Egypt doesn’t want its human rights record on the COP27 agenda

Wael Aboulmagd, a top climate diplomat from Egypt, wants to focus on raising money for adaptation in developing countries.
Wael Aboulmagd, pictured during an interview with Reuters, is one of Egypt's top climate diplomats.
Wael Aboulmagd, pictured during an interview with Reuters, is one of Egypt's top climate diplomats.
Photo: SAYED SHEASHA (Reuters)
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When the COP27 climate summit begins in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh on Nov. 7, one of the most important players will be Wael Aboulmagd, special representative of the summit president Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s foreign affairs minister. During COP27, Aboulmagd will be working to set the summit agenda, manage negotiations, and push governments toward some kind of written agreement.

In an interview at the ministry office this week, Aboulmagd insisted that it isn’t up to him to choose the summit’s priorities, and that a successful COP requires incremental progress on all climate-related issues, from reducing emissions to drumming up more cash from wealthy nations to help developing countries pay for clean energy, climate adaptations, and economic losses from climate impacts. Activists can and should play and important role, he said, but he was clear that Egypt’s human rights record—which has come under fire in the last few weeks—should not be on the table.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

QZ: What progress specifically are you hoping to see on climate loss and damage?

Aboulmagd: We have loss and damage as a focus this year in particular, because coming out of Glasgow there was a sense that it hadn’t been addressed in the manner that it warrants, up to the expectations of the frontline victims of climate change. Many small island states and other countries from the developing world felt that their main area of concern had been delayed and postponed over the years, and they demanded that the issue of financing loss and damage should be addressed.

We can’t anticipate what will happen, but we have reason to be optimistic that including the item [on the official COP27 agenda] will find agreement and we can move forward. The COPs are annual events and consequently progress on any given issue is incremental. So you try to do your utmost at every given COP, but the expectation usually isn’t that you’ll have a complete breakthrough and full resolution to an issue. That’s how a consensus-based process between 190 parties has to work.

As a presidency, we did something that hasn’t been done before in recognition of the importance of loss and damage. We asked two very able ministers, Minister Jennifer Morgan from Germany and Minister Maisa Rojas from Chile, to support the presidency [on loss and damage]. They’ve been in direct contact with the various regional groups, with various countries gathering views and providing them with ideas, and they report back to us. We will continue to rely on them until the end of the COP to ensure something meaningful comes out.

QZ: This will be the second COP in a row happening in the middle of a global crisis. We had the pandemic last year, and now we have the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis, which has many countries scrambling for new sources of energy, including fossil fuels. Will that make it harder to make progress on more ambitious carbon emissions reduction targets?

Aboulmagd: This is taking place amidst a uniquely challenging global environment. It has direct implications on two very integral parts of the agenda, which are food security and energy prices. But there’s a constructive, positive way to look at this. The climate emergency is not going to wait for anyone. Every action that you don’t do today will cost more if you do it later. So I think there’s unanimity about the urgency, in terms of quantifiable cost. So everyone appreciates that.

Egypt has traditionally, through our diplomacy and through our good contacts, played the role of bridging between north and south. We have excellent relations with many developed countries, and we understand their perspective as well [as that of developing countries]. So we’re hoping to bring our legacy of proactive, centrist diplomacy and of deal-making to the table.

QZ: In terms of Egypt’s individual role, Climate Action Tracker rates Egypt’s climate plan as “highly insufficient” for meeting the warming goals of the Paris Agreement. Is that a fair characterization, and what would be required to get a higher level of ambition from Egypt

Aboulmagd: I know our NDC [nationally determined contribution]. Those raw figures will not take into consideration common but differentiated responsibilities, will not take into consideration poverty levels, will not take into consideration the legitimate established right for every developing country to pursue its sustainable development goals and to pursue the elimination of poverty in its midst.

If I need to spend much more money [on carbon mitigation], do I kick kids out of schools, or do I stop building sewage? [Climate advocates] will say “we wanted more than this,” from the pure ‘keeping 1.5 alive’ perspective. But it ignores the foundations of this process—that there is a grand bargain, that those who historically consumed all of the carbon space have to take the lead in making economy-wide reductions.

This NDC is a significant update from our first NDC. We have time until we do our next NDC, which we hope will be even more ambitious. Yet at what cost, and who is going to provide the money for it? We put a lot of things that we’d love to do subject to availability of finance. Are you supposed to go out to the market, and incur more debt, and subject yourself to possible default in order to make a contribution [to solving a problem] that you know you didn’t cause in the first place?

Historically we’ve contributed nothing [to global carbon emissions]. Currently we’re contributing very little. Developing countries are allowed to peak in their emissions. The right way to compare is the ‘business as usual’ compared to what we’re doing in the NDC. There is significant progress on multiple tracks.

If we see a good financial package that will allow us to move faster, we’ll do it. If we can achieve the 42% by 2035 [emissions reduction target] earlier, then that will do it. We are hoping to be in a position to make announcements that are more ambitious. But it’s normal and fair to promise what you’re certain you can deliver at the current financial situation.

QZ: The EU Parliament and other governmental and civil society groups have recently raised concerns about human rights issues in Egypt, particularly the case of Alaa Abdel Fattah [the imprisoned British-Egyptian dissident, who is more than 200 days into a hunger strike]. Do those concerns impede your ability to conduct climate diplomacy with those governments?

Aboulmagd: The EU Parliament is entitled, of course, to its perspective, but there are other mechanisms within the Egyptian government that respond to that. There are other multilateral fora, such as the [UN] Human Rights Council, where these issues are discussed. My mandate and my responsibility with regard to the COP is to most effectively engage with all parties to address the existential threat to 7 billion people on the planet. And I hope that for two weeks the focus will be on the people dying around the world, on the challenges that we will face.

There are, over the whole year, multiple opportunities to raise whatever issues with Egypt or other countries, related to civil liberties, human rights, and other related issues. I can also mention, you know, that civil and political rights are central and integral. But so are economic, social, and cultural rights, and the right to live in a habitat where you can survive and thrive, where you can not be threatened by a hurricane or extreme weather event wiping out your GDP. These are also very important components of the overall human rights culture.

QZ: What role do activists and protesters have in this process?

Aboulmagd: All civil society organizations are part of this and have a space. There’s a very, very, very large green zone. There will be a protest area adjacent, not anywhere far away, right in the same complex, across the street from the green zone. People who want to raise specific things, if their choice is to have a protest or a demonstration, that will be there and that will happen.

QZ: So there will be a process for if you want to have a protest, how to sign up to do that?

Aboulmagd: Yeah, just to make sure that there’s room and space. We anticipate a lot of people. It’s a comfortable zone for people to express all views and conflicting views if that’s the situation, peacefully and respectfully.

The challenge is so threatening that I really hope people take it as an opportunity to work seriously. We can’t afford to get distracted by all the “hotels this,” or “the traffic that.” I’ve been to many COPs and I’ve never, ever dared comment on the accommodations or the prices. I find it a little bit disconcerting to see people distracted from the main issue by saying, oh, well, you stood in line for two hours. Yeah, these things will happen. I also find it kind of disrespectful to a country that put its heart and soul and resources, and they’re probably doing their best. Let’s focus on the main issue that’s at stake.