Part 1 of our exclusive sitdown with Mahmoud Mohieldin, the UN Climate Change High-Level Champion for Egypt
Putting the climate crisis into perspective: As we near COP27 in November — seven years after the Paris Climate Agreement was signed — many of the fundamental issues are yet to be ironed out. The dust has yet to settle on everything from who bears responsibility, to who foots the bill for financing, to the debate about adaptation vs mitigation.
Perhaps there is no one better to help us get a sense of all of this than Egypt’s UN high-level climate champion, Mahmoud Mohieldin, whose work on these issues predates the Paris agreement, and will continue to drive the agenda for global climate action in the coming years. Prior to his selection as Egypt’s climate czar, Mohieldin — who is also a special envoy for the UN secretary-general and an executive director at the IMF — had been the World Bank’s senior vice president for the 2030 Development Agenda, where he helped shape the 17 sustainable development goals — the global metric for development.
In Part 1 of our two-part interview, Mohieldin explains the fundamental challenges when it comes to the climate crisis, and provides a sobering reality check on just how far off the mark we are.
- Emerging economies bear no real responsibility for climate change, but are the most impacted by it;
- Developed economies are falling far short of the USD 100 bn per year they’ve collectively pledged to help developing nations mitigate and adapt. The real gap, he says is in the USD tns, not USD bns;
- Reducing the climate change debate to “mitigation” suits the interests of developed economies;
- Mohieldin took the job as UN high-level climate champion because it meshes two of his passions: Crisis management and sustainable development.
ENTERPRISE: Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you wind up in this role?
MAHMOUD MOHIELDIN: This goes back to a process that started in Marrakesh a year after the Paris Agreement. Marrakesh is where the international community really recognized the importance of non-state actors — any entity or agency that is not part of the formal negotiation track. That includes the business community, civil society organizations, academic institutions, local and regional governing bodies, et cetera. So it’s a very broad tent of participants.
Within that, my focus is very much on the implementation side, on turning into reality everything the state actors agree on. I’m the seventh to hold this post, and there are two champions at a time. So I’m doing this work with the champion from COP26, Mr. Nigel Topping, and next year I should be doing this job with the climate champion selected by the UAE.
ENTERPRISE: Why was it the right challenge for you? Why was it appealing to you personally?
MM: Because it’s about a crisis and about development. It’s as simple as that.
I’ve been tackling crises and challenges throughout my professional life. Some of an economic nature, with challenges of development — challenges that were financial, economic and social — and now, climate.
And climate is the ultimate crisis. We do come across occasional short-term or midterm-crises — a financial crisis, a debt crisis, or even a pandemic — but the climate crisis is long-term. It is very deeply rooted in history, going back to the Industrial Revolution. And the stakes are so very high.
It also relates to my years at the World Bank, where I worked on the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs). My focus has always been on implementation, on finance, on monitoring data systems and helping the work at the country level and globally. When I was offered the chance to do this work, I said, “This is a great chance to get into this area that had its own dynamics, but was very much integrated in the sustainable development framework that I had been working on.”
And it has many links with other problems. So while climate change is causing more poverty, more vulnerability, loss of economic potential, and negatively impacting social development … the solutions to the climate agenda are about investment, which I have been doing and implementing for many years.
Solutions to climate challenges are not just about massive investment in mitigation, in renewable energy, in tackling the impact of the crisis through adaptation. It requires more investment in human capital and resilience at large. Others take a much more narrow or “reductionist” approach to climate challenges.
ENTERPRISE: What do you mean by reductionist?
MM: Sustainability means handling different aspects of economic and social problems, including the political economy dynamics. This is the beauty of the structure of SDGs. You need to end poverty and you need to improve equity or equality in society. That will only happen through investment in health, education, infrastructure, digital infrastructure and resilience (including climate and biodiversity). If you take it this way, it’s about an inclusive and balanced approach to the challenges facing people and our planet.
A reductionist approach is telling you something completely different. It comes from a group of countries that have already benefited from their social and economic development. They have higher education levels, they have satisfactory health services, their economic progress and development brought them high living standards. These countries have hit the critical minimum of economic, social and human development. So, what’s left for them but the climate crisis?
That reductionist approach, reduces the whole discussion about sustainability to mean decarbonization and emissions and taking as well measures like carbon pricing as a guiding star for their activities. This fits nicely with their own priorities for economic development going forward.
ENTERPRISE: Who are these countries?
MM: Let’s just say the very advanced members of the OECD — the club of rich countries.
ENTERPRISE: So what’s a holistic approach, then?MM: Let’s start with Africa, Latin America or parts of East Asia. They haven’t really contributed to the mess we’re in, but they’re most exposed to the shocks. All of Africa is responsible for maybe 3-4% of global emissions, but water management systems are being compromised. Climate change has a severe impact on coastal areas. They’re exposed to severe weather. So when we talk about climate in developing economies, we need to do it in a comprehensive program. It needs to address a ‘typical’ African country that may suffer more from poverty, inequality, from the quality of education, and from inadequate health services and infrastructure.