The goal of limiting global heating to 1.5C is “more fragile” than ever, as world leaders prepare to meet for crucial climate talks, the president-designate of the negotiations has warned.
Sameh Shoukry, the foreign minister of Egypt, who will chair the UN COP27 climate summit next month, said in a rare interview that forging agreement would be harder than at any other recent climate talks, owing to the “turbulent” global economy and “difficult” geopolitical tensions, stoked by the Ukraine war.
“It is more fragile, because of the impact of the current global situation,” he told the Guardian in an interview. He said the agreement won at COP26 in Glasgow last year had been overshadowed by events since. “[The circumstances for COP27 are] quite challenging. They exceed the circumstances that existed in Paris or in Glasgow in terms of the challenge and impacts, economic or geopolitical. But we have to remain hopeful and focused and try to isolate and insulate the negotiating process from some of the external circumstances.”
He warned that rich countries were losing the trust of the developing world, because they were falling behind on their commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions and provide climate finance to poor nations.
“If countries are to backtrack or deviate from their commitments, and their efforts to maintain those agreements and understandings made in Paris and Glasgow, we will be on track to have over 2C and maybe up to 3.6C, according to the science available,” he said. “These are contradictions and everybody has to be serious in dealing with those contradictions.”
Some rich countries, including the UK, the U.S and EU member states, have turned to increasing fossil fuel production, amid the energy crisis that has sent gas prices soaring.
Shoukry refused to single out individuals, but warned: “We are encouraging all parties to refrain from backtracking, from resorting to greater dependency on fossil fuels. It defeats the purpose and puts everyone in jeopardy and danger. It’s not an incentive for developing countries, who are being encouraged to transition from fossil fuels, to do so. I think one has to lead by example.”
Last year’s COP26 talks in Glasgow ended with countries pledging to limit global temperature increases to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, based on comprehensive scientific assessments showing that beyond that level the impacts of the climate crisis become catastrophic, and some of them irreversible.
Most countries failed to set targets on cutting greenhouse gas emissions in line with a 1.5C limit in Glasgow, however, or put in place the policies to meet such goals. They were meant to return to the table at COP27 this year with revised plans.
Those plans have been thrown into disarray by the extraordinary political upheavals of this year, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sending energy and food prices leaping, and a serious spat between the U.S and China over the visit by Nancy Pelosi – the third most senior member of the ruling US Democratic party – to the disputed island of Taiwan.
But Shoukry said the failure of developed countries to meet their emissions targets was the most serious issue. “We recognise the geopolitical conditions that have evolved over this year, whether it’s the Russian-Ukraine war, whether it’s the tensions between the U.S and China. But even more broadly, the issue of trust has again come to the surface after the momentum that was created by Paris and Glasgow in how we can achieve progress when we deal with climate change,” he said.
Trust would spring from developed countries fulfilling their commitments on emissions – known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs) – and providing finance to the poor world, he made clear. “We were hoping that the momentum that was created at COP26 would be translated into revised NDCs. Up to now only a very few number of nations, among them Egypt, have deposited revised NDCs with the [UN climate] secretariat. So we hope that during COP27, more will present not only their commitment but their desire to implement those commitments in an impactful manner.”
The issue of trust was “fundamental”, he said. “Developing countries are monitoring the situation and seeing to what extent they must continue to undertake the burdens they have said they would, if they see that there are others who have greater capacity, greater facilities, [and] are not doing so. Those who have contributed more to the problem should be more willing to contribute to its resolution.”
He said countries could and must overcome the conflicts that had sprung up since COP26. “We have to try to isolate these geopolitical tensions, disagreements, and focus at the issue at hand, which is how do we move forward together. Because we can’t move independently – we will not be successful – we have to move together if we are to achieve progress, if we are to deal with climate change effectively.”
Speaking from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Cairo, Shoukry offered to broker discussions between the U.S and China, the world’s biggest emitters. “I’ve had extensive discussions with both and offered the potential of being a communicator, and we will see how things develop during Cop itself.”
Rishi Sunak, the UK’s incoming prime minister, has refused the invitation to attend the leaders’ summit at COP27, despite the UK holding the presidency of the talks until Egypt takes over, and despite the presence of leaders including the U.S president, Joe Biden; France’s Emmanuel Macron; the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen; and the UN secretary general, António Guterres.
The Egyptian government would still welcome King Charles if he were to come to COP27, said Shoukry. “We recognise that his majesty has been a long supporter of dealing with climate change, and has had an impact by virtue of his stature, but also by virtue of his personal emotional commitment to the issue,” he said. “He has been a leader to emulate in that regard, so definitely his presence [would be] a value added to the Cop process.”
Shoukry refused to criticise Liz Truss, the UK’s former prime minister, who reportedly forbade the King to attend. However, asked whether the UK had contributed positively enough to COP27, he said: “Well let us say that [outgoing Cop26 president] Alok Sharma has. It’s not my place to make an assessment of the UK … and its move away from fossil fuels. That should be determined by the scientific community, maybe.”
Egypt has been sharply criticised for human rights violations and clampdowns on civil expression. Shoukry insisted that civil society organisations would be able to participate fully in COP27. “We are hopeful that we will have an important contribution and participation,” he said, pointing out that the space open to them would be bigger than at the Glasgow conference centre, and that 9,000 representatives had registered. “I am encouraged by their enthusiasm, by their commitment, by their advocacy, and I think they have an important role to play to keep the governments honest and on track. They are the constituency that is most concerned.”
The British-Egyptian blogger and pro-democracy activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah is on hunger strike in prison in Egypt. Asked if El-Fattah’s situation could be resolved before COP27, Shoukry said: “We have to concentrate on the issue at hand, which is climate change … The challenge we face in climate change is quite a substantial one and whatever other issues, though important, should not detract us from our main objective, said Shoukry.