Hosting the twenty-seventh Conference of the Parties (COP27), Egypt is ideally taking the lead in global climate action. In a year characterised by the return of war in Europe and the consequent geopolitical and economic earthquake, pushing up climate ambitions is expected to be particularly difficult.
Egypt is the fourth African country to host such a global event. Along with COP28, to be held next year in Dubai, this year’s edition marks the growing commitment of Middle East and Northern Africa countries to global climate action. The MENA region is one of the world's most vulnerable to the impact of climate change, with the cascading effects of rising temperatures and sea level rise on natural resources, long-standing problems of governance and socioeconomic inequalities.
The choice of Sharm El-Sheik as a host city for COP27 became official in November 2021. The conference has been organized around four main themes: climate finance, adaptation, loss and damage, and ‘increased ambition’. Being this COP presented as the ‘African COP’, the main topics reflect the most urgent priorities for the continent. Indeed, a just and ambitious implementation of unmet past financial commitments for developing countries is the core of the Egyptian vision.
At a time when the country is under the global spotlight for an event that is meant as a showcase of its climate commitments, an analysis of the role of climate mitigation and adaptation measures within the country’s broader energy policies and development trajectory may be useful. It will also focus on how the ambition to become a climate champion intersects with the Egyptian foreign policy towards the region and the African continent.
Mitigating climate change while emerging as a regional energy hub
Egypt is the most populous country in the MENA region, highly vulnerable to the threat of climate change (heatwaves and water scarcity, in particular) and strongly dependent on hydrocarbons for its rising energy needs and ambitions to become a major exporter.
Indeed, after years of regular power cuts, blackouts and supply shortages, ‘the change in Egypt’s energy fortunes’ started in 2015, when the Italian oil company Eni discovered Zohr, an 850-billion cubic meters natural gas field off the Egyptian coasts, paving the way for the country to become a net gas exporter in the form of liquefied natural gas.
Today, Egypt is the continent’s third-largest gas producer. The discovery of new fields, the signature of energy cooperation agreements with neighbouring countries (from Israel to Saudi Arabia), the co-foundation of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum and the reopening of liquefaction facilities have supported Cairo’s ambition to transform Egypti nto a regional energy hub. This role was further confirmed after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, with the EU quest for energy supply diversification.
Therefore, not only is Egypt highly reliant on fossil fuels for its rising domestic consumption, but it also targets full exploitation of its hydrocarbon resources and an increase in production for exports. This could explain why, by presiding the Climate Conference, the country is focusing more on the implementation of past international engagements in climate finance than on new targets to reduce emissions. The country needs natural gas to sustain its economic development and population growth, but it risks locking itself into a high-carbon pathway.
Despite this growing dependence on natural gas, Egypt is among the most advanced countries in the MENA region in terms of energy transition implementation. With 6.2 GW, Egypt ranks first in North Africa as to installed electricity capacity (solar, wind and hydro), aiming at 61 GW of installed capacity by 2035. However, the renewable energy share of electricity capacity attained 10.4% last year, well below the target for 2022, set at 20% of generation capacity.
Even though the country does not have a net zero target, it established a wide set of documents to support its energy transition, such as Egypt’s Vision 2030, the National Climate Change Strategy 2050 and the Integrated Sustainable Energy Strategy 2035, which set a 42% renewable energy target for the electricity mix by 2035.
However, the road to full implementation of the energy transition strategy is still long. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets provide an interesting example. Although Egypt has recently updated its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), seeking to reduce by 33% its emissions before2030, Climate2030, Climate Action Track errates Egypt’s climate policies and commitments ‘highly insufficient’, its emissions expected to rise by about 15–40% above today’s levels by 2030.
Championing Africa’s climate priorities, greening Egypt’s foreign policy
Organising the Climate Conference is an opportunity to reaffirm Egypt’s international posture and to green its foreign policy. So far, 90 heads of state have confirmed that they will attend the event. Climate action has played a central role in the agenda of international meetings and institutional visits this year.
With the decision to cast light on climate finance and ‘loss and damage’, Cairo presents itself as the voice of African and developing countries. Although Africa pays a relatively little contribution to global GHG emissions, the continent is the hardest hit by the consequences of climate change and has little financial room to sustain the titanic costs of mitigation and adaptation efforts. Cairo launched several initiatives and projects to boost coordination with its African counterparts. Last September, African ministers of finance, economy, development and environment gathered in Sharm El-Sheikh to leverage African leader's voice and calling time on the unfulfilled pledges on climate finance.
The Climate Conference is also an opportunity to strengthen the (already significant) engagement of international donors to finance the country’s energy transition. As an example, the United States and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) have recently announced their financial support for the country’s Nexus Water Food Energy(NWFE) programme, a mechanism to promote the implementation of green development projects in sectors such as water, food and energy, attracting foreign funds. As a further one, last August China sent equipment supplies to the country, to support the transformation of Sharm El-Sheikh into a ‘green city’.
Showcasing Egyptian ambitions on climate also means attracting new foreign investments from private stakeholders. This Egyptian COP presidency has seen the announcement of a “raft” of climate-related projects, along with a proliferation of Memorandum of Understanding signatures with many international energy companies, aiming at developing green hydrogen and green ammonia production facilities. Particularly interesting is the involvement of companies from two of Cairo’s closest allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in the construction of a renewable energy complex and power interconnections.
COP27 as a catalyst of country’s contradictions
COP27 will be held in a critical year for Egypt, strongly hit by economic repercussions of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While the country is benefiting from the rising value of its natural gas exports, it depends on costly imports of oil, food (particularly cereals) and manufacturing products. In this context, Cairo bets on the Climate Conference to leverage its international standing, economic attractiveness and diplomatic stance.
Yet, being under the spotlight means to reveal the many contradictions of the Egypt’s energy and climate policies. In addition to the difficult compresence between the ambition of being a climate champion while aiming to increase natural gas exports, the state lacks clear commitment in terms of GHG emission reductions. It implies that Cairo has few self-imposed environmental barriers to frame its development trajectory, instrumentally pursuing options that are most advantageous to its contingent economic and political interests, thus signalling the ‘reversibility’ of its decarbonisation pathway.
Furthermore, the decision to host the next Climate Conference in the resort city of Sharm El-Sheikh – one of the symbols of the Egyptian environmentally unsustainable tourism industry – and to present it as a ‘sustainable green city’, just installing low-carbon technologies and proper waste management systems, is an additional sign of the Egyptian political narrative on COP – and a further indicator of the country’s peculiar feeling for climate action.