG production by 43 percent by 2024, adding 60 new tankers to its armada.
Scientists are wrestling with the question of why this small desert country and its rapidly industrializing capital have experienced such extraordinary rates of warming. Over the past five years, a large swath of the country measured more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than during the preindustrial era, according to data from Berkeley Earth.
Abdulla al-Mannai, director of the Qatar Meteorology Department, argued in emails to The Washington Post that the fast warming of Doha is being driven largely by urbanization, or what is known as the urban heat island effect, in which the dark surfaces of city streets and rooftops absorb solar radiation.
Mannai provided data showing that temperatures in the city of Doha have climbed by an astonishing 2.8 degrees Celsius (5.1 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1962. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA give lower figures, but ones that still reflect a major warming of 1.9 degrees Celsius (3.4 degrees Fahrenheit) in just over 50 years. And that is after an adjustment that is designed to take urbanization into account.
Mannai said that international experts rely too heavily on temperature readings at the Doha airport, which he said is susceptible to urban warming. The Doha airport temperature records are the nation’s most complete, but other monitoring stations around the country show less warming, he wrote.
“Even though there is an increase in temperature, it is far less than in industrial countries,” Mannai wrote.
Urban heat islands can indeed drive temperature increases. Doha is warming faster at night, research shows — one telltale sign of urban-driven factors.
But there is also evidence that Doha is warming because of climate change. Its temperatures are in sync with other places in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, including nonurban areas, studies show.
Many of these countries experienced a temperature spike from 1997 to 1999, a period punctuated by a major El Niño, a periodic warming that starts in the Pacific Ocean and affects the entire planet. At the time, 1998 was the warmest year on record. But temperatures didn’t come back down again, suggesting a climatic change, not a limited urban one.
The Qatar Peninsula is also exposed to warming seas. One recent study, for instance, found that between 1982 and 2015, sea surface temperatures across the shallow Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman jumped by about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit), far above global readings. During July, the average sea surface temperature reaches 32.4 degrees Celsius (90.3 degrees Fahrenheit).
Lelieveld, the atmospheric chemist in Germany, says the country is caught in a feedback loop. Though there are virtually no clouds or rain in Qatar, rising water temperatures in the Persian Gulf lead to more atmospheric humidity in certain months. That means there is more water vapor, which is a greenhouse gas and contributes to yet more warming.
“The story is that these areas are warming faster than the rest of the globe, and in certain cities on top of that you have an urban heat island effect and urban pollution,” said Lelieveld.
Ayoub, the climate research director, worries that some extreme weather events such as dust storms or rainstorms might be tied to climate change, too. And on Oct. 20 last year, as much as 98 millimeters (3.9 inches) of rain — 120 percent of the annual average and 25 times as much as the average October — fell in just four hours. The freak storm flooded homes and roads.
“It is an outlier,” Ayoub said. “The question is: Is it part of a trend?”
In the Middle East, concerns are rising that the combination of heat and humidity will one day exceed the capacity of humans to tolerate the outdoors. In such conditions, air conditioning would no longer be a convenience; it would be essential to survival.
“I often get asked: ‘Can we reverse whatever is happening in the climate?’ ” Mannai said in an email. “I ask: Can you turn off air conditioning and refrigeration and stop using cars? Nobody will say yes.”
Mannai advises “adapting to the new norm,” which carries a dual meaning. It is in one sense a surrender, a realization that there is little to be done about the vast store of carbon in the atmosphere. Yet it also means that in finite urban localities, it might be possible to moderate temperatures.
In August, Qatar’s Public Works Authority paved over a 200-meter stretch of road near the souq with layers of bright blue material designed by a Japanese company. Unlike asphalt, the material reflects much of the sun’s radiation. Temperature readings dropped by as much as 12 degrees to a mere 136.4 degrees Fahrenheit (58 degrees Celsius).
A short walk away, the Qatar Foundation — a progressive organization set up by Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, the current emir’s mother — is overseeing a high-end bit of urban planning known as the Msheireb. The development’s walkways and streets point north to take advantage of breezes that come from that direction. Cylindrical pillars will blow cool air in an open courtyard featuring water fountains and a sun-blocking canopy can be closed on windy days.
The development has 6,400 solar panels that will generate 4 percent of the development’s energy.
At the Gulf Organization for Research and Development, Horr, the environmentalist who heads the group, is developing regional building quality standards that he hopes will bring about far-reaching change.
Some of the early high-rises — such as the 802-foot Palm Towers — used glass to clothe their exteriors, allowing more heat inside. New regulations limit glass to no more than 40 percent of a building’s exterior, says Hassan Sultan, a member of the Qatar branch of the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers.
“When two-thirds of your electricity goes to air conditioning, unless you manage this part all your other measures are minor,” Horr said.
Late last year, the government announced that the World Cup would be carbon neutral. That means that for every mile flown from overseas, for every mile driven between venues, for every factory that produced construction materials, and for every air conditioner running overtime, there should be an offsetting reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Qatar’s government says the carbon emissions will be smaller than those at other World Cup venues where stadiums were far apart or even spread across different countries. The distance between Qatar’s stadiums is never more than 35 miles and as close as three. Five of the eight stadiums will be connected to new metro lines still under construction. Both could trim spectators’ global travel, which accounted for about 57 percent of the carbon emissions at the games in Russia.
Shafi, the climate activist and environmental engineer who comes from India, says that the government is undercounting the cost of the World Cup, making it easier to become carbon neutral. Many big ticket infrastructure items are not being counted as World Cup projects because they are considered to be part of the country’s preexisting 2030 building plan, he said.
That building program includes roughly $200 billion for metros, a new airport and roads.
The Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, responsible for the World Cup preparations, said its budget for stadiums and training sites would come to about $7 billion. A committee official, who was not authorized to speak for the committee, said other developments were “not a direct result of the tournament coming here.”
The government recently unveiled a plan to plant 1 million trees in Qatar. Shafi calls it “unrealistic,” and said, “10 saplings are planted by VIPs and then they go home.”
Nevertheless, the committee is pushing ahead. It says it will rebuild one stadium using construction waste for 88 percent of its materials. Another will be made of shipping containers and modular steel components so it can be broken down and sent to a country that needs stadiums more than Qatar will after the games. Thousands of seats at other stadiums can be relocated, too.
“We don’t want to be left with white elephants,” said the committee official. “They will be very easy to undo and take apart.” Ghani said “like Lego.”
Bodour Mohammed al-Meer, the manager for sustainability and environment at the Supreme Committee, said that the World Cup would also feature 8.6 million square feet of landscaping.
But one important method for getting to carbon neutral is for the Supreme Committee to buy credits using the Global Carbon Trust set up by Horr. The trust, like similar cap-and-trade mechanisms in Europe or California, would certify climate projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, he said. The reductions would then be packaged as credits that can be sold to companies, organizations or governments in the region that have failed to meet targets and need to offset carbon emissions. The higher the price, the more likely companies will address their own emissions rather than buy others’.
That climate-consciousness has been largely limited, however, to the World Cup.
In its submission to the Paris climate conference in 2015, where many countries volunteered specific targets for cutting emissions, Qatar demurred and said that it has been “blessed with oil and gas resources that are being used to overcome the living difficulty on this land.”
The government acknowledged that “ecological and human systems are vulnerable to the adverse impact of climate change,” but it said only that it would seek “to strike a balance between development needs and environmental protection.”
Then on Oct. 9, Qatar Petroleum announced that it would construct a facility to capture and store 5 million tons of carbon from the company’s liquefied natural gas operations by 2025. The facility, which will eventually have a 2.1 million-ton-per-year capacity, would be bigger than all but two worldwide, said Pavel Molchanov, a senior analyst at the investment firm Raymond James.
Along Doha’s Corniche, climate seems like a pressing issue. Every week, thousands upon thousands of foreign workers gather to stroll, eat, lie on a strip of grass and dance on docked traditional boats.
Zahir Ahmmed Ali Ahmmed, 48, comes from Bangladesh and has spent 19 years abroad working mostly for a refrigeration company in Saudi Arabia. He’s hoping to find work here, where most low-skilled foreign workers make $300 to $425 a month. While he looks, he is staying with friends, four of whom share a room with him.
Ahmmed is aware of climate change. Back in Bangladesh, where his wife and three sons live, farmers waited for rains this year before planting. And they waited. And waited. But the rain didn’t come. He blames climate change.
“The change of seasons back home, it isn’t how it used to be,” he said.
Now, in Qatar, he says he glances every day at the temperatures back in Saudi Arabia. Qatar, he said, is much hotter.
As the sun began to set one afternoon outside the Khalifa International Stadium, Ghani, the cooling expert, was trying to make sure that in the meantime Qataris can take refuge in air-conditioned places, even if they are outside.
“Yes, we are very concerned about climate change,” he said, noting that the projects use locally sourced materials and locally manufactured seats. “We looked at every aspect of how to minimize our carbon footprint.”
The Al Janoub stadium is a point of pride. He built a 92-by-92-foot building next door to store cool water at night. That is piped during the day into the stadium, which extracts the cold through heat exchangers. There are intake returns in the floor, so the equipment is re-cooling air from inside the already cooled stadium and isn’t sucking in sweltering air from outside. When the first game was played at 10:45 p.m. in May, the system worked well.
Now, Ghani is designing a covered open-air walkway so that spectators don’t expire from heat on the way to and from the parking lot or metro.
Outside Khalifa International Stadium, whose cooling system he also designed, Ghani looked at two prototypes. Each features cooling vents, hanging plants and curved solar panels.
So far, Ghani said, the design still needs work. The solar panels don’t provide enough power to run the cooling system. The plants are scraggly. And, worst of all, a stiff hot breeze is blowing through, rendering the cooling system ineffective. “Wind is your biggest enemy,” he said.
Ghani said he is concerned about cooling the planet, but for now he’d settle for cooling the pedestrian walkway. He hasn’t given up.