In November of this year, Egypt will host the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27). While this is not the first time a COP has been held in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), as previous meetings have been held in Morocco in 2001 and 2016, and in Qatar in 2012, Egypt’s presidency over this year’s conference comes at a critical juncture. If the 2015 Paris Agreement commitment to limiting global warming to just 1.5℃ above preindustrial levels is to be met, it is of paramount importance that this year’s summit lead to global action. The COP27 meeting, which is to be followed next year by COP28 in the United Arab Emirates, also presents an opportunity for the MENA region to become a central player in global climate change diplomacy and a leader in climate change adaptation and mitigation.
But while climate change appears to be the new hot topic in the region, it is simultaneously being turned into an object of diplomatic and geopolitical competition. Although this is leading to striking climate change pledges and significant investment in climate mitigation projects, there has been little consideration for how climate change and its mitigation strategies impact ordinary Arab citizens. COP27 is bringing into focus a new climate change mitigation and adaptation regime in the region that is defined by top-down, elite-led projects that seek to capture and monopolize the benefits of climate change finance.
The Failures of COP26
COP26, which was held in Glasgow in 2021, was widely viewed as having failed to achieve its two chief aims: required commitments to limit global warming to 1.5℃ by 2030, and the end of the use of coal. While the Glasgow Climate Pact was not quite the death knell for the 2015 Paris Agreement, it failed to implement the sort of robust and binding commitments to fossil fuel reduction from developed nations that are necessary to ensure that temperatures are kept within the 1.5C threshold. Of particular note in this regard was the watering down of language around coal use from “phasing out” to “phasing down.”
COP26, which was held in Glasgow in 2021, was widely viewed as having failed to achieve its two chief aims: required commitments to limit global warming to 1.5℃ by 2030, and the end of the use of coal.
COP26 also produced little headway on climate finance. The Adaptation Fund—established in 2001 to help developing countries adapt to climate change—again failed to reach its target of channeling $100 billion in funds per year to developing countries. On top of this, while a concerted effort by island nations led to the recognition of their having suffered “loss and damage” from climate change, wealthier nations continue to block attempts to commit financial resources to pay for the impact of climate change. In short, while COP26 was heavy on pledges across a range of climate change issues, such pledges were rarely binding and revealed the difficulties in moving from pledges to commitments, and finally to actions.
The COP27 Agenda: An African COP?
Returning to the failures of COP26 makes plain the importance of COP27 and the necessity of turning the pledges that were made at previous summits into tangible climate change action. There are encouraging signs that an action-oriented summit is on the table, with a desire to make COP27 an “implementation COP,” with particular emphasis on climate finance, the “loss and damage” debate, adaptation, and the need for greater ambition. This has been backed up by Egypt’s presidency, which has made much of the need for implementation and action. For example, Ambassador Mohamed Nasr, Director of Environment and Sustainable Development at Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, noted at a press briefing that: “Current commitments are a floor and not a ceiling. More is needed if we are to deliver an effective response to protect people from climate change.” Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has expressed his desire to advocate for the interests of African and other developing nations during climate negotiations, and has also stressed the need for climate finance directed toward the Global South.
COP27 has been framed as an “African COP,” although it remains unclear what this will look like in practice. There remain concerns that activists from across Africa will be prevented from attending the summit.
To this end, the summit has been framed as an “African COP,” although it remains unclear what this will look like in practice. There remain concerns that activists from across Africa will be prevented from attending the summit, and there is also a danger that talks will be dominated by a few regional climate change leaders such as Morocco, South Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Nigeria—countries that also happen to account for the majority of the continent’s fossil fuel emissions—and will most likely marginalize more vulnerable states sitting at the COP table.
Climate Change in the MENA Region: Competition and Diplomacy
Historically, the MENA region has been a relatively small player at the global climate change diplomacy table, with its politicians and governments often downplaying the effects of climate change. However, many governments in the region have recently pivoted towards climate change as a central area of policy implementation and the region’s elites are increasingly interested in the investment opportunities represented by green finance. A number of countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, have now committed to reaching net zero emissions within the next 25 to 40 years. And Qatar, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Jordan have all strengthened their 2030 greenhouse gas emission reduction pledges.
It is important to stress that the region does not represent a united bloc when it comes to climate change, and that there are important intra-region differences in climate change strategy and interests that have become more substantial in recent years. In broad terms, the region can be split between “high-ambition, high-emission” countries (the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council) and “low-ambition, low-emission” countries (North Africa and the Levant). Further nuancing this picture, in recent years—and especially since the start of the war in Ukraine—the ambitions of “low ambition” countries have notably increased, even though there remain clear distinctions between high and low emission states.
The MENA region can be split between “high-ambition, high-emission” countries (the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council) and “low-ambition, low-emission” countries (North Africa and the Levant).
For example, Egypt has developed international electricity connections, with both a 2-GW Euro-Africa interconnector transporting electricity to Europe and a recent connection with Sudan. This has worked to strengthen Egypt’s position as the key transit hub for pipelines, electricity grids, and shipping in the Eastern Mediterranean, and has helped the country attract further investment in both renewable and non-renewable power generation.
Egypt represents a broader trend of European states looking to the MENA region to bolster Europe’s energy security. Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia have all been touted as alternatives to Russian energy, with the Sahara potentially offering a source of clean, reliable solar energy on Europe’s doorstep. The COP27 summit thus comes at a time of intense intra-regional competition, as states seek to capture a market share of the green economy and to develop economic, diplomatic, and security partnerships with Europe and the West.
Egypt’s Green Transition: A Top-down Approach
Regarding Egypt’s own green transition, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has stressed a “green growth” approach to transition, relying on the private sector as the motor for the country’s transition, and emphasizing the transfer of financial and technological assistance to developing countries. For example, Egypt was the first government in the region to issue sovereign green bonds, raising $750 million for clean public transport and sustainable water management. Moreover, Egypt aims to turn the Suez Canal Economic Zone into a global hub for the production of green hydrogen and ammonia, with the Egyptian government hoping to sign around $25 billion in green energy deals during the COP27 summit.
Egypt also has ambitious plans to intervene in the country’s ecosystems, with plans to “regreen” the Sinai Peninsula, restoring the biosphere and thus changing hydrological cycles in the region. According to Dutch firm the Weather Makers, which is managing the project, restoring vegetation to the Sinai will reduce the amount of moisture lost at this junction between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, and will thus increase rainfall across the MENA region.
It is worth noting that the Egyptian military has being fighting an insurgency in the Sinai since 2011, and any project there would likely require the close involvement of the military, and could be used as a pretext for further evictions of local communities. Both the regreening of the Sinai and the development of the Suez Canal Economic Zone reveal Egypt’s preference for large-scale projects that bring together the various coalitions of the Egyptian bureaucracy, business leaders, the military, and global capital that have historically dominated the country’s development projects.
Egypt’s climate record remains poor, and it consistently avoids making binding carbon reduction commitments and providing long-term decarbonization plans.
Despite such dramatic megaprojects, Egypt’s climate record remains poor, and it consistently avoids making binding carbon reduction commitments and providing long-term decarbonization plans. Climate Action Tracker, for example, rates Egypt’s climate change policies as “highly insufficient.” Moreover, there are signs that Egypt wishes to pursue a gas-fueled energy transition. Egypt is Africa’s second largest gas producer, and following the recent discovery of offshore natural gas reserves it has become a net energy exporter in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Although LNG is greener than coal and oil, it still causes dangerous methane emissions and hinders the transition toward a zero-emission future. All of these projects display a preference for top-down climate change adaptation and suggest a trend toward the monopolization of climate change finance by a political and military elite who have little regard for how such projects will impact ordinary Egyptians.
Other Paths to Net Zero?
In both Egypt and the wider region, a picture is beginning to emerge of elite-led green growth. Projects such as the Suez Canal Economic Zone and the use of the COP as a means to attract foreign green investment together suggest a move toward capital-intensive green transitions in the region. COP27 and the language of national climate change commitments and technocratic interventions complement and reinforce this top-down approach to green transition. It remains to be seen whether such an approach will produce the kind of greenhouse gas reductions that are necessary if Paris Agreement targets are to be met.
The summit, however, also offers an opportunity for Arab activists and civil society actors to offer counternarratives that demonstrate other paths to reach net zero. But it is important that this opportunity is seized. COP27 presents an opportunity to change perceptions of climate change among Arab citizens and to enrich current debates on the environment within the region. The seventh round of the Arab Barometer public opinion poll revealed that while there is wide support for increased governmental action in response to climate change, perceptions regarding human effects on the environment are primarily viewed in terms of water and waste management.
COP27 offers an opportunity for Arab activists and civil society actors to offer counternarratives that demonstrate other paths to reach net zero. But it is important that this opportunity is seized.
This limited understanding of climate change among Arab citizens is a reflection of poor climate change education in the region, and of an understandable tendency to view climate change through the lens of immediate everyday experiences and needs. During the summit, Arab climate activists, journalists, civil society actors and politicians should work to paint a broader and more holistic picture of climate change, discussing how water shortages and waste management practices must be understood in terms of broader human-environment interactions. This should include public information campaigns around agricultural techniques and food security, air quality and pollution, and energy use.
At the global level, it is vital that COP27 become the conference where a robust agreement to limit warming to 1.5℃ is finally achieved. And any such agreement must include an awareness of the need for the green transition to first benefit the countries of the Global South. It is therefore promising that Egypt is calling for an “implementation COP” that prioritizes Africa during discussions. At the regional level, the summit offers an opportunity to foreground both the severe climate vulnerability of MENA countries and the fact that mitigation and adaptation must account for intra-region differences in technological advancements and oil wealth.
Finally, there are worrying signs that regional elites are directing the climate change narrative in the region, and using green transitions to their own benefit. Most notably, COP27 is being used by the Egyptian government to advocate for its private sector-led approach to green growth. It is of utmost importance that room be made for civil society actors to critique, question, and offer alternatives to this limited picture of green transition.
Featured image credit: shutterstock/rafapress