Egypt: ‘No more useless promises’ says UN climate champion Mohieldin

By Anne-Marie Bissada
Posted on Friday, 1 July 2022 17:34, updated on Tuesday, 20 September 2022 17:01

Mahmoud Moheldin in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire (photo: Anne-Marie Bissada)

Egypt is set to host Africa's COP - the UN Climate Change (COP27) - in November. But how green is Egypt? Mahmoud Mohieldin, the UN climate change high-level champion for Egypt, tells The Africa Report that COP27 will inevitably shine a spotlight on the country. And force it to follow through on recent modernisation projects.

From its never-ending negotiations with Ethiopia regarding the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), to new deals of exporting gas to an energy-starved Europe, Egypt is the centre of attention as it gets ready to play host to this year’s COP27.

One man, in particular, is spearheading this effort on behalf of his country to make sure Egypt gets the push it needs to follow through on its environmentally-minded policies.

Mahmoud Mohieldin has always been an environmental activist, without knowing he was one. Growing up in a small village in the Egyptian delta, he recounts how his family grew citrus fruits and other produce for years. But it was only when he left for the big city that he began to witness first-hand “the deterioration” of his village.

“When you see the greenery withdrawing [and replaced with] some sort of ugly building, when you see that some […] water channels that we used to do some simple fishing when we were kids, [but] you cannot really come close to them because of the hazards of the environment… […] I don’t need to read books to see the kind of deterioration that happened […].”

He is reluctant to take on the label of an activist, but states that his job is to provide the “finance, investments and policy frameworks” to make sure these targets can be met.

‘No more useless promises’

Environmental awareness compared to even five years ago has changed. Young activists from Sweden’s Greta Thurnberg to Uganda’s Vanessa Nakate to South Africa’s Ayakha Melithafa still reject these major COP meetings as much talk and little action.

Mohieldin says the COP27 in Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh will be concerned with the implementation of climate projects ‘and no more useless promises, pledges and buzzwords’.

“You see some top politicians…They take the stage. They like to impress the general public, perhaps through influence on the media and saying very strong words about commitments, pledges, a love and affection to the climate net zero pledges, but we need to see it’s basically that these great words, if they mean them […] we need them to be translated into opportunities in the field.”

I think the younger generation [is] being impatient, which is great, being frustrated, which is really understandable.

He adds this pressure to deliver is thanks to the younger generation.

“I think the younger generation [is] being impatient, which is great, being frustrated, which is really understandable. [They] are the engines behind that kind of change.”

Attainable targets?

Despite growing political will and investments, with a population over 100 million, ambitious environmental targets are not an easy thing to achieve. Right now, Egypt plans to generate 42% of its power by 2035 from clean sources.

Cairo is doing this through its national strategy for climate change 2050, which includes five main goals:

  • Economic growth by reducing greenhouse emissions in various sectors;
  • Build resilience and adaptability to climate change and mitigation of negative impacts associated with climate change;
  • Improve the governance and management of work in the field of climate change;
  • Improve the state’s infrastructure for climate finance;
  • Promote scientific research, technology transfer, knowledge management.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Africa CEO Forum, Mohieldin tells The Africa Report how attaining these goals is possible.

“During the last few weeks, [Egypt] signed a variety of MoUs with major consortia, including those members who have the know-how, the technical assistance, and the finance to make [these goals a reality], so I think it’s very much a plausible target.”

When the EU approved gas as a “transition fuel”, Egypt was quick to offer its resources and has of late signed-off on deals with Europe, but additionally, “Egypt has a surplus of 20% to 25% on electricity”, says Mohieldin.

“That could be a good source of exportation to the EU membership and from different lanes as well for connectivity. […] I see Egypt really growing as a regional hub with the definition of the region to include the Mediterranean and European countries.

To date, Egypt exported 8.9 billion cubic metres (bcm) of LNG last year and 4.7 bcm in the first five months of 2022.

Mohieldin stresses that while gas has received this new label, its role will be more in the short to mid-term rather than the long-term, when there will be a heavier reliance on renewables.

Sharing is caring

Egypt has been making efforts to ramp up changes to meet its ambitious plan, but the government has criticised developed nations for not contributing enough to help developing countries transition to clean energy.

“The criticism is legitimate, not just for Asia, but across the developing economies. I think the issue here is not just about funding or finance. It is as well about technical expertise, [and] knowledge sharing, [and] advancements in research and development. We are today more comfortable globally to talk about sources of renewable energy because there ha[s] been [a] major cost reduction of almost 95% plus in the case of solar energy during the last 10 years. That wouldn’t have happened without huge investments in research and development and scaling up the activities from around the world.”

He also sees bigger role in this not just for the governments, but also for the private sector. “The issue here is not just about accessing finance in issuing costly commercial bonds, but the reliance is more and more today on issues related to private equity participation.”

Image versus reality

Egypt aims to push forward with a variety of renewable projects, but Cairo remains one of the most polluted cities in the world. The WHO has said Cairo’s level of pollution is several times higher than the level they recommend and Egypt has one of the highest levels of marine plastic waste in the region, which is continuing to rise, according to the latest report from the World Bank.

Mohieldin does not sugarcoat the situation. “I’m taking COP27 as a very strong wakeup call by the general public, by the NGOs, by the relevant ministries, and actually, I’m very happy with the kind of heavy criticism that you may see on social media: when some mayor touches a tree somewhere, when some pollution is being accumulated. […] How come … Egypt is also [hosting] COP27 and we [are] still tolerant [of] that? And this is coming especially from the younger generation.”

We are not yet there at the targets, but this is becoming really a very big issue in terms of pollution

He then lists efforts in investments and projects that are still in the early stages but made to steer the country away from its environmentally-unfriendly reputation. These include the adoption of new technology from Spain and the US, involving investments from Egypt, for a self-dissolving material to minimise the impact of non-degradable plastic that tourists often see littering the waterways and landscape.

“We are not yet there at the targets, but this is becoming really a very big issue in terms of pollution, in terms of waterway pollution, and street pollution. Egypt is a very big country and the problems are not going to be […] solved by having [an] expansion through the new cities, although each one of these cities is aiming to accommodate […] a minimum of a million.”

Underlying all the investments and technology being brought into the country, however, is the need for educating the masses or having the government take a more hardline role in implementing awareness, as was done in Rwanda and Kenya.

“Kenya, in the case of plastic…a great example to follow, […] so you have everything from campaigns to competitions to the investment and the education of…the general public.”

Losing the Nile

While realising green  projects are a major core of Egypt’s focus, producing energy is not as much of a focus as it has been for its neighbour downstream, Ethiopia.

Since 2011, the Great Renaissance Ethiopian Dam (GERD), has aimed to propel Ethiopia’s development through access to a constant source of electricity that it can also sell to neighbouring states.

Mohieldin speaks about Egypt’s surplus of energy, so he understands the need for a country’s dependence on energy, but points to the precarious situation of Egypt and sharing water with both Ethiopia and Sudan.

You can go back to Herodotus of Greece to tell you that Egypt is a gift of life, so if the Nile is not there, there are no gifts, there are no people.

“There is no knowledge of Egypt without the river Nile since its very existence,” he says, adding that while Egyptians don’t depend on water for its electricity, the people depend on it for irrigation and drinking.

Nevertheless, fear of losing access to the Nile from GERD have fostered efforts to invest in desalination and “top notch” expertise in improving the sewage networks.

 “You can go back to Herodotus of Greece to tell you that Egypt is a gift of life, so if the Nile is not there, there are no gifts, there are no people.”

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