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No voice is louder than the voice of propaganda regarding climate issues in Egypt. The government could not care less whether its projects and initiatives are appropriate, consistent with the social environment, in line with the interests of citizens, or if they were subject to thorough studies before their implementation. What is essential for government agencies is that these projects align with the donors’ whims and the trends of climate-related grants. Hence, it was of the utmost importance to launch COP27 in the presence of senior officials and invite major media outlets to cover the event and reflect an ideal image that is immune to criticism. And while the coherent statement that was issued may have lacked accurate information, it never failed to adhere to the grandiose titles that preceded the names of the officials.
The impacts of climate change in Egypt are evident, whether in the current changes, such as the rise in temperatures, or the underway changes, such as the projected rise in the Mediterranean Sea levels and the accompanying alarming scenarios of flooding that predict the disappearance of the Nile Delta. However, the Egyptian government’s recent attention to climate issues has little to do with addressing the impacts of climate change and much to do with the endeavor to live up to the criteria that win grants and soft loans offered by climate-related projects. Perhaps the only positive effect of this newfound attention is the production of reports that reveal the extent of climate change impacts on Egypt, since those have become increasingly credible and accurate, even if that was for the sake of obtaining grants. Egypt has often ignored climate warnings and its own pledges in return for preserving foreign investments and allowing factories to operate using coal-intensive power (1), in contravention to the global trends to stop its use as a fuel to reduce carbon emissions.
Egypt's actions have been marred by a lack of coordination between the various sectors and the Ministry of Environment. Some projects were repeatedly put forward by different entities, for instance, the Cairo Bike project, announced by the Cairo Governorate at the end of October 2022, was previously implemented under different names in other geographical areas in partnership with the Ministry of Youth and the Ministry of Environment. Why does the government not unify efforts and expertise? Why does it not disclose transparently to the public all funding sources, courses of action, and outcomes?
Three years after its establishment, the National Council for Climate Change (2) still could not dissolve the inconsistencies among the concerned parties, as its role has not yet been activated. Also, its administrative structure, which includes eight ministers, did not include the Minister of Local Development. It is worth noting that the Ministry of Local Development is concerned with developing the local community, raising public awareness, and recording a detailed picture of the communities, and as such, the ministry represents a key partner in the development and implementation of climate plans and projects.
Egypt began to pay attention to environmental and climate issues during the 1990s. Environment Law No. 4 of 1994 was issued and amended by Law No. 9 of 2009. The Ministry of Environment was established under Presidential Decree No. 275 of 1997. Since its inception, the ministry has rarely engaged in any of the climate issues in a significant way, and it has failed to monitor the industrial pollution caused by reckless investors.
The Egyptian government’s recent attention to climate issues has little to do with addressing the impacts of climate change and much to do with the endeavor to live up to the criteria that win international grants and soft loans offered to climate-related projects.
The most prominent of these engagements was in 2014, when the former Minister of Environment, Dr Laila Iskandar, intervened to stop the government's decision to use coal as fuel. The government made the decision under pressure from investors who own intensive coal-powered factories, especially cement and ceramic factories, most of which are owned by multinational companies. The government's decision was in conjunction with the rise in natural gas prices and the widening gap between production and consumption. Dr Iskandar presented to the Council of Ministers studies that indicated health and environmental damage resulting from replacing gas with coal. However, the influence of multinational companies was more powerful than the revolutionary act. Consequently, she was dismissed from the Ministry of Environment and assigned the Ministry of Urban Development and Slums. In the end, the government passed the decision, despite warnings from ten concerned human rights organizations (3) that the decision was made without consulting the competent authorities and the residents of the areas affected by coal.
Nevertheless, the Egyptian government has continued to justify the use of coal. In 2017, the Prime Minister issued Decree No. 618 of 2017, amending the executive regulation of the Environment Law, including the executive regulation for the use of coal. The most prominent amendment regarded Article 4, which stipulated that “windbreaks surrounding open storage areas must be designed per international standards” to become “per the standards set by the Ministry of Environment.” In media statements, environmental advocate Dr Ragia al-Jarzawi (4) criticized the new amendments, stressing that the environmental standards in the previous executive regulation were not originally based on the latest international standards, which means that the amendments posed additional risks to the environment and public health.
The Environment Law and its executive regulations drew further criticisms, most notably regarding the discrepancy between the maximum allowable emissions set by the Ministry of Environment and the internationally allowed limits. In its latest report (5), the Ministry of Environment announced that the measurements made by the National Network for Monitoring Industrial Emissions, which is composed of 352 monitoring sites, revealed that the emissions of 66 establishments nationwide were primarily compatible with the legal limit in Egypt by up to 92% for suspended solids. However, all of these measurements violate the minimum allowable limits according to the World Health Organization, where the sizes of suspended solids should not exceed more than 10 mg/m3.
These particles may well be responsible for the increase in annual death rates in Cairo, which reached 12,000 in 2017, with deaths resulting from heart disease making up more than half that number in the same year.
Air pollution levels in Cairo exceed “the maximum permissible national and global limits by double or more,” according to World Bank estimates. Meanwhile, the Cairo Governorate website offered to sell an area of approximately 10 km2 in the Petrified Forest and Tigris natural protectorates in Maadi, without accountability.
The penalties stipulated in the Egyptian Penal Code are also not commensurate with the repercussions of environmental breaches that cause long-term climate changes and threaten the lives of future generations. A research paper published by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (6) criticized these penalties, noting that these articles have not been amended since 1981. According to the Penal Code, the maximum penalty for environmental violations does not exceed a few months of detention, a 5,000 EGP fine, or one year of imprisonment in the worst case scenario. Even radioactive pollution does not entail a fine of more than 40,000 EGP, according to Article 86. In addition to these seemingly reduced penalties, the Ministry of Environment does not apply such punishments openly on big industrial facilities, be those state-owned or privately-owned by investors, whereas penalties target small enterprises owned by individuals.
Law No. 102 of 1983 on Nature Protectorates is another law whose amendment is overdue, given that it was issued years before the crucial international climate agreements, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopted in 1992 and the Paris Agreement adopted in 2015. This law is concerned mainly with the management and protection of natural reserves in Egypt. According to the Ministry of Environment, 30 reserves cover more than 15% of the total area of Egypt to protect the biodiversity of rare and endemic animals, birds, and plants away from the encroaching urban tide. The new draft law on natural reserves issued by the Council of Ministers in 2017 was shelved in mid-2021 due to widespread criticism and fear that it would enable investors to control the reserves by usufruct. Although the Council of Ministers denied that, Article 4 of the draft law stipulated the establishment of the General Authority for Nature Protectorates, which has the right to “establish joint-stock companies alone or jointly with other partners to manage and preserve protectorates and carry out works that fall within the scope of its purposes after the approval of the Authority’s board of directors.”
In this context, an area of approximately 10 km2 in the Petrified Forest and Tigris natural reserves in Maadi was offered for sale on the website of the Cairo Governorate, and no one was held accountable for the deed. The controversy that followed led the Council of Ministers and the Ministry of Environment to issue a joint statement in which they claimed that the Petrified Forest had lost biodiversity; therefore, its ownership must return to the state, and the National Center for Land Use becomes responsible for reallocating it by a republican decree. In the absence of influential environmental human rights organizations, who can refute such a statement?
Egypt's 2014 Constitution provided special provisions for protecting and preserving the environment. It imposed political and social obligations and committed to sustainable development in Articles 45 and 46, in addition to Egypt's international pledges after signing the UNFCCC in 1992 and the Paris Agreement in 2015. Egypt also shared its plan to fulfill its climate and sustainable development commitments by 2030, followed by its 2050 plan. However, there were several shortcomings, the gravest of which was the failure to mention the goal of reaching zero carbon emissions in the 2050 plan, in addition to failing to monitor the percentage of carbon dioxide and its gradual reduction over time in the 2030 plan.
According to a UN report entitled “Managing the environmental protection ecosystem in Egypt: Towards achieving a sustainable environment and addressing climate change risks,” five ministries are responsible for implementing and following up plans for sustainable development and combating climate change, namely: the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Trade and Industry, the Ministry of Health and Population, the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation, the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, and other agencies such as the Environmental Affairs Agency. Greater collective coordination is required from all of these parties to improve their performance, according to a study issued by the American University in Cairo in 2019 entitled “Climate Governance in Egypt” (7).
Moreover, the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) has rated Egypt’s overall climate actions as “highly insufficient” - a fourth rate out of the five-point rating scale adopted by CAT. That rating indicates that Egypt’s climate policies and commitments are not consistent with the objectives of the Paris Agreement, which seek to limit global warming to the 1.5°C temperature limit. During COP26, Egypt announced its endeavor to rely on renewable energy by 42% by 2030. However, it signed neither official documents nor international agreements on reducing methane gas emissions, and it failed to activate the moratorium on using coal as a fuel, despite signing an agreement in this regard, according to the CAT report.
A recent research paper entitled "Lest the green disappear" has monitored the removal of up to 90 acres of green areas in the Heliopolis district alone and the lease of green parks in the Abdeen Palace area to cafes and restaurants. It also detected the removal of green areas the size of 260 football pitches during the period from 2017 to 2020.
Expanding the use of renewable energy is one of the controversial issues, despite its necessity. According to the New and Renewable Energy Authority (NREA) of the Ministry of Electricity, Egypt has implemented 130 solar energy projects worth 200 million EGP, saving up to 70% of the fossil energy that was to be used in the same projects, including 25 million EGP in non-refundable grants, which means that an amount of 175 million EGP is added to the burden of government debt, even if it is in the form of concessional grants. This situation raises the question: why has the government not funneled the solar energy grants to build a plant that lays the foundations for a national industry to produce the equipment required for renewable energy plants, so as the country can save the cost of future imports and hire more workers? The Solar Energy Development Association (SEDA) in Egypt stressed the importance of building such a plant in a statement, warning that the country has been losing solar energy investors due to the non-availability of production requirements in the Egyptian market, including cells or current transformers, cables, station construction supplies, and solar heaters. With the third floating of the Egyptian pound, the import of some of the necessary materials was stopped, which made matters worse.
As for Egypt's transition to nuclear energy, the following question arises: Should it be a priority in the current period, given the considerable cost that will overburden the government’s budget, which is already suffering from the repayment of loans, the expansion of construction projects and repairing roads and bridges, in addition to the high cost of the new administrative capital? Moreover, renewable energy from the sun and wind is cheaper, safer, and available throughout Egyptian territory. On its website, the Nuclear Power Plants Authority (NPPA) stated that the El-Dabaa Nuclear Power Plant project was proceeding according to the specified time plan and at an initial cost of $28.5 billion. The government is constructing the Plant's walls, guard towers, and gates and establishing a residential city for the people of El-Dabaa which includes 1,500 Bedouin houses and a housing complex for plant workers that comprise 2,050 housing units of various sizes attached to administrative and service facilities. The project aims to build four units of pressurized water reactors of the Russian type with a capacity of 1,200 megawatts per unit. Among the project's objectives, the NPPA has set a goal of a political nature that seeks to obtain international recognition of the country's achievements. Since the project has been re-launched, the government's red tape has been ridiculed, with Egyptians joking that managing the project by employees in a bureaucratic system might lead to endangering the lives of millions.
In 2014, the former Minister of Environment presented studies indicating the health and environmental harms resulting from replacing gas with coal. However, the multinational companies were more powerful than the “revolutionary act”. The minister was dismissed from her position and appointed as Minister of Urban Development and Slums instead. In the end, the decision to use coal was passed.
Is Egypt's transition to nuclear energy a priority in the current period, given the considerable cost that will overburden the government’s budget, which is already suffering from the repayment of loans, the expansion of construction and infrastructure repairs, in addition to the expenses of the new administrative capital? Moreover, renewable energy from the sun and wind is cheaper, safer, and available throughout Egyptian territory.
On the other hand, the Egyptian government has continued to provide subsidies for production-intensive investment projects while hinting at the need to lift government subsidies for citizens. In a statement issued in February 2021, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said, "In 2014, the government approved a single increase in the prices of natural gas sold to these factories, then reduced the price twice in 2019 and 2020, even though these facilities' energy debts amounted to 6 billion EGP."
After its first report in 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued its 2021 health and climate change global survey report on assessing health preparedness for climate change in 95 countries worldwide, by surveying the ministries of health and similar government agencies. The survey included 22 questions which intended to reveal the overall progress governments have made in addressing the health risks of climate change. Each question was to be answered by: No, Yes, under development, or unknown. Egypt’s response to the WHO survey revealed many shortcomings in addressing the health risks posed by climate change.
When asked whether it has conducted a climate change and health vulnerability and adaptation assessment, Egypt’s answer was “under development”, and when asked whether it included climate change within the COVID-19 recovery program, the answer was “unknown”.
The survey asked the government whether it had a joint memorandum of understanding or agreement between the Ministry of Health, the Meteorological Authority, and the Ministries of Energy and Education regarding climate change. Egypt’s answer was "No", stressing that cooperation exists between the Ministries of Agriculture and Environment only. The absence of a memorandum of understanding or agreement between the Ministry of Health and the Meteorological Authority led the Egyptian side to claim that the plan to respond to casualties was unrelated to the deaths in extreme weather events. The same applies to non-communicable diseases, vector-borne diseases, and waterborne diseases.
In August 2022, a human rights research paper on Egypt's health policy towards climate change criticized Egypt's failure to integrate the cost of environmental degradation into the sustainable development strategy it announced for its 2030 vision. The paper suggested assessing the cost of the health risks and drawing up a detailed evaluation and response strategy to improve political interventions and reduce the environmental and health costs, particularly on the social and economic levels, as is the case in several international studies, including the World Bank study issued in 2019 on the toll of air and water pollution in Egypt. The paper recommended that the government oblige investors to survey the impact of industrial and service projects on health and to conduct a study on the effects of these projects on the environment. It also recommended that the government impose taxes on noise, emissions, polluted water drainage, or hazardous waste in Egypt, and to allocate the revenue to supporting the health sector.
They hate trees
In 2020, the Ministry of Environment launched the Go Green initiative as part of the National Sustainable Development Strategy. However, the three-year initiative has exposed inconsistencies in the policies of government agencies on climate issues. It has aimed to change behaviors and urge citizens to participate in preserving the environment, adopt projects that would reduce solid emissions by 50% by 2030, and promote afforestation as part of the initiative's fundamental goal to reduce carbon emissions and provide breathing space to residents of polluted cities. However, the authorities uprooted hundreds of trees in Dokki, Heliopolis, New Nozha, and other areas, with the excuse that it was the easiest way to widen roads and construct bridges.
A recent research paper entitled "Lest the green disappear" has monitored the removal of up to 90 acres of green spaces in the Heliopolis district alone and the lease of green parks in the Abdeen Palace area to cafes and restaurants. Using satellite images for the study, the Tree Rights Movement monitored the removal of large green spaces equivalent to the size of 260 football pitches during the period from 2017 to 2020. Under pressure from a social media campaign, the Ministry of Environment issued press statements saying that the trees had been moved safely to be re-planted in another area. However, Save the Trees Movement published video evidence on their page that proved otherwise, revealing the uprooting of trees by a bulldozer, without any equipment for transportation. Although the Central Auditing Organization report has monitored a decrease in per capita vegetation cover to only 17 cm2 in 2020, government agencies still neglect the need to preserve green spaces.
At the end of October 2022, residents of downtown Cairo woke up to a new layout in their streets, with bike lanes and 250 rental bikes parked in 25 bike-sharing stations that operate by smart cards. It was a dream come true for the residents of the capital, whose air pollution levels exceed the maximum permissible levels at the national and global levels by double or more, according to World Bank estimates. In a press release, Cairo Governorate announced that the project aimed primarily to support the integration of environmentally friendly means of transportation in order to limit the increasing reliance on cars and improve air quality and the general quality of life.
A quick rush-hour tour of downtown Cairo a few days after the launch of the first phase of the Cairo Bike Project reveals that the bike lanes were being used for anything but bikes. Instead, they became passageways for fossil-fuel-powered vehicles or pedestrians. Due to reducing the effective roadway width, the overcrowding and congestion of cars and buses increased instead of decreasing. It is worth noting that the roads were not re-paved or retouched after the installment of the bike lane, which made it seem like the project was implemented hastily, as a quick ‘facelift’ for Cairo days before the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 27).
Several parties contributed to supporting the project, such as the Swiss Drosos Foundation, the Institute for Transport and Development Policy (ITDP), and the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat). Although the government has carried it out in partnership with the Danish company Donkey Republic - the company responsible for supplying 70 cities around the world with bike-sharing stations of more than 16,000 bikes - the project lacked sound planning that ensured optimum utilization. The way the project was implemented also raises several questions regarding its target group: youth and adolescents. Why did the government not launch the project during the summer break in universities and schools? What means of publicity can ensure youth interest in the project? Why is it not possible to rent bikes for free, mainly since the project was funded by a grant whose value was never announced?
Surprisingly enough, the project sponsors ignored the ongoing security crackdown against visitors to the downtown area, which contradicts the project’s objectives, as passers-by are repeatedly and haphazardly searched.
In addition, registering to activate a bike rental requires submitting one’s complete personal data, the place and time of receiving the bike, and the duration of the ride, which facilitates tracking riders and is inconsistent with human rights values that intersect with climate justice values.
The international sponsors of the Cairo Bike Project have ignored the ongoing security crackdown against visitors to the downtown area who were repeatedly stopped for random inspections. Activating the bike rental app also required submitting complete personal data, the place and time of receiving the bike, and the duration of the ride, which facilitates tracking riders and contradicts human rights values that intersect with climate justice values.
According to the CPI, there is a connection between the fifteen countries, including Egypt, which the World Bank ranked as the most vulnerable places affected by climate change, and the high corruption indicators in those countries. It is worth noting that Egypt performs poorly on the CPI, ranking 117 out of 180 countries, with an average score of 33 out of 100 in governance and transparency.
In conclusion, when it comes to fulfilling climate commitments and involving citizens in the process, governments are only as efficient and successful as their practice of democracy and transparency is. This has been confirmed by Transparency International in its 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), which has observed a connection between the fifteen countries, including Egypt, which the World Bank ranked as the most vulnerable places affected by climate change, and the high corruption indicators in those countries. Egypt performs poorly on the CPI, ranking 117 out of 180 countries, with an average score of 33 out of 100 in governance and transparency.
The CPI explains how transparency and accountability can lead to an increase in the effectiveness of government plans and projects regarding climate change, by deprioritizing private interests and fighting corruption which comes in the form of government officials obtaining commissions or positions through these projects. The role of civil society organizations in monitoring and making detailed information available to the public can help guarantee that this does not happen, but it is no secret that Egypt lacks a robust civil society. In 2017 alone, Human Rights Watch reported that the Egyptian government banned 30 prominent human rights defenders from leaving the country and closed 7 human rights organizations and 2,000 charities.
The content of this publication is the sole responsibility of Assafir Al-Arabi and Rosa Luxemburg Foundation cannot accept any liability for it.
Translated from Arabic by Sabry Zaki
Published in Assafir Al-Arabi on 17/11/2022
1- Prime Minister Decree No. 964 of 2015.
2- Prime Minister Decree No. 1129 of 2019.
3- The statement by the Organizations: https://bit.ly/3tET6o0
4- Criticisms of Dr Al-Jarzawi: https://bit.ly/3UJCpUv
5- State of the Environment Report 2020: https://bit.ly/3Gjaer8
7- Climate Governance in Egypt – AUC: https://bit.ly/3hPfgS1