H E Dr Yasmine Fouad talks to Chris Seekings about the unique environmental challenges facing Egypt and the MENA region ahead of COP27
With more than 18 years’ experience working in government, UN organisations, NGOs and universities, H E Dr Yasmine Fouad is a leading authority on environmental issues in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
As Egypt’s Minister of Environment, she is also one of few female politicians who are actively shaping environmental policy in the region. She explains how this year’s COP27 summit in the Egyptian city of Sharm El-Sheikh presents a unique opportunity for the Arab world to help tackle the environmental challenges facing the world.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing Egypt and the MENA region more broadly?
One of the main environmental challenges is water scarcity due to climate change impacts. It is also getting harder to access water due of our growing populations, so the region is keen to find different solutions, such as water desalination. Egypt reuses its water four times for every cycle so that we can make the best out of it.
Another challenge is the need for a climate finance strategy – we’re talking about not only the public finance that’s part of the Paris Agreement commitments, but also how we can escalate and leverage private sector investment into different environmental efforts in the MENA region. However, we see these challenges as an opportunity; we are thinking about the kinds of technologies we can use to maximise water use and food production, and how can we engage the younger generations. We are joining forces with other countries in the region because our common challenges give us an opportunity to better manage our natural resources.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted Egypt’s environmental initiatives?
Like other countries, Egypt was hit hard by the pandemic. However, we saw it as an opportunity to change the way we do business. ‘Building back better’ is not just a nice phrase – it means actions on the ground and transformation at government level. In November 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, the Cabinet of Ministers, headed by the primer minister, took the bold decision to adopt environmental sustainability criteria for greening our national budget. We had no vaccination and nothing was clear, but we took the decision for our national budget to be 100% covered by these criteria by 2030. In 2021 the target was 15%, and now we have achieved 30%. If you’re not abiding by the criteria, you will not be able to attain funding. We also issued green bonds because there was such an appetite from the private sector, and raised US$750m. The beauty of our green bonds is that, instead of funding easy projects like renewables because they are profitable, we selected projects like transport and treated wastewater, because these areas are some of the most challenging.
“Amid the pandemic, Egypt adopted sustainability criteria for greening our national budget”
Looking at the MENA region more broadly, do you think many countries may struggle with the green transition due to their historical reliance on fossil fuels?
There is an assumption that there is a direct contradiction between fossil fuel and renewable energy. I believe, on the contrary, that most sources of energy would work within a complementary equation and provide a just transition for the MENA region. But we also need to be committed to the Paris Agreement, with exact figures and targets in our Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).
Have countries in MENA region made progress on updating their NDCs?
Despite the economic and energy problems we are facing, Egypt has still been able to be bold and ambitious with its NDCs. Instead of announcing a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the electric sector, we announced a 33% cut. We announced a 65% reduction for oil and gas, and 7% for the transport sector. As the host of COP27, we need to show and lead by example. Some other countries have submitted their updated NDCs and are also working on environmental initiatives, such as food system initiatives relating to agriculture and technology in the UAE, initiatives to go further on water use in Morocco, and the expansion of renewable energy in other areas, even where there is political instability.
Why do you think it is so important that women are involved in developing climate policies?
In the MENA region, women take responsibility for the family. When we have a flood or heatwave, the women bear the consequences of delivering children to school, doing the cooking, arranging the house and so on. It is so important that women are involved in policymaking, and Egypt has two relevant initiatives for COP27. One is the Gender and Adaptation Initiative, which will be announced for the conference and will explore how women can be more resilient to climate change, participate in raising awareness, and do more in the fight against it. The second thing is a thematic day dedicated to gender, which will gather female leaders in NGOs to hear about successful projects they have been involved in and discuss how they can be replicated and upscaled. We will hear from African women in rural areas and women from developing small island states, which have been suffering a lot. For them, fighting climate change is their ‘survival plan’.
Are the Egyptian people generally on board with the environmental movement?
Yes. With COP27, Egypt is making a huge leap in the way we feature the issue in our society. We have announced a National Climate Dialogue with the country’s 27 governorates, aiming to raise awareness at local level with different segments of society, religious groups, women workers, young people and university students. We have also launched our first National Climate Campaign, ‘Return Nature to its Nature’. This has involved ads on different TV channels and on social media, raising awareness about the impact of climate change. If you want societies to change, you have to link the challenge to what is happening in people’s daily lives. We believe every action really matters. We cannot say it’s only the government, it’s only the private sector – all of us, collectively, will make a difference. And that’s what we would like to show in Sharm El-Sheikh.
What are the big key outcomes that you’d like to see from the summit?
With COP27 taking place in Egypt and COP28 in the UAE, this is a unique opportunity for the MENA region.
I want to see operationalisation of the Santiago Network for loss and damage, and follow-up on the progress made on the global goal on adaptation work programme. I also want to see more updated NDCs from developed and developing countries becoming a reality. Progress on global adaptation and climate finance goals should be discussed intensively, and it is important to give guidance on that process – doubling the adaptation finance, ensuring it is guarded, and streamlining the process within different financial mechanisms. It’s important to balance mitigation and adaptation with quantitative and qualitative targets that are backed up by science. If you’re not going green, you’re not providing the decent life you would like for your people and for future generations.