Throughout the next three weeks, the Egyptian seaside resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh will be at the heart of global climate action. Indeed, by hosting the 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Egypt will take a lead role in the worldwide battle against global warming.
At COP26, which was held in Glasgow, United Kingdom, the countries in attendance made new pledges to reduce the emissions that accelerate global warming. COP27 is expected to reinvigorate financing mechanisms for climate mitigation and adaptation in the developing world. The conference’s location may well encourage greater attendance by delegates from typically underrepresented countries who have over the past three decades struggled with the difficulty of travel to the European cities where earlier conferences were generally held. This is important because the countries of the Global South can expect to face a disproportionate share of increasingly frequent and severe climate shocks over the coming decades. The list of such countries includes Egypt, which is highly vulnerable to the compounding effects of climate change, such as rising temperatures, desertification, dwindling water resources, and eventually food security risks.
At the upcoming conference, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi will have the opportunity to demand greater financial incentives for developing countries that are asked to reduce emissions at the expense of their economic growth. Sisi has positioned his country (and himself) politically and economically to serve as a transregional Arab and African leader on climate justice. This has enabled him to frame Egypt as a “defender of the interests of the African continent in the issue of climate change,” to urge the international community to “think about the losses incurred by developing countries,” and to call on countries to update their targets and make new emission reduction commitments.
It should be recalled that, in establishing a Green Fund with pledges of $100 billion per year, COP15—which was held in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009—reckoned with the legacy of differentiated responsibilities between industrialized and non-industrialized nations. Wealthier nations undertook to pay their less prosperous counterparts $100 billion every year until 2020 for the purpose of helping them to go green. However, since then, only 55 to 80 percent of this annual sum has been honored. Sisi will most likely press richer nations to make good on their financial pledges.
Yet Egypt’s path toward global climate leadership will encounter two stumbling blocks: the country’s fossil fuel reliance and its human rights record. To begin with, Egypt lacks a coherent climate change plan, in large part because it has yet to envisage a definitive break with fossil fuels. True, the government has budgeted $211 billion for mitigation and $113 billion for adaptation projects in the energy, transportation, agriculture, and water sectors, as well as emissions reductions in the petroleum sector. However, Egypt’s first update to the 2015 Paris Agreement goal to restrict global warming to well below 2°C, if not 1.5°C, contains a 2030 emissions reduction target that, in absolute terms, factors in a rise in emissions. According to Climate Action Tracker, if all countries were to adopt Egypt’s policies on emissions reduction, global warming would be on track to exceed 4°C by the end of the century.
While the city of Sharm al-Sheikh has been quickly upgraded to greener standards, with solar power stations, a revamped airport, and electric buses, Sisi continues to develop his country’s fossil fuel industry. Egypt is responsible for more than a third of total gas consumption in Africa. Indeed, it is the continent’s second largest gas producer, and there are no signs that this will slow down. In the past seven years, the Egyptian government has accelerated its efforts to capitalize on newly discovered fossil fuel deposits, and European firms have invested billions of dollars in Egypt’s fuel industry.
Paradoxically, despite Sisi having thus far resisted the shift to clean energy, his country is experiencing a “green gold rush.” Egypt has already received billions of dollars of new investment in green sectors. Soliciting international clean energy investment during COP27 may accelerate the trend.
Yet there remains the other stumbling block: Egypt’s human rights record. With an eye on international scrutiny of this issue, Sisi issued a wave of pardons and prisoner releases ahead of COP27. But civil society activists continue to be criminalized, and the government continues to detain more than 60,000 political prisoners. Egyptian human rights coalitions have launched public campaigns on social media demanding the release of all arbitrary detainees in Egypt, particularly Alaa Abd al-Fattah, a symbol of the 2011 uprising who has been on a partial hunger strike for more than six months. He will embark on a full hunger strike during the climate summit.
Sisi has also made environmental activism and research practically impossible in Egypt, “forcing some activists into exile and others to steer clear of important work,” according to a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report. Those who choose to stay in the country are subjected to harassment or face the threat of indefinite imprisonment for receiving foreign funds in violation of national security standards. According to HRW, when it comes to COP27, the Egyptian Ministries of Environment and Foreign Affairs will grant access only to those Egyptian organizations whose talking points align with the positions of the government.
Only one Egyptian NGO is fully accredited to attend all COP summits. The list of 35 Egyptian organizations that are partially accredited for COP27 does not include any independent human rights organizations. Those not accredited face near total exclusion from the summit. Demonstrations during the conference will be authorized only within the confines of a facility close to the main conference venue. The message is clear: No public mobilizations will be tolerated during the event. Activists’ social media accounts point to an intensification of policing and surveillance operations in Sharm al-Sheikh and its surroundings. More broadly, a new COP27 application will allow the government to conduct widescale digital surveillance of attendees.
Next year’s climate change conference will be held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Thus far, the UAE has taken several steps toward improving its climate action strategy. Notably, the country is the first in the Arab world to ratify the Paris Agreement and the first to commit to eliminating emissions altogether—in its case, by 2050. But the UAE and Egypt share certain troubling attributes. Both countries’ economies rely heavily on oil, and both countries have a long history of human rights violations. Despite an apparent intention to combat global warming, the UAE is the world’s seventh biggest oil exporter. Ultimately, both Egypt and the UAE have made ambitious commitments that they have yet to implement. Their actions at home will determine whether they emerge as global leaders.