COP27, the environmental conference being hosted in Egypt this week, is bringing together world leaders and officials in Sharm e-Sheikh. This is unprecedented and important for Egypt and the region because the Middle East is one of the key areas being affected by climate change.
Challenges of population growth, food security, water and energy are all focused in our region. As such, the gathering has major potential to shed a spotlight on local needs.
Israel is well-placed in this respect because it pioneers many technologies that combat climate change.
On the other hand, Israel is a small country compared with Egypt, which is almost 50 times as large as Israel. Egypt is the third-largest county in the Middle East in terms of land mass (after Saudi Arabia and Iran) and its most populous country, with about 11 times as many residents as the Jewish state.
The environmental conferences under this UN framework have been taking place every year since the 1990s and are geared toward the reduction of greenhouse gases. The conference gained more traction since the Paris Agreement, often referred to as the Paris Accords or the Paris Climate Accords, in 2015.
Will Russia, China, authoritarian regimes actually work to fight climate change?
But, in general, it’s not clear if countries are actually meeting the goals they claim to be pursuing and whether the global rise of China, Russia and other authoritarian regimes will actually reduce the commitment by many countries to fight climate change.
“Discussions at COP27 begin near the end of a year that has seen devastating floods and unprecedented heat waves, severe droughts and formidable storms, all unequivocal signs of the unfolding climate emergency. At the same time, millions of people throughout the world are confronting the impacts of simultaneous crises in energy, food, water and cost of living, aggravated by severe geopolitical conflicts and tensions. In this adverse context, some countries have begun to stall or reverse climate policies and doubled down on fossil fuel use.”UN COP27 introduction
“Discussions at COP27 begin near the end of a year that has seen devastating floods and unprecedented heat waves, severe droughts and formidable storms, all unequivocal signs of the unfolding climate emergency,” an introduction to this year’s event at the UN notes. “At the same time, millions of people throughout the world are confronting the impacts of simultaneous crises in energy, food, water and cost of living, aggravated by severe geopolitical conflicts and tensions. In this adverse context, some countries have begun to stall or reverse climate policies and doubled down on fossil fuel use.”
The problem today is that China is now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and has said it will only reach net zero emissions by 2060. Such an extended time frame means that Beijing cannot be committed to the outcomes of these meetings, because no one can hold a country to account when it claims to do something in 40 years, or two generations’ time.
It’s also unclear if authoritarian regimes such as China really care about this process or merely attend the conference to make it seem like they care about what Western countries are discussing.
It may be that climate change is mostly a Western issue and that the rest of the world talks about combating climate change while not doing much. On the other hand, many of those countries claim they are still industrializing or that they face more pressing issues and therefore can’t do as much as wealthy countries.
What matters in the Middle East is that Egypt is playing a key role now, and other countries, such as the UAE and Israel, care deeply about meeting climate-change goals. The UN report on the event notes that “the Egyptian COP27 Presidency has set out an ambitious vision for this COP that puts human needs at the heart of our global efforts to address climate change. The Presidency intends to focus the world’s attention on key elements that address some of the most fundamental needs of people everywhere, including water security, food security, health and energy security.”
There are other issues involved. Egypt, the UAE and other regional states can show more leadership on global issues through this event. This includes a hope by these countries that the Russia-Ukraine war will end soon. Grain shipments have continued from Ukraine, but there are still concerns in the region about food security.
Energy security is another issue that has become a focus of attention after Moscow invaded its beleaguered southwestern neighbor. Furthermore, there are Western sanctions on Russia, and Iran continues to destabilize the region.
All of this may mean that there are far too many global pressing issues and that countries in the region will have a hard time dealing with the climate if they also have to deal with migration, war and poverty, and food, energy and water security problems. Some argue, however, that all this is interconnected. Improving the ability of countries to face water, food and energy issues will also improve infrastructure and help them confront climate change and meet goals related to emissions and other demands.
Nevertheless, the elephant in the room is the behavior of regimes such as Iran, China, Russia and others and the forums that dominate their relationship, such as the recent SCO and CICA confabs in Central Asia. Iran’s suppression of protests, for instance, shows that regimes such as Tehran won’t be focusing on climate change so long as they are more concerned with beating protesters who dare to demonstrate against the theocratic regime.
But despite these problems, Egypt has a major role to play now in focusing attention on the region and uniting countries toward common goals. This is a unique opportunity for Cairo, and this week will illustrate whether Egypt can play the crucial role it has taken upon itself.
Natan Rothstein contributed to this report.