DR. MAHMOUD MOHIELDIN

Egypt’s UN Climate Champion for COP27

As COP27 to be held in Sharm El Sheikh approaches, what better way to learn all about it than to talk with the point man in charge of this huge undertaking? eniGma is privileged and honoured to have been given the chance for an extensive interview with Dr. Mahmoud Mohieldin, Egypt’s UN High Level Climate Champion for COP27, to ask him some of the questions on many people’s minds, not just about COP 27, but about the global climate crisis in general as well.

Juggling so many responsibilities as the countdown to COP27 continues apace, Dr. Mohieldin, who has had a distinguished career in economic development and public service, has his work cut out for him. A professor of Economics at the Faculty of Economics and Political Science in Cairo University, he has served as Minister of Investment for Egypt, as Senior Vice-President of the World Bank, as well as the United Nations’ Special Envoy on Financing the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. Today, all eyes are on him as Egypt’s UN High Level Climate Champion in charge of COP27 set to take place from the 6th to 18th of November in Sharm EL Sheikh. eniGma’s Chairman, Samia Farid Shihata conducted the interview via zoom with Dr. Mohieldin, who was in Washington D.C. at that time. Here are some excerpts of the fascinating interview.

Dr. Mohieldin, perhaps a good place to start is to ask what it means to be Egypt’s Climate Champion?
Thank you, it’s a pleasure and an honour to speak to you. Today, I’m speaking to you from Washington D.C., where I’ll be staying for a couple of days, then going back to Cairo, and then to India, then back to D.C. This is just to give you a glimpse of the hectic life one is living these days. This new assignment of Climate Champion is demanding. The title, Climate Champion, refers to the person coordinating the work of non-state actors, which includes the private sector, development finance institutions, think tanks, research centres, NGOs, and civil society. So, anybody and everybody who has a role to play in implementation and advocacy, but not in the negotiations. The negotiators are those associated with the relevant government agencies. In the case of our country, these would be the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as the Ministry of Environment, and others.

 

Our work as Climate Champions is about the role of the implementers of climate action based on the Paris agreement. This is indeed a very big and complicated function, because the non-state actors come in different sizes and forms, from the very small NGOs to the very big foundations, from small cooperatives to mega finance institutions like those on Wall Street, and they include think tanks, research centres, small and big universities; so everybody under the sun who is not really doing the negotiating.
Of course, to do this work, there is a very big team, as I am not alone in this role, based on the Marrakesh partnership. We are all working under the auspices of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change); and being non-state actors does not mean that we do not coordinate and work with the state. This work is all about partnerships.

Your hands are certainly full. I think we’re all pretty much convinced that there’s a grave danger at hand because of climate change. We hear a lot about mitigation and adaptation efforts to deal with it. Can you explain to the layman what mitigation and adaptation entail? Also, who’s in charge of what? Is it the government, the private sector, NGOs…?
Perhaps the best way to describe the Paris Agreement is to put it into four buckets: mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage, and finance. This is basically the agenda for this year’s summit as well. Since the Paris Agreement in 2015, there has been a great deal of progress in areas related to mitigation, between decarbonisation and investment in renewables. In countries all over the world, a great partnership between the public and the private sector is taking place, pushing forward the agenda for renewable energy, including solar and wind. For example, not too far from Cairo, you can see the investment in the Zaafarana wind farms, and to the south of Aswan, you have the Benban Solar Park. You can see lots of efforts, as well, in decarbonisation, including in the energy and mobility sectors. What I am trying to say here, is that the mitigation portfolio has found a good partnership model. What it needs now is more momentum and more finance, and a better business environment.

I wish I could say the same about adaptation, however. Adaptation does not have a fair share of recognition or of adequate finance. Typically, only a range of 15 to 20 percent of financing from development finance institutions goes to adaptation, while over 80+ percent goes to mitigation. I would say that adaptation requires more attention now, especially in the sectors that have been badly harmed because of climate change, including agriculture, infrastructure, particularly the infrastructure in cities and regions near coastal areas. This requires more funding and more technology, and more solutions in the field. Then there’s the file that is almost lost, which is the loss and damage file. To date, we don’t quite see progress in that area. We are hopeful that important progress will be made now that our Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Sameh Shoukry, has invited Germany and Chile to be Co-Chairs of the loss and damage file.

The fourth file is basically about finance. Finance shouldn’t be reduced to talking about the 100 billion dollars promised since Copenhagen, whereby advanced economies promised to transfer 100 billion dollars to support developing economies on an annual basis. On average, we don’t reach more than 50 percent of that per year, although last year the figure was close to 80 percent. This file really needs a lot more attention going forward, especially since people are talking now about finance after 2025. A bigger role is needed for the private sector because we need more private equity finance. Unfortunately, however, so far, most of the funding going to developing economies is from debt-based instruments; this is neither healthy, nor sustainable or sound, given the debt situation that many developing economies are suffering from now. In addition, we are pushing for embracing debt swaps of investments in climate and nature, building up carbon credit markets, and identifying the role of budgets and public finance better than before. We also need to stress the importance of budget allocations for supporting public goods, including climate. So far, heavy lifting is coming from the budget side, and that needs to be fully aligned with the private sector.

So, at the end of the day, you can see it’s a very big agenda. If we take a holistic approach, it is going to be beneficial to developing economies. But it will not be completely holistic unless you put it within the sustainable development goals. At the end of the day, SDG13, or Climate, is one of the 17 goals of the SDGs. My argument is that there is no value to climate action if it will result in more poverty, loss of jobs, or more gender inequality, since these are issues that we suffer greatly from already without climate action, especially after the deterioration during the last couple of years since COVID. Climate action needs to be taken in that holistic framework; only then can we really see some decent outcomes.

It’s really a huge agenda for COP27, and it’s even more challenging with all the difficulties the world economy is facing at this stage. I wonder how you are going to evaluate Cop 27 at the end of the day. In other words, how should we measure success for COP27?
Let me just say that if we achieve progress in five tracks, I will call it a success. The five tracks are the following: One track is the holistic approach; if you manage to have climate action placed within the holistic approach rather than the old reductionist approach, not just conceptually, but in terms of operations, that would be a success.

The second track, which you may have heard the president of Egypt, who is president of COP27, refer to, is to see COP27 as ‘the implementation COP’. COP27 is not a COP for words. It is not a COP for pledges and declarations to do good in the future. We already have a stock of commitments, and a stock of many good words of love for the planet and how to do better. But can we translate these words into action? Action for me, coming from the finance world, is basically to show me the funds, show me the finance. That needs to be translated into projects, into investment opportunities.

I need to mention here, that despite all the talk that took place, and with all due respect to the excellent work that our UK friends did in hosting Glasgow’s COP26, the main item that got the attention of the business communities, was just one project with 8.5 billion dollars attached to it. The project was set to phase out carbon coal, and to phase in renewable energy, and deal with the impact on the local community in South Africa. The rest that was achieved in COP26 were all very nice words, good coalitions, good intentions, nice frameworks. All of that is great but, what’s greater really is, will it have an impact on the street? But what will it take to make an impact on development and on communities? It will not happen by talk, it will happen by actions and finance. So, this is the second track, which is basically about implementation and operationalisation.
The third track, and I am very proud of this initiative, is that Egypt managed to have the different regions of the world aligned with climate action. For that, we’ve held four round tables, in Africa, Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Arab countries, and the next one will be in Geneva next month. These are not round tables for chatting. They are about building a pipeline of bankable and investable projects. Again, this is an answer to the implementation process. I am trying to show during COP27 that there are projects which exist as opportunities and as investments in developing economies and emerging markets, across the different areas of climate action, including in adaptation.

The fourth track that we will need to assess, is another initiative that I am personally very proud of, the localisation effort. Under the auspices of the Egyptian president, today the 27 governorates of Egypt are engaging in a national competition to select the best projects based on two filters: smart and green. There are six categories in the competition: mega projects, middle size, small and micro related to Egypt’s Hayah Karima, or Decent Life, initiative, startups, women-led projects, and community development projects. We are going to be announcing the winners before the end of this month in October.

The fifth and final track to assess COP27 is finance. Are we going to see progress beyond the 100 billion dollars? Will we be reporting better figures this year compared to last year? Are we going to see a pathway or a blueprint for climate finance and development finance for post-2025? Are we going to see the promise of the GFANZ, or Glasgow Finance Alliance for Net Zero, which was announced before Glasgow, last year? Will we see some of the money promised, the 130 trillion dollars of assets, transformed into a flow of funds? Are we going to see carbon credit markets? Are we going to see more innovation translating debt into climate finance for nature as well? Are we going to see better alignment with Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG) funding metric? There will also be a new report coming dealing with greenwashing. Lastly, what about the role of state budgets and how aligned are they with the climate goals?

If we can score highly on these five tracks, particularly with respect to finance, which itself has several components, we will be very happy. This is my personal reading from the non-state actors side.

So, who is going to follow up on implementation after all the pledges are made? Is there going to be some global institution that will follow up on that?
There’s going to be a formal stock taking exercise that will be shared next year, during COP28 in Dubai. This is going to be the first stock-taking since Paris. So, with regards to what we are doing this year, our responsibility as Egypt doesn’t end at COP27. Rather, that’s where it starts. Our responsibility continues until we pass the baton over to Dubai in November of 2023. This is the beauty of how the COP is organised. The presidency of the COP stays with the host for a whole year after the organisation of the event. That is why we are working closely now with the UK, the president of COP26. My work is shared with Nigel Topping, who is the Climate Champion for the UK, and I’ll be working very closely next year with the Climate Champion for the UAE. So, there is a responsibility on the part of the Climate Champion, and on the side of the state before the Champion, to make sure that whatever is being claimed and pushed in COP is going to be delivered and handed fully to the following COP. It’s about what the state and the non-state actors are doing better on all fronts.

You obviously know Egypt very well. What do you consider are the main problems we face due to climate change and how should we address them?
The science says that globally we are not on track to achieve the targets by 2030. We should cut our global emissions by 45 percent, and yet we are adding roughly 15 percent. Egypt has more than a fair share of that trouble. However, the whole of Africa, Egypt included, is only responsible for three percent of total global emissions, yet our countries are disproportionately affected by what is happening elsewhere around the world. You can see the resulting problems in Africa, such as deforestation, the impact on coastal areas, and on agriculture in rural areas. This is important because the African continent is dependent on rural areas, on agriculture and the farming sector for its GDP; more than 50 percent of inhabitants in Africa dwell in rural areas. So, we need to be very mindful of the impact of climate on this sector, as well as on fishery and on water management. The ordinary farmer, and I’m proud to come from a village myself, can tell you that there are several crops that we can no longer grow today because of climate change. Science says it, but the practice of peasants and farmers confirms it, as well. Recently, in a discussion with the governor of Damietta in Egypt, Dr. Manal Mikhael, she recounted how much the beaches have eroded there, on the coast of the Mediterranean. So, even without super sophisticated scientific measures, we can see that Egypt has been suffering just as much as other developing economies. The share of support Egypt gets, on the other hand, is very limited. We need to invest more in adaptation to protect our infrastructure, particularly in coastal areas. We need to invest much more in adapting the technologies for agriculture and farming to deal with global warming.

At the moment, we’re at 1.1 to 1.2 degrees Celsius above the average temperature during the first industrial revolution. The world truly is suffering from what you see around you, whether in our country, or in Africa as a whole; or if you look further, you can see how in Pakistan, over a third of their land is under water today. There is a great deal of concern that if these matters are left without good regulatory frameworks to support the work, as well as incentives to get the private sector to play an active part in this field, we’ll all be in great trouble. As the UN Secretary General said, the approximate 1.5 degree increase in temperatures means we are being put on life support. I believe he is right, and it is up to the global community to put in the effort. Between China and the U.S. alone, we not only have 45 percent of the problem, but 45 percent of the solutions as well.

This is quite scary… Is there not more that we can do? We don’t seem to be too well aware of what we can expect.
I think that the starting point is what you just said. We need to be concerned and to be scared. This issue is very scary, but at same time we have solutions. The scientific solutions exist and so do the financial resources. Despite the problems that the world is facing now, we live in an abundance of resources, and we have great knowledge and scientific tools. That’s why people, especially activists, are very concerned and angry. They are angry because we are not without resources. The UN Secretary General is indeed angry, and has the right to be angry, because he sees both the problem as well as the solution. Countries who managed to do well with regards to investment got some good solutions. But the problem is that the solutions cannot be just localized solutions. You can do whatever you can in your own home, but if the neighborhood is not playing the game, it will be a waste of time and resources.

Absolutely, the effort needs to be global. Turning to the COP27 agenda, I know that you have a very rich program that runs for over a week after two days for the summit…
Yes, it will be from the 6th to the18th of November. We have two days with the leaders, then we have a finance day on the ninth, and then the thematic days… I’m extremely happy that both science and finance are going to be present in everything that we’ll be talking about! Between issues regarding the famous nexus of food, water, energy, and even when you look at issues regarding youth and gender empowerment, you need money to finance these things. So, I’m happy that the finance folks, which is my own tribe, will have a bigger role this time around.

Will all this be available live to the public?
Yes, there will be full coverage of all the events. All the events will be open, as we’ve seen last year. I’m not trying to discourage anyone from coming to the summit, but when I attended Glasgow last year, on the days when I watched the events on TV in my hotel room, I had better knowledge of what was going on everywhere in the conference. The coverage by the media, which was by the BBC last year, was truly fascinating. I know that the organisers this time too are paying very close attention to that, because this is set to be a very important summit. It’s not just going to be crucial for the 30 thousand or so attending, rather the millions, even billions, who will be affected by what happens in this summit. It’s the most important event in the multilateral system.

I hope that in Egypt we will get good coverage of these events, especially in universities and schools, to greatly increase awareness.
I’m happy that you mentioned the importance of universities in this summit. I am, as you know, an academic, a member of the staff of the Faculty of Political Science and Economy at Cairo University. We have an academic network of Egyptian universities participating. It is being coordinated by the president of the Academy of Science under the auspices of the Ministry of Higher Education. We’re going to have many events on “Science” day at the COP, and there will be many events prior to that. Three aspects of the work of universities are to be reflected in future actions. First, we will have updates of our university curricula. Regardless of your profession, you need to have a critical minimum of knowledge on sustainability and digitalisation, which come hand in hand. Secondly, there will be research conducted with promises of partnerships and funding. Third, is the role of universities in helping communities, the business sector, and the government through their work in society and beyond. So yes, there is a very important role on the part of the university network on that front.

That’s fantastic. We are looking forward to COP27 and wish you tremendous success. We will be watching online or maybe will be there, face -to-face. Thank you very much Dr. Mahmoud Mohieldin for this fascinating discussion. It was a great pleasure and honour for eniGma Magazine.