Sharm el-Sheikh, which just half a century ago was a remote Bedouin fishing village, is now one of Egypt’s premier tourist destinations for visitors from around the world. This transformation from rural coastal area to global tourist destination began during the Israeli occupation of the Sinai Peninsula from 1967 to 1982, and was then continued by the Egyptian authorities after they regained control over the region. The resort town is situated on the Red Sea, but is also located just miles from the Sinai Desert, providing unique opportunities for both ocean and desert-going adventures for sightseers. The area, however, has felt the effects of its newfound fame and the rapid build-up of nearly 200 hotels, suffering from water shortages, poor waste management, damage to nearby coral reefs, and pollution caused by a heavy reliance on gas-powered boats, buses, and airplanes to bring tourists into the city and to transport them around once they are there.
Just months before the city was scheduled to host the 2022 UN Climate Change Conference (COP27), Egyptian officials signed the Sharm Green City Project Agreement in an effort to make Sharm el-Sheikh an “environmentally sustainable tourist destination.” Among other initiatives, the agreement aims to phase out single-use plastics, install solar-powered lighting systems, plant thousands of mangrove trees, and move smokestacks that currently lie within the city limits to the desert area instead. Magdy Allam, a former deputy environment minister and head of the Egyptian Federation of Civil Associations and Institutions for Climate, said of the agreement, “Egypt wants to show the world a green city from entry to exit.”
In many ways, Sharm el-Sheikh was the perfect setting for COP27, being a representation of the overall trajectory of global efforts to counter climate change: rapid overdevelopment of a once idyllic and natural setting, followed by moderate efforts to correct some of the resulting issues, with a massive influx of attention and resources shortly before the world’s elite come to visit, all against the backdrop of an authoritarian regime that has much to do to polish its image while in the international spotlight.
Some have considered the COP27 conference a great success in making progress toward meaningful climate action, while others see it as a significant failure in acknowledging the damage being done to the climate and environment.
Some have considered the COP27 conference a great success in making progress toward meaningful climate action, while others see it as a significant failure in acknowledging the damage being done to the climate and environment and as regards the real steps that must be taken in order to reverse course. Just as important as what happened during the conference, however, are the events that led up to it and those that will follow, both globally and in Egypt more specifically.
What is the COP?
In 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) established a treaty focused on studying and combatting climate change. The treaty went into effect in 1994, and just a year later, the first annual meeting of the UNFCCC’s decision-making body, the Conference of the Parties (COP) was held in Berlin and dubbed COP1. Since then, the conference has been held around the world, including three times in the Arab region (once in Doha, Qatar and twice in Marrakech, Morocco). COP27 was held in Egypt after a successful bid by the country, with the decision being announced at last year’s COP in Glasgow, Scotland. At the time, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi claimed that one of his goals in holding the conference in Egypt was to host an event “on behalf of African nations.”
The Middle East and North Africa region is likely to be among the first to feel the coming changes in the climate, including higher temperatures, more frequent natural disasters like floods and forest fires, more extreme weather events like droughts, the deterioration of arable land, and food and water shortages. For some, Egypt was a natural fit for the climate conference due to its recent prioritization of climate-related initiatives, including introducing electric vehicles, promoting environmental awareness campaigns, and supporting renewable energy projects.
The United Nations Environment Program has even labeled Egypt a “flagship country,” meaning one that is part of a “a critical mass of green economy ‘champions’ with readiness to pro-actively and constructively engage in moving forward a positive agenda on green economy.” Indeed, the country has a long environmental history, and boasts one of the longest records of human settlement. But the role the Egyptian government has historically played in managing its abundant natural resources in what can be a difficult climate has sometimes led to disastrous effects on human, plant, and animal life. This history, combined with Egypt’s gross human rights violations in recent years, led to significant criticism of the choice of Egypt to host this year’s COP.
The COP itself has also been highly criticized for years. The agreements made by countries to reduce emissions and keep warming at certain thresholds are non-binding. While some countries have voluntarily added these goals into their own laws, most have not.
The COP itself has also been highly criticized for years. The agreements made by countries to reduce emissions and keep warming at certain thresholds (currently at 1.5 degrees Celsius), for example, are non-binding. While some countries have voluntarily added these goals into their own laws, most have not. There are no penalties for not meeting targets, with enforcement relying mostly on a system of political peer pressure. COP26, meanwhile, was highly criticized for being exclusionary of people with disabilities, attendees from the Global South, women, and youth—all criticisms that have been made of the COP for decades. In addition, the outsized role of the Global North and oil-producing Gulf countries has often led to weaker policies and agreements. According to climate activists, the COP is essentially a setting where global leaders discuss climate change as though it were an emergency, but are unwilling to commit to taking necessary steps to mitigate that very same emergency.
COP27: Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back
COP27 drew around 40,000 participants from 190 countries, including more than 100 heads of state and government leaders. But the run-up to COP27 was not necessarily encouraging. The previous COP in Glasgow was held in a seemingly high-stakes atmosphere, as it was the first year that countries had to submit follow-up information regarding the Paris Agreement signed in 2015, and because it marked a return of the United States to climate policy after the end of the Trump administration, which had withdrawn from the Paris Agreement entirely. In contrast, just weeks before the COP27 conference, only two dozen countries had submitted updated follow-ups on the agreement. And this time, it was Europe that appeared to have shifted its focus away from making progress on the climate due to an ongoing energy crisis precipitated in large part by cuts in Russian natural gas.
Perhaps the most significant outcome was an agreement to create a “loss and damage” fund for countries that are most vulnerable to climate disasters. Nations also pledged $230 million to the Adaptation Fund for vulnerable communities.
Regardless, there were some potentially positive outcomes from the event. Perhaps the most significant was an agreement to create a “loss and damage” fund for countries that are most vulnerable to climate disasters. Nations also pledged $230 million to the Adaptation Fund, which helps vulnerable communities adapt to climate change outcomes. The UN also seemed to make a concerted effort to include more young people in the conference, including by erecting the first COP pavilion for children and youth, and the first youth-led climate forum. The Forest and Climate Leaders’ Partnership was also established to aid in ending forest loss and degradation, and the UN Secretary-General released a how-to guide for industries, financial institutions, cities, and regions on ways to make credible net-zero pledges. Disability groups held more panels than at any previous COP, and reportedly have plans to apply to the UN for a disability constituency. And the US and China, which are acting increasingly adversarial on many issues, agreed to resume formal climate talks.
Some of the conference’s historic challenges, however, persisted. Women were again underrepresented, with just 7 of the 110 leaders in the COP27 “family photo” being women. Meanwhile, the conference’s final deal was criticized for being too weak, especially since it affirmed the continued use of fossil fuels (oil company CEOs and lobbyists, not coincidentally, were highly visible at the conference). In addition, despite the progress made by establishing the loss and damage fund, the recommendations for the fund and the details of its functioning will not be presented until COP28, and it remains unclear whether the wealthy nations that have been discussing this issue since at least 2009 will actually be willing to commit themselves to a specific dollar amount or policy program. European Union Climate Chief Frans Timmermans ultimately summed up many people’s feelings about the conference, saying, “What we have in front of us is not enough of a step forward for people and planet…we should have done much more.”
Egypt During COP27
While for some, COP27 may have been the most trending topic to come out of Egypt in the fall of 2022, for many others it was the name Alaa Abd el-Fattah. Abd el-Fattah is an Egyptian British pro-democracy activist and blogger who gained prominence during Egypt’s 2011 uprising. He has been imprisoned multiple times by the Egyptian government on spurious charges such as violating protest law and spreading disinformation, and since December 2021 has been in prison on a 5-year term, which human rights groups and activists have characterized as an unjust and punitive effort to silence him and to discourage any others who might want to follow in his footsteps and criticize the Egyptian regime.
Alaa Abd el-Fattah has been imprisoned multiple times by the Egyptian government on spurious charges such as violating protest law and spreading disinformation, and since December 2021 has been in prison on a 5-year term.
Abd el-Fattah has long protested both his imprisonment and his treatment in prison, including by starting a hunger strike in April 2022, consuming only milk, honey, and tea. During COP27, as world leaders were convening in Egypt, he took the strike one step further, announcing that he would stop drinking water. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi during the conference, and reportedly brought up Alaa’s case with the Egyptian leader, stating that he “hoped to see this resolved as soon as possible and would continue to press for progress.” But Sunak left Egypt without even visiting Abd el-Fattah, and without a plan to secure his release. Certainly, Abd el-Fattah’s consistent presence in international news dampened Egypt’s attempt to show itself off as a global destination, as did his direct condemnation of the regime in a letter that his family shared with the media, in which he called himself and his fellow tens of thousands of political prisoners “victims of a regime that’s unable to handle its crises except with oppression, unable to reproduce itself except through incarceration.” Abd el-Fattah apparently ended his hunger strike on November 15, according to letters delivered to his family, although they fear that he was forcibly fed by prison authorities.
Of course, it wasn’t just Abd el-Fattah’s case that reminded the world of Egypt’s repression. All Egyptian human rights groups that applied for accreditation to travel to Sharm el-Sheikh were denied, forcing them to apply through foreign groups. Initially, participants in COP27 also complained that some websites, like Human Rights Watch, were being blocked by the Egyptian authorities—although the ban was apparently lifted a few days later. The COP has historically attracted demonstrations and protests from climate activists, but the conference in Egypt was heavily restricted, only allowing a few designated areas for activists to protest, all of which were in areas protected by the UN. One civil society representative stated, “This is the most repressive COP probably in the history of COP.”
Some of Egypt’s repression even seems to directly go against much of what the COP itself claims to support. For example, Egypt has been accused of destroying and paving over green spaces, in large part to prevent organized public gatherings.
Some of Egypt’s repression even seems to directly go against much of what the COP itself claims to support. For example, Egypt has been accused of destroying and paving over green spaces, including parts of a UNESCO heritage site 100 kilometers away from where the conference was being held, in large part to prevent organized public gatherings. Egypt has also placed harsh restrictions on funding and research for local environmental groups working on climate action that is critical of the government, especially in the years since Sisi first took office in 2014. Many organizations have been prosecuted, and many prominent climate activists have been harassed and questioned at security checkpoints, barred from travel, or have had their assets frozen. Laws restricting foreign funds that very vaguely harm the country’s “national interest” have frightened many international donors away from allocating resources to Egyptian climate groups. And similar laws have limited research that can be done on environmental factors in the country, leaving many organizations unable to conduct vital fieldwork.
Looking Forward to COP28
Next year, the COP will stay in the Arab world, this time being held in the United Arab Emirates. The country is among the world’s largest oil producers, is well known for its state control and repression, and, according to Climate Action Tracker, is ranked “highly insufficient” in terms of taking action that would support the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degrees Celsius limit. In fact, the UAE is actually planning to increase fossil fuel production and consumption, with President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan telling COP27 delegates that the UAE will continue to supply oil and gas “as long as the world needs.”
With all eyes on how the loss and damage fund will be constituted, COP28 promises to be an important event in global progress toward climate justice. However, as with COP27, the juxtaposition of the supposed goals of the conference—justice, progress, and a real commitment to climate action—with its repressive setting, makes for a stark contrast. And the inadequate treaty that will likely result from next year’s conference makes effective action on climate change an ever-diminishing possibility.
Featured image credit: facebook/COP27Egypt