SHARM EL-SHEIKH – Egypt’s foreign minister said Thursday that the focus of the UN climate talks being hosted in his country should be efforts to tackle global warming and not a jailed Egyptian activist who is on a hunger strike.
Prison authorities intervened medically on Thursday in the case of Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who stopped eating or drinking in protest over his imprisonment. Asked about his fate, Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry made clear that as chair of this year’s COP27 climate talks the issue was not a priority.
“I concentrate on highlighting the importance of the COP and trying to focus the attention of the parties and the international community and the civil society on the existential challenge related to climate change,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I think it is beneficial for achieving our objectives that we continue to focus on this issue. This is why we are here.”
Numerous foreign leaders including Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, President Emmanuel Macron of France and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have raised the case with Egypt during their visit this week.
Shoukry suggested such concerns could distract from some countries’ failure to live up to their climate commitments.
“Other issues that are not directly pertaining to the climate might detract from the attention and relieve, potentially, and give justification to maybe those who would prefer to concentrate on other issues to avoid having to deal with what they need to do, how they need to implement their obligations and responsibilities," he said.
Responding to reports about delegates struggling to get food and water during the event, Shoukry said that going forward drinks would be free for those attending the conference and the cost of food would be halved.
He acknowledged there had been “glitches,” blaming them on the large number of participants and traffic delays due to VIP visits during the first days of the meeting.
“We have intervened and today all prices have been slashed by 50%, and water and the soft drinks will be provided for free as a matter of courtesy and at the intervention of the presidency,” Shoukry told The AP.
The Nov. 6-18 talks have moved from high-levels appeals for more climate action, heard from world leaders early in the week, to the nitty-gritty stage of negotiations. Diplomats are trying to forge a broad package of agreements covering issues such as cutting emissions and aid for poor nations that would need to be agreed by consensus at the end.
A deal was reached at the start of talks to put the issue of compensation for poor countries suffering severe losses from climate changeon the official agenda.
“This in itself is a positive development and one that we should hail,” said Shoukry. “What happens next is going to be dependent on the degree of flexibility that the parties will demonstrate.”
“As presidency we will certainly provide the opportunity for as much progress as possible on the agenda item and hopefully we will have a landing zone that will be satisfactory to all the parties,” he said.
Egypt is already feeling the harsh effects of climate change itself, with rising sea levels threatening fertile lands in the Nile delta.
At the same time, the country remains heavily dependent on fossil fuels for the energy needs of its growing population, projected to reach 160 million by mid-century. Hosting the annual climate talks has helped Egypt recently clinch several deals to promote the roll-out of renewable energy, something Shoukry said the government is committed to pursuing further.
“If we could, overnight, transfer to full renewables we would,” he said. “But then again, we are limited as many of the developing countries are, with the high cost of finance, with the lack of investment, and with having to deal with other priorities in terms of the interests of our citizens.”
Asked how the vast Zohr gas field in the Mediterranean fits in with Egypt's green goals, Shoukry said it would be irresponsible for developing countries not to use the resources that rich nations have exploited for many decades.
“But we do so with the recognition that it is our objective to decrease our dependency on fossil fuels and on gas, provided the resources, the investments and the facilitation that can be provided to us is forthcoming,” he said.
In the longer term, Egypt sees itself as a producer and exporter of ‘green’ hydrogen, made with solar and wind power, to Europe, he added.
Like many other developing countries, Egypt is also hampered by large debts that make it harder to borrow money for much-needed investments.
Shoukry said he hoped agreements could be reached, including at the upcoming Group of 20 meeting in Bali in Indonesia, to support a change in the debt rules to make it easier for countries to redirect their resources toward boosting renewable energy and adapting to climate change.
U.S. President Joe Biden was scheduled to swing by the climate talks Friday on his way to the G-20.
Shoukry said he understood the president's stopover in Sharm el-Sheikh to be “an indication of the political will to move the process forward” on tackling global warming.
“We hope ... it will resonate within the collective will of the negotiating groups that the United States is party to, but also in creating a momentum for the conference, for the parties to deliver what is expected,” he said.
“I think there’s a heightened sense of the crisis that we face because of the devastating weather patterns that have resulted during this year of a vast devastation,” said Shoukry. "Of course, Pakistan immediately jumps to the forefront."
Pakistan suffered devastating floods this summer that put one third of the country underwater, killing over 1,700 people and causing an estimated $40 billion in damage. Extreme weather is worsening in many parts of the globe as the climate warms.
“People are now waking up to the science,” he said. “If we don’t move more expeditiously or effectively to deal with climate change, we will transcend the point of no return and see a dramatic deterioration of the planet.”
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