Dispatch from Paris: Where does Egypt stand in Climate Talks?

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Mada Masr, Paris, France

The COP21 climate negotiations in Paris are entering a critical phase. Negotiators represending 195 countries are fast approaching a deadline for a final agreement  that aims to limit the rise in global temperatures to within 2 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels. The sticking points of the negotiations are still subject to debate, among which climate finance is a big issue of contention.

Industrialized countries made a promise at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 to help developing countries mitigate and adapt to the adverse effects of climate change through the establishment of a Green Climate Fund. This would supposedly provide $US100 billion to developing countries per year starting 2020, which is when the Paris agreement will be implemented. The text’s current draft shows there is still a long way to go before all parties to agree on its finance component.

Along with 157 other developed and developing countries, Egypt submitted an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), a proposal of its planned contribution to climate action post-2020. In addition to identifying key sectors in adaptation and mitigation, it assessed that Egypt will need $73.04 billion in climate finance to efficiently combat the negative impacts of climate change.

Egypt is part of a number of negotiating blocs. One such grouping is the G-77+China, in which Egypt and 133 other developing countries negotiate as one block on certain issues. Egypt also chairs the African group and is part of the Arab group, along with 20 other parties whose economies rely heavily on the fossil fuel sector, specifically oil. There is no official president of the Arab group but it is coordinated by Saudi Arabia, which speaks on behalf of the other Arab countries.

“Egypt is trying to play a diplomatic game that is quite difficult: they are trying to keep the priorities of Africa, Arab States and Egypt clear,” explains Emad Adly, the general coordinator for the Arab Network for Environment and Development. While he is not part of Egypt's team of negotiators, he is at the COP as part of the mobility group, composed of the UNHCR, the International Organization for Mobility and the National Research Council, which is trying to push forward the language related to displacement and migration caused by climate change and natural disasters.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in his speech on the first day of the COP, announced “a clear commitment in the agreement that the increase in temperature does not exceed 1.5 degrees,” much to the surprise of the rest of the Egyptian delegation, who were expecting the less ambitious target of “below 2 degrees” according to Adly, who adds, “The president's announcement makes me believe that he grasps the gravity of climate change impacts on Egypt.”

Hisham Eissa, the climate change focal point in Egypt’s delegation, laid out for Mada Masr the priorities of the country, which he labeled as “very vulnerable to multiple climate change threats,” in terms of mitigation and adaptation.

“Egypt has to grapple with many different climate change impacts all at the same time,” says Eissa, who listed sea level rise, drought, rising temperatures, desertification and water scarcity as challenges “that need to be dealt with in a holistic way.” In terms of the necessary adaptation measures listed in Egypt's INDC, Eissa said the development of crops resistant to higher salinity, heat and pests is critical to ensure that sea-level rise and seepage into the Delta do not wipe out large chunks of Egypt's land and harvest. Changing crop patterns and identifying safer zones for cultivation are also adaptation priorities.

“Many people ignore this fact, but Egypt was the first country in the world to adapt to climate change,” says Eissa, explaining that back in 1830 Mohamed Ali built a seawall in the Abu Qir bay to protect the lowland area southeast of Alexandria from flooding.

Current estimates indicate that if sea levels rise by 50 cm, all the low-lying lands in the Delta and the populous adjacent cities of Alexandria and Port Said will be severely impacted. If the promised climate finance comes through, Egypt will work hard on an integrated coastal zone management plan and provide job opportunities in zones identified as “safer” to absorb some of the populations displaced from risky areas.

In terms of water, Egypt wants to increase investments in modern irrigation systems, enhance cooperation with Nile Basin countries to reduce water lost to evaporation, and increase the river’s capacity. The end-users, or citizens, will also be sensitized to ration their use of water.

While many developing countries included emission reduction targets in their INDCs, Egypt failed to come up with a number or a clear roadmap for the mitigating its emissions, which amounted to a staggering 237 million tons of CO2 in 2014.

This makes Egypt the largest CO2 emitter on the African continent and the second biggest polluter in the Middle East after Saudi Arabia. “Our third national communication revealed that Egypt does not emit a lot of CO2, since we produce a mere 0.6% share of global emission,” says Eissa, who appears unfazed by the fact that Egypt, according to the latest figures, is ranked as the 25th largest emitter of CO2 worldwide.

In the absence of a clear emissions target, Eissa says a country with economic ambitions must work with modern technologies that will automatically abate CO2 emissions on a full spectrum of activities. According to him, calculating the levels of mitigation will be easy to do once this technology comes in, and as such is no need for a clear roadmap so early in the process.

Egypt's CO2 emissions for 2014 were calculated by the Global Carbon Project, which categorized emissions from four main sources: coal, oil, gas and cement. Coal emissions grew from 1474 kiloton of CO2 in 2013 to 5843 in 2014, a spike attributed to the state’s decision to import large quantities of coal to fuel cement factories and power plants.

When asked whether Egypt considers coal a long-term choice in its energy mix, or if it is envisions a phase-out, Eissa exclaims: “We haven't even started working with coal in the power sector, just in the cement industry! So how can we phase out before even starting?” Then he mentions carbon-capture technology, which the state will try to bring in using climate finance flows.

Eissa insists that an important chunk of the climate finance money, if it comes in, will be used to rehabilitate old and obsolete infrastructure. “Look at what happened in Alexandria during the massive rainfall of the past few weeks — the outdated infrastructure was badly affected by the heavy rainfall,” he says, adding that early warning systems are also needed.

The COP negotiations are now entering crunch time, and countries and negotiating blocs are clear about what should be included in the final text. For Egypt, three things need to be legally binding: climate finance, technology transfer and capacity building. Eissa believes that without these three crucial points, the text will be weak and will jeopardize the future of the countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts.

“We want this agreement to be a success,” he says. “This is why we work around the clock to elaborate a text suitable for each party, and since we are 195 countries working together, it is very difficult. But we need to succeed.”