COP27 in Egypt: For Arab States, Stakes are High but Expectations Low

climate activists dressed as world leaders on stage
The New Arab
Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt

COP27 in Egypt: For Arab States, Stakes are High but Expectations Low

COP27 will start on Sunday (November 6) in the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh, bringing together representatives from the 198 parties to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) as well as thousands of civil society organizations, lobbies, NGOs and climate activists.

Notable absentees include the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who will boycott the summit to protest Egypt’s dire human rights record, the lack of space for activists and civil society at the conference, and the ongoing detention of political dissident Alaa Abdel Fattah.

Marred by accusations that COP27 will be used to “greenwash” Egypt’s human rights record, the world’s top climate talks take place this year in a tense context — marked by skyrocketing energy prices caused by the ongoing war in Ukraine, and a series of devastating natural disasters.

More than a thousand people have recently been killed in Pakistan by massive flooding that displaced tens of millions. In the Horn of Africa, a punishing drought has driven millions to the brink of famine. And Europe faces scorching heatwaves and one of the worst droughts in its history.

But what’s at stake at COP, scientists say, is the future of our species. If humans don’t keep a lid on greenhouse gas emissions, the climate will continue to change unpredictably, sea levels will rise, and huge swathes of our planet will quickly become unlivable.

The Middle East stands on the frontline of this climate crisis. It already bears the brunt of climate change, from resource-poor nations like Palestine and Jordan — who contribute virtually nothing to global emissions but are exposed to rampant desertification — to regional mammoths like Egypt, which struggles to feed its 104 million citizens.

With COP taking place in the region, many observers hope Arab states will play a leading role on key issues, including loss and damage finance.

But the Arab world is also home to some of the world’s top oil producers, who have a great deal to lose in the short run from a fossil fuel-free future and have repeatedly been accused of stalling talks at past COPs.

As the talks progress over the coming two weeks, here are some of the key issues to watch out for from a MENA perspective.

boat in dry area
Drought around the Duwaysat dam outside the town of al-Diriyah in Syria's northern Idlib. Low rainfall, structural damage and extraction by struggling farmers have emptied a key reservoir in northwestern Syria, leaving it completely dry for the first time / Credit: Getty Images.

The priority: Reducing emissions

This year marks exactly thirty years since the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) was adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 to limit global warming.

Since the first “Conference of the Parties” (COP) to the conference that was held in Berlin in 1995, states who have signed the UNFCC have met at successive COPs every year to discuss its implementation.

But thirty years on, we have made limited progress on limiting greenhouse gas emissions, a central cause of global warming.

The most significant advance was at COP21 in Paris in 2015, when parties agreed to aim to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050.

"We are still nowhere near the scale and pace of emission reductions required to put us on track toward a 1.5 degrees Celsius world,” Simon Stiell, the Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change, which monitors progress on the UNFCCC, told reporters at a press briefing last week.

“National governments need to strengthen their climate action plans now and implement them in the next eight years,” he said.

Following COP26 in Glasgow, states were asked to update their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) — the voluntary cuts they promise to make in their emissions to contribute to the Paris Agreement target.

But only 24 countries have submitted new pledges, which amount to a decrease of less than 1% in projected greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, while a 45% decrease is needed to reach the target.

Egypt, Sudan and the UAE are the only Arab states that submitted updated NDCs after COP26.

All eyes at COP will be on the remaining states, which urgently need to make new pledges to rein in global warming. If current commitments are respected, the world will experience an unaffordable increase of 2.4 to 2.6 degrees Celsius in temperature by the end of the century, the UN’s Environment Program warned on October 27.

Loss and damage

One of the most crucial issues at COP27 is the question of funding for “loss and damage” — the idea that states should receive compensation for the devastating impacts of climate change they cannot avoid or mitigate, like rising sea levels.

“Developing countries have been drawing attention to the issue of loss and damage even before the [UNFCCC] convention was agreed thirty years ago,” Rachel Simon, the Climate and Development Policy coordinator at Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe, told The New Arab. The Climate Action Network is the largest international network of climate NGOs, with regional sub-networks on six continents.

“Rich developed countries have sidelined this issue at the negotiations for many years, and it’s never received enough attention,” Simon recalled.

At COP26, the Group of 77 (G-77) — a coalition of developing countries acting together at COP — pushed to establish a funding facility for loss and damage, but the issue did not even make it on the agenda, which is finalized on the first day of the conference.

This year, there are high hopes loss and damage will be on the menu because Egypt, as a developing state, has been more receptive to the issue than the previous COP organizer, the United Kingdom.

Middle Eastern states have historically advocated for a loss and damage funding facility and could be among its beneficiaries. “Loss and damage are extremely important for us, and we are liaising with our fellow members in the groups to be sure that our voices are really heard and that this is reflected in the decisions at the end of the conference,” Nedal Katbeh-Bader, Climate Change Advisor at the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Environment, told The New Arab.

Like Palestine, many Arab states already face the brunt of climate change although they historically contributed little to greenhouse gas emissions. They are also among the countries hosting the highest proportion of refugees and internally displaced persons worldwide and eye with worry about the potential consequences of additional climate-induced displacement in the region.

The promises of carbon trading

Another key issue to watch is the implementation of decisions on carbon trading adopted last year in Glasgow. A key outcome of COP26 was that states approved the final wording of Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which allows countries to “trade” carbon emissions.

“Article 6 provides a mechanism through which countries can finance emissions reductions and removals abroad, and account these efforts towards their own NDCs,” Andrea Bonzanni, International Policy Director at the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), told The New Arab. IETA is a pro-carbon trading lobby gathering over 270 businesses from the carbon trading industry.

Carbon markets are of particular interest to oil giants in the MENA region, who built their economies on fossil fuels and will not phase out in a near future. “For countries in the Arab world, especially countries in the Gulf that have high levels of emissions per capita, [this means they could] finance emissions reductions abroad and account those as their own reductions,” Bonzanni highlighted.

In other words, they could continue to pollute massively and still meet their NDCs by “offsetting” their emissions — buying carbon credits from countries that are emitting less carbon than they are entitled to under the Paris Agreement.

In Glasgow, countries agreed on common principles to facilitate carbon trading. Efforts at COP27 will focus on operationalizing voluntary markets — creating national registries to measure emissions in every state, and recording and certifying carbon credits.

But close attention should be paid to how it is done because carbon markets raise huge concerns about land rights and human rights. Around the world, investors are already pouring into tropical forests to buy valuable land that can be used to generate carbon credits. This is often done at the expense of indigenous people and local communities, who may not have official titles to the land.

Who to watch

The relationship between the United States and China, the two largest carbon emitters, is usually key to the outcome of negotiations.

COP discussions take place between political “blocks” of countries with shared interests: there are more than a dozen blocks, but historically, tensions have crystallized on the rough divide between wealthier countries — who want all states to contribute to emissions reductions — and developing countries united around the G-77 and China.

The latter argue that industrialized countries should make the biggest efforts in emissions reductions, considering their historical responsibility for a large share of emissions. Most Arab states are part of this group as well as the Arab States group, another regional block.

This year, the G-77 is expected to play a leading role in getting a decision on funding for loss and damage, while wealthier states will likely press developing ones for more emissions reductions. Time will tell whether they will reach a meaningful agreement.

“The world has changed a lot compared to last year, with the war in Ukraine, geopolitical tensions between Russia and the West and between the US and China. Politically, its’ a much more difficult context than at COP26,” Bonzanni added. “There was a joint declaration by the US and China during COP26 [in Glasgow], but I think we are unlikely to see that level of cooperation this year.”

This story was produced as part of the 2022 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security. It was first published by The New Arab on 4 November 2022 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Climate change activists dressed as world leaders, pose for a photograph during a demonstration in the Forth and Clyde Canal in Glasgow on November 9, 2021, during the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference / Credit: Andy Buchanan for AFP via Getty Images. 

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