COP27 Nets Mixed Blessings for Host Egypt

A significant win for developing countries and Small Island Developing States.

Most people are familiar with the old adage about not being able to please everyone, all the time. One might as well add that the odds are inversely proportional to the number of parties involved—the more people, the less likely it becomes. In the case of an international conference with global ramifications, like the United Nations Climate Convention’s Conference of the Parties (COP), the chances of most people walking away happy become slim indeed. And, for the organisers, such events vividly illustrate both the perks and the pitfalls of being in the public eye. In the case of Egypt, the host nation of COP27, the pitfalls almost managed to derail the perks. Some of the resulting criticisms were only to be expected for the COP host, some were a result of Egyptian domestic policies, some should have been anticipated and were eminently avoidable, and some verged on borderline racism. All were a clear indication that the greater the exposure, the greater the risk.

Egypt had high hopes for its COP27 presidency. The organisation was largely in the hands of Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, which had been working intensively and around the clock over the past year. It was an opportunity for Cairo to burnish its diplomatic credentials, proudly display its African-Arab identity, present itself as a natural bridge between the Global North and the Global South and step up as a champion for Africa. It was also an opportunity to emphasise, in addition to its regional heft in MENA, its growing strategic clout in Africa and drum up much-needed business opportunities.

The conference wrapped with a historic decision to “establish and operationalise a loss and damage fund” for those countries most vulnerable to climate change.

When COP27 finally came to an end in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, following frantic negotiations that ran almost 30 hours over, there was both consternation and celebration. The conference wrapped with a historic decision to “establish and operationalise a loss and damage fund” for those countries most vulnerable to climate change.[i]

It was a significant win for developing countries and Small Island Developing States (SIDS), which had been clamouring for such a fund for around three decades. In an unfortunate twist of fate, developing countries, which have historically had the smallest contributions to global emissions, are suffering the most dramatic and damaging effects of climate change. Developed countries, many of which had been polluting the environment since the Industrial Revolution, account for the vast balance of global emissions, with the G20 countries alone causing 75 per cent of the world’s emissions last year.[ii] However, not only did they suffer less noticeable effects, but their stronger economies provided buttresses against the worst of the damage.

Developing countries do not have those protections. Climate change extracted a huge cost globally this year and developing nations bore the brunt. The Group of 77 (G77), a coalition of 134 developing nations, had spent the year lobbying ceaselessly for such a fund and the near-apocalyptic floods in Pakistan (the current Chair of the G77) gave that country’s diplomatic efforts an extra urgency. Those efforts helped put loss and damage on the conference agenda. As host of COP27, Egypt had billed the conference as an “implementation COP,”[iii] one that would uphold the interests of developing nations in general and African ones in particular. As COP27 president, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry spent much of the year hammering home the message of climate justice. Across Africa, he noted at the opening session of Africa Climate Week in late August, countries were compelled to spend 2 per cent to 3 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on adapting to climate change impact, “a disproportionate responsibility that cannot be described as anything other than injustice,” he said.[iv]

The final mitigation work programme was stronger than the one that had originally been outlined.

By the time the conference had wrapped, a deal for a fund was on the table. Pakistan’s Climate Minister, Sherry Rehman, was effusive in her praise. “We have struggled for 30 years on this path and today, in Sharm El-Sheikh, this journey has achieved its first positive milestone … You promised an implementation COP and you delivered an implementation COP.”[v] That praise was echoed by, among others, Zambia’s Environment Minister, Collins Nzovu.[vi] Even those who said the host’s emphasis on loss and damage fund had come at the expense of mitigation, like Norway’s Climate Minister, Espen Barthe Eide, had to admit the final mitigation work programme was stronger than the one that had originally been outlined.

Any other praise for the host nation was scant, and criticism ran the gamut. Alongside the genuine concern and disappointment over the lack of any agreement on phasing out, or adequately limiting, fossil fuels, newspapers ran articles on such topics as a lack of food at the conference zones during the first two days.[vii] There were also allegations that Egypt “fell under suspicion for siding” with countries that sought to delay or derail climate action, like Saudi Arabia, China and Venezuela.[viii]

The most unfavourable coverage, however, representing the greatest obstacle to Egypt’s attempt to burnish its image during the conference, came from a matter largely unrelated to the environment: Egypt’s human rights record.

Egypt had attempted to manage the event on the global stage and keep attention focused on the environment rather than its domestic policies. To that end, the area for demonstrations, a prominent and entirely expected aspect of any COP, was housed well away from the Blue Zone. However, the country apparently didn’t reckon on the efforts of Sanaa Seif to free her brother, Alaa Abdel Fattah, one of Egypt’s most internationally prominent political prisoners who had just escalated his hunger strike in time for the start of the conference. For the first few days of the conference, media attention was focused almost entirely on Egypt’s human rights record.[ix] Shoukry, the COP president, had to watch his ministry’s hard work be side-lined while fielding questions on human rights that he was neither responsible for, nor equipped to answer. The furore threatened to overshadow the actual talks themselves. Very little about it, however, was a surprise.

The furore was also a sign of how easy it can be for a side issue to obscure the main one.

The fervent efforts of human rights activists may have been entirely sincere, but they demonstrated a glaring ignorance of the way the Egyptian government works. Successive regimes in Egypt have taken a dim view of what they perceive to be flagrant attempts at foreign intervention in Egyptian domestic politics. The louder the voices were raised to free Abdel Fattah, and myriad other prisoners, the less likely it was that they would achieve that goal. But in sticking to this principle, the Egyptian government also put itself in a position where the enormous potential of the conference was put at risk. The government, which has, in fact, been steadily releasing prisoners for the last year under a new National Dialogue initiative,
[x] had well over a year to tackle the issue, release high-profile prisoners and avoid the kind of messy public attention that would undoubtedly ensue—yet it chose not to take the opportunity.

The issue was, however, also a stark demonstration of the prioritisation of interests in foreign policy. While there was much discussion over Egypt’s human rights record, by the end of the conference, the country had managed to sign several important, and lucrative, agreements. Among them was one for $500 million in low-cost concessional funding tied to Egypt’s innovative Nexus on Water, Food and Energy (NWFE) platform. The funding, which is specifically earmarked for the energy component of the NWFE, is significant in its own right, but it is even more valuable as a blueprint for private funding, which has been seriously lacking in climate financing to date. Egyptian Minister of International Cooperation Rania al-Mashat said that the NWFE had helped Egypt tie down almost $10 billion in funding,[xi] and that she hoped that it might prove useful for developing nations trying to nail down climate-related finance.

The historic agreement on loss and damage signed at COP27 was the most important takeaway of the event.

Clearly, the distinction between local and global politics is simply not enforceable if there is no geographic separation. The financial agreements signed are vital, particularly for a country whose economy is currently being put through the wringer in the wake of the fallout from the pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a currency devaluation and capital flight. But a smoother, less fractious conference would have provided invaluable validation on the international stage. However, the furore was also a sign of how easy it can be for a side issue to obscure the main one.

To all those countries in the developing world struggling with the ever more threatening results of climate change, the historic agreement on loss and damage signed at COP27 was the most important takeaway of the event. Loss and damage finance is imperative to any country’s ability to adapt to and mitigate climate change and the UN’s 2022 Adaptation Gap Report clearly indicates that international adaptation finance flows are 5 to 10 times below what’s needed.[xii] The agreement on the fund was only a first step—it remains to be seen how swiftly nations move on funding and it’s generally expected that it will take most of 2023 to operationalise. But it was a vital first step; it will be impossible to shelve or ignore this issue any longer. Further, for all those countries battling the negative consequences of climate change, it will be a huge relief to know that they may be able to expect something more practical than mere good wishes and sympathy.

[i] “COP27 ends with announcement of historic loss and damage fund”, UN Environment Programme Release, 20 November 2022
[ii] Emissions Gap Report 2022, UN Environment Programme Report, 27 October 2022
[iii] “COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh to Focus on Delivering on the Promises of Paris”, United Nations Climate Change, 6 November 2022.
[iv]  “Egypt’s FM Shoukry calls for climate justice in Africa Climate Week 2022”, AhramOnline, 29 August 2022.–Shoukry-calls-for-climate-justice-in-A.aspx
[v] Jennifer A. Dlouhy, Akshat Rathi, John Ainger and Anthony Sguazzin, “COP27 latest: Talks end with compensation deal, emissions concern”, Bloomberg, 19 November 2022.
[vi] “COP27 global leaders react to deal: ‘Very, very excited’,” BBC, 20 November 2022.
[vii] Patrick Greenfield, “Dry in the desert; COP27 delegates get a taste of food and drink scarcity”, The Guardian, 9 November 2022.
[viii] Fiona Harvey and Adam Morton, “COP27 talks in disarray as 1.5C goal at risk, campaigners warn”, The Guardian, 19 November 2022.
[ix] Siobhan O’Grady and Sarah Kaplan, “Climate talks in Egypt overshadowed by shouting matches over human rights”, The Washington Post, 8 November 2022.[x] Khaled Dawoud, “Egyptian ‘national dialogue’ will kick off amid difficult domestic situation”, The Middle East Institute, 20 October 2022.[xi] Aidan Lewis and Simon Jessup, “COP27 host Egypt aims to share climate finance model”, Reuters, 18 November 2022.’
[xii] “Too Little, Too Slow: Climate adaptation failure puts world at risk”, Adaptation Gap Report 2022, United Nations Environment Programme, 2022.

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