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Africa caught between climate and growth: top diplomat

Mohamed Nasr, head of environmental affairs in Egypt's foreign ministry, is chair of the Africa Group, a 54-nation negotiating bloc at the UN climate conference under way in Madrid.

Nasr spoke to AFP halfway through the 12-day talks -- before ministers arrive to tackle issues that frontline diplomats cannot resolve -- about Africa's climate change dilemma.

- Greater ambition? -

Q. The sum of national commitments under the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gases does not come close to capping global warming at well below two degrees Celsius, much less at 1.5 C, the targets agreed under the treaty. And yet the Africa Group has not made a forceful call in Madrid for greater ambition on this front. Why?

NASR: Africa is very strong on ambition, this is why we joined the Paris Agreement. We are the most impacted continent. In the last few years, we have seen an increase in extreme events -- cyclones, droughts, floods. The UN IPCC report on 1.5C showed that Africa will warm 2C more than the world average.

But we need a reality check. You can't just call for ambition when you have 18 percent of global emissions (the United States) leaving the Paris Agreement. And they are also the biggest contributor to climate finance.

Let's say you are a policymaker in Africa and want to help your people in education, health, and so on, and you have oil and gas. Somalia -- a country still struggling with itself -- found oil. But then the UN Secretary General (Antonio Guterres) turns around and says, "No, no, no, you cannot take this oil out of the ground."

Then what options do I have left? Should I go begging, "please give us some material assistance"? As a policymaker, I have to say, "Sorry, I'm a short-term politician with a five-year or 10-year mandate." So we will be ambitious in our actions, but if we don't get the support, then unfortunately I will be going on this other path.

- 'Bigger picture' -

Q. Do countries across the continent face this same dilemma?

NASR: It is not only Somalia. Ghana, Tanzania, Mozambique, Egypt, South Africa -- all of them are facing challenges when it comes to socio-economic development. Look at the indicators, the level of debt.

We have a project in Egypt for the biggest solar project in the world. So how much did it cost to get the money to have this? It was at least eight times the interest rate for a similar project in Europe. This is a long term investment -- my children will be paying for it.

At a certain point, a policymaker will say, "I have enough debt, I can't go beyond that". So we can't just have a call for ambition.

I am not here only as an environmentalist. I am here to represent everything -- environment, industry, government, civil society, people in the street -- so I have to have the bigger picture. If we just talk about this from an environmental point of view, at a certain point things will start heating up.

- 'Just transition' -

Q. Some countries emphasise the need for a "just transition" to low carbon economies to protect those made vulnerable by the shift.

NASR: In the West, governments can afford to subsidise or financially support such a transition. In the developing world, it is more difficult.

Take the small (diesel-powered) "tuk-tuk" taxis found in so many countries. Let's say I want to shift to sustainable transport, so I phase out tuk-tuks and use electric buses. One electric bus will take how many tuk-tuks off the street? A lot. I need to find jobs for all those drivers.

It is not that easy, and people need to understand that. Energy is a big component, and it has started. But what about the other sectors? Waste management, transport, agriculture, livestock -- we don't have a lot of investments in these sectors. Even if you do invest, it will be at a very high cost.