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COP27 host Egypt criticized for climate targets, repression

November 6, 2022

Suppression of civil society, "disappointing" climate targets, drought, floods — these are the issues making waves for the Egyptian hosts of this year's international climate conference.

Ägypten | UN-Weltklimakonferenz COP27 in Scharm el Scheich
Image: Sedat Suna/EPA-EFE

There's no room for delay in tackling climate change, Sameh Shoukry, president-designate of the COP27 global climate conference taking place in Sharm el-Sheikh, said in a statement ahead the summit, which kicks off in Egypt on Sunday.

Shoukry, also Egypt's foreign minister, said the global community, including his own country, had to act more decisively to "save lives and livelihoods" from the climate crisis.

The world is currently heading for global warming of 2.8 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels before the end of the century, according to the latest Emissions Gap report released by the United Nations Environment Program in late October. 

Egypt's emissions targets 'disappointing'

And yet, according to Mia Moisio, Middle East and North Africa expert at the NewClimate Institute, Egypt's own emissions targets are "disappointing." Moisio is also head of the Climate Action Tracker, a consortium of diverse NGOs that specialize in the analysis of emissions targets.

As agreed at last year's conference in Glasgow, countries were to submit revised and improved climate targets by this year's summit. Egypt was one of the first countries to put forward its new climate targets, or nationally determined contributions (NDCs) — although they weren't very ambitious.

Jewel of the Mediterranean at risk of sinking

The country isn't aiming for net-zero emissions, nor do the targets intend to reduce emissions of climate-damaging greenhouse gases compared with current levels. On the contrary, "in the case of Egypt, we see that the NDCs will lead to higher emissions. They don't lead to any savings. It's very disappointing that the host of the COP is coming forward with such weak targets," Moisio told DW.

Egypt contributes just 0.6 % of the world's annual greenhouse gas emissions; China, the United States and the European Union combined are responsible for more than half. But the country is the second-largest gas producer in Africa, and responsible for about a third of the continent's total consumption.

Oil and gas production is set to expand massively in the coming years, for the country's own consumption as well as for export to the EU.

Criticism over repression, human rights violations

Emissions and adaptation are only part of the picture at this year's summit. Egypt is also being criticized for its ongoing repression and mass imprisonment of members of civil society, and for its human rights violations.

Those who criticize the government can expect intimidation and trouble in their professional lives, or those of family members. This can include anything from additional bureaucratic hurdles or a trip straight to prison, said an Egyptian activist, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. "People have already gone to jail for a Facebook post," they told DW. "Some things just can't be said."

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi swept to power in 2013, and since 2014 has led the country with an iron fist. Public discussion and criticism are only allowed for selected topics, said the activist.

"The government decorates itself with topics such as recycling and attempts to do something for sustainability on the surface. In these areas, a discussion can take place," they told DW. "But the systemic questioning — the question of why we are so inefficient, why we continue to expand our gas production instead of reducing it, that must not be asked."

The same is true when discussing the construction and tourism industries, both important sectors for the economy, said the activist, adding that it is only family and friends that are keeping them in the country.

Richard Pearshouse, environment director at Human Rights Watch, said human rights and climate justice are inextricably linked. "What the international community is facing is this real dilemma of how do we engage on global climate policies but do so in a country where there is severe repression of civil society?" he said.

In the run-up to COP27, the nongovernmental organization has already drawn attention to the numerous opposition figures and activists in Egypt's prisons.

COP president-designate Shoukry has said traditional protests should be able to take place during the conference in the tourist stronghold of Sharm el-Sheikh. According to media, however, protests against el-Sissi's policies are also expected in Egypt's capital, Cairo. There are already reports on social media about arbitrary street controls and cordons.

High-risk area for climate crisis

Egypt has enough reasons to do all it can to adapt to the climate crisis and limit global warming.

Some 95% of the country's more than 100 million inhabitants live in the Nile Delta, a region highly at risk from the impacts of climate change. 

Egypt has already seen reduced rainfall. Water is becoming increasingly scarce, and temperatures are rising. At the same time, heavy rains and flooding are becoming more frequent and more severe.

Large parts of the Nile Delta are flat and lie just 2 meters (6.5 feet) above sea level. If the seas rise as expected, millions of homes will be washed away, along with public infrastructure, roads and power supplies — and valuable arable land.

A farmer waits for the irrigation system to finish watering his field in Kafr al-Dawar village in northern Egypt's Nile Delta
Fertile soil is being lost in Egypt's Nile Delta, resulting in a decrease in food production by about a third by 2030Image: Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images

Ever more fertile soil is being lost to salinization and erosion. Salt water is invading Nile tributaries and freshwater lakes. This is particularly problematic, as 80% of Egypt's total arable land is located right there, on the Nile Delta. As early as 2030, food production here will drop by at least one third.

There are, however, individual initiatives to stop these trends. But Ahmed El Droubi of Greenpeace Middle East and North Africa said there is a lack of strategy behind implementing them efficiently and on a larger scale.

'Awareness on climate impacts is greatly lacking'

"Awareness on climate impacts is greatly lacking in many government bodies. Therefore, it is not prioritized across the board. This is a massive challenge for any government to deal with," he said.

Despite the enormous potential for solar and wind power in Egypt, renewable energy currently accounts for only one-tenth of the country's electricity supply. That share is set to rise to 42% by 2035. These ambitions, however, only stand if wealthier countries provide significant financial support.

At the climate conference, which lasts until November 18, Egypt plans above all to lobby for urgently needed financial aid from rich industrialized countries, both to help poor and vulnerable countries quickly reduce their emissions and take measures to adapt to climate change and receive compensation for what they have already lost.

"We will use all our diplomatic skills to agree to a way forward that is focused on finance to delivering loss and damage. What kind of format is up to the parties," said Mohamed Nasr, director of environment and sustainable development at Egypt's Foreign Affairs Ministry and the country's lead negotiator at COP27.

This article was adapted from German.