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Air pollution nightmare in Cairo will end within 4-5 years: Environment Minister - Daily News Egypt

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Air pollution nightmare in Cairo will end within 4-5 years: Environment Minister

Ministry’s opinions are mandatory, we play scientific research role: Yasmine Fouad

In June 2018, Dr Yasmine Fouad was appointed Minister of Environment to be the third woman to hold the position. She was previously Assistant Minister of Environment since 2014. 

Since she took the post, Fouad has faced many challenges with the black clouds and air quality on top of them. Daily News Egypt met with Dr Fouad to have an insight into the Ministry’s efforts to overcome environmental challenges and to answer many of our inquiries on different topics from climate change through green recovery to wildlife trafficking.  

Between 2018 and 2020, Egypt was the COP14 president. Could you brief us on Egypt’s efforts during the two-year presidency? 

We assumed the presidency of the conference [the UN Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP14)] in November 2018, and we still hold the position. 

The role was supposed to be handed over to China at the end of last year, but was postponed to mid-2021 due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In that period, Egypt worked on several axes at the international level, both before and during the pandemic. 

Among these themes was the Africa Declaration to Combat Wildlife Trafficking. Moreover, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi launched an initiative to integrate the three Rio conventions [the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)], and Egypt worked to mobilise the international funding necessary to enable the concerned countries to do so. 

We have secured funding from the Green Climate Fund (GCF) to finance biodiversity projects, and have also obtained $500m from the Global Environment Facility to support countries involved in the initiative. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has also allocated funding, in cooperation with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), to fund ecosystem restoration projects. 

During the pandemic, we found the world heading towards President Al-Sisi’s prediction that we cannot address global environmental issues only. With this in mind, we hosted the first meeting in December 2020 that included the concerned international institutions to discuss the link between the three agreements.

We also prepared a post-2050 road map with the UN Secretariat and the CBD. In November, developing and developed countries were in dispute over how to move forward to hold consultation meetings on this plan. 

Developing countries saw that consultations should be postponed until direct meetings could be held, in order to express their views, while developed countries did not want to disrupt the negotiation path and the necessity to proceed with it. As the chair of the conference, Egypt intervened and held five sessions with the parties. Because of this, we reached consensus on moving forward to unofficially agree on a document until the end of the pandemic.

In September 2019, a TRAFFIC report revealed widespread exploitation of airports by wildlife trafficking networks, with Egypt, Qatar and the UAE mentioned as hotspots. What are the Ministry of Environment’s efforts in this regard?

The problem of wildlife trafficking does not exist in Egypt, but rather we have a problem with hunting wild animals. Some illegal trade is already occurring, but it is dealt with according to the CITES agreement for conserving wildlife. 

Citizens have recently become aware of the danger of wildlife trafficking, and they now report violations. Egypt has tightened control across airports and ports to combat this type of operations. There is even trafficking of fossilised wood dating back thousands of years, and which has been caught. 

When the civil aviation authorities suspect anything that the passenger is carrying, the authorities contact us, and if it is of environmental value, the necessary measures are taken.

What is Egypt’s agenda for COP26, which is set to be held in the UK this year? 

Egypt has cooperated with the UK for a long time through the UK-Egypt adaptation and resilience coalition, which the UN Secretary General called for at the end of 2019 after the Poland conference. 

We worked with the UK for eight months to lay down a plan and course for adaptation issues, specifically because most of the attention is directed to issues of renewable energy, transport and industry. All of this falls under the concept of mitigation.

But what concerns developing countries are adaptation issues that enable developing countries to withstand environmental changes. In 2019, Egypt mobilised political momentum around adaptation issues, a political declaration was issued and ratified by 110 countries and 86 organisations, and more funding sources for adaptation issues became available than before. 

In January, Egypt participated in the adaptation conference hosted by the Netherlands, where we pushed with the same political momentum to provide more financing opportunities for adaptation issues. We had hoped to achieve a goal of providing important funds where 50% went to its projects for adaptation, and the remaining 50% would go to mitigation, but this did not happen. 

After the pandemic, Egypt demanded more funding for adaptation issues. We are going to COP26 to ensure that the goals we have worked on over the past two years are fulfilled and that adaptation issues are not marginalised during the informal agenda for negotiations.

During the conference, we hope to continue our leadership role in Africa with the Arab group on issues related to transparency, market mechanisms and carbon market mechanisms. This is because these issues remain pending since the last conference of the parties. We also hope to increase political support for the issue of linking climate change issues with the Rio agreements. 

Do developed countries commit to their financial pledges?

On biodiversity issues, we have successfully created an online platform to increase the financial pledges from developed countries. We are pushing in this direction, but to be honest, the development paths in developing countries need time to reach the so-called circular economy and sustainable development, which need money. 

Since developing countries have not caused the effects of the industrial revolution, it is difficult to hold them responsible for seeking funds to cover adaptation projects. Did we succeed in finding funds? In some cases, we did, but not as much as we expected. 

At the moment, the world is talking about raising the ambition to preserve the planet, secure required funds, and transfer technology. Some countries, such as the UK, France, and Germany, have pledged higher commitments than they are required to comply with. 

But the issue is about financing climate change issues, rather than development issues, and this is the basis of the disagreement that occurred at the Paris Summit. It has led us to question whether we should finance regular development projects or climate change projects.

Is it not possible for developing countries to exploit funds in establishing projects that do not pollute the environment?

In December 2019, all multilateral development banks (MDBs) agreed that they are not going to finance any project that is not climate-proofing. So the funds are now conditional according to their capacity to not contribute to the increase of greenhouse gases. 

The current international trend, which also applies to Egypt, is to consider the aspects of environmental sustainability and to integrate environmental issues in development plans.

Regarding development plans, how much has Egypt achieved in terms of its green recovery plan?

Egypt began its Green Recovery Plan in February 2020, in cooperation with the Ministry of Planning and Economic Development. For this, we agreed that environmental sustainability standards should be met in state-funded projects by at least 50%. 

We hope that within three years, 50% of the implemented projects will be green projects that take into account environmental sustainability standards. An example of efforts to implement this plan is the green bonds offered by the Ministry of Planning and Economic Development for housing and transportation projects. 

All these efforts are a framework for the National Strategy for Green Recovery, so that we can take real steps for reforms. These are set to contribute to the future generations reaping the fruits of real sustainable development, not resource-consuming development.

Has the Ministry of Environment successfully dealt with the pandemic in terms of municipal and medical waste?

We worked on a plan with the Ministries of Health and Population, and Local Development on how to dispose municipal waste during the pandemic. This included dealing with the waste of affected villages, and which are buried in a cell different from the burial cell of regular waste. Waste collection workers were also using personal protective equipment (PPE). 

Awareness campaigns were organised, some of which were broadcast through TV stations. We have provided guidelines for restaurants, hotels, malls, natural reserves, and even tourists boats, to deal with waste. As part of this, we have provided suitable containers for these boats to collect waste such as plastic cups and plates at the end of trips, so that they are not discharged into the sea. 

The Ministry of Environment organised campaigns to follow up on methods of disposing of medical waste, and as part of this, we launched a website in cooperation with the Ministry of Health and Population. This was so that every hospital can enter the quantities of waste that it wants to get rid of, so that it can receive instructions on how to dispose it. We tried to train several hospital staffs to separate their municipal and medical waste in the disposal process.

How do you evaluate the electronic system for monitoring and removing waste?

The Ministry of Environment has started some projects, such as the Dawar application, which enables citizens to monitor and report rubbish accumulations. We launched other electronic systems in nine neighbourhoods across Cairo and Giza, and we hope to implement them in 12 neighbourhoods in the near future. 

Through the system, citizens report the accumulation of waste and the ministry deals with this in cooperation with the Ministry of Local Development. The ministry will soon launch the E-Tadweer system to deal with electronic waste, such as damaged computers and phones. 

The system will be launched by the end of the first quarter (Q1) of 2021 in cooperation with the Federation of Egyptian Industries (FEI), the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, as well as mobile companies. 

Citizens will gain many benefits from mobile companies when they dispose of electronics properly. Private companies will work on the application of E-Tadweer, and mobile companies will give points to citizens that they can use to buy products from specific vendors.

Your Ministry has started an initiative to reduce single-use plastics in some cities. Will it be applied in other areas?

We are working to implement the system in certain neighbourhoods depending on the level of cooperation from the local community. For example, we have started in Zamalek district a year ago and now about 120 stores have stopped using plastic bags and have replaced them with canvas or paper bags. 

However, this system is based mainly on the cooperation of ordinary citizens, and the social responsibility of banks and private companies. Recently, after the issuance of the waste law’s regulations relating to the single-use plastic bags, we formed a national committee to stop the introduction of T2W through the Ministry of Trade and Industry, because this substance is used in the production of bags that do not degrade. Also, the Organisation for Standards and Quality reviews the thickness of plastic bags.

Despite the remarkable success in countering agricultural pollution, Cairo remains on the map of cities with highest air pollution rates. When will Cairo’s air pollution nightmare end?

It will take about four to five years until we start reaping the rewards of the project to improve air quality and combat climate change in Greater Cairo. The project will begin this year with $200m in finance from the World Bank. 

The project aims to set up an executive plan for managing air quality and the safe disposal of waste, as a compound of plants in the 10th of Ramadan city will treat all kinds of waste from Cairo and Qaliubiya for about 50 years.

We are planning to combat climate change in Cairo through the usage of eco-friendly cars and electric buses, with all these measures expected to reduce air pollution in the capital. IN the past two years, we have succeeded in reducing the concentration of the Particulate Matter (PM10) in the air by 25%. 

We also reduced the pollutants from black clouds in the governorates surrounding Cairo. We are still on the pollution map because we inherited accumulated problems, and are working on it now.  

Was the decision to reduce the area of rice cultivation in Egypt good news for the Ministry of Environment?

No, rice straw represents only 32% of the air pollution problem, with the rest of the problem coming from car exhaust, unlicensed factories, and lack of citizen awareness. Not all the agricultural waste burned is rice straw, as corn wood is burnt in some governorates.

Scientific studies expect that the north Red Sea’s coral reefs will be the last reefs affected by climate change. What are the results so far of your Ministry’s project to survey the marine environment in the Gulf of Aqaba?

Coral reefs in Egypt will be the last coral reefs to be affected by climate change, based on many scientific studies, so it has great importance in ecotourism. During the pandemic, we implemented a comprehensive survey of the marine environment in the Gulf of Aqaba, in order to be able to monitor the state of the marine environment in general. We cooperated with civil society organisations to carry out awareness campaigns, and campaigns to clean up the seabed.

A large part of the responsibility for protecting coral reefs rests with the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. Despite the current weak tourism movement, we are cooperating with the Ministry to support the coral reef tourism sector, by following environmentally sound practices. 

The magic solution to preserving coral reefs is the sustainable tourism concept. We worked with the tourism sector until some diving centres received a green label from the UN. We are currently working on some guidelines for environmentally friendly diving, as well as developing buoys to prevent attacks on reefs. 

In addition to this, we are working together through the National Strategy for Sustainable Tourism with the Ministry of Tourism and the private sector to promote the sustainable tourism sector. We are also working with successful investors in the field of ecotourism, such as Basata and Eco-Nubia. 

In order to preserve the coral reefs in the southern Red Sea, we are currently working on a strategic environmental assessment study, which takes into account the social and economic dimension. This will ensure the preservation of the marine environment and the achievement of development.

Large parts of coral reefs and the marine environment are exposed to marine pollution from ships and exploration companies. How does the Ministry deal with this problem?

The Ministry of Environment has a central room to deal with natural disasters, especially marine pollution problems caused by oil leaks, and we work with ports and oil companies that pay the cost of removing this pollution immediately after the accident. 

But the worst offenders are the oil companies that are located on the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea, and we have recently succeeded in pushing them to present correct plans to reconcile their environmental conditions. We have 9 such companies in 12 locations. 

Two of these companies have already started operating treatment plants to prevent industrial waste at sea, and the remaining seven are working on their plans now. The cost of these plans exceeds EGP 2bn, but these stations will ensure that industrial wastewater is treated properly before the water is discharged into the sea.

Can you tell us more about Egypt’s Migratory Soaring Birds Project winning the World Energy Prize?

We succeeded in achieving compatibility between the electricity and energy sector and migratory birds. We had a lot of migratory birds dying from windmills used in the renewable energy sector. 

We provided training for the employees of the Renewable Energy Authority on how to preserve the lives of birds during the migratory seasons by partially closing some windmills, and as a result, we saved a large numbers of birds from dying. A total of 142 countries applied for the award, but Egypt won it. 

Recently, some of the Ministry’s associates have achieved research and exploration achievements, so is the Ministry of Environment heading to have a research role?

Indeed, the Ministry of Environment will allocate part of the Environmental and Cultural Educational Center to conduct scientific research in the new structure of the ministry.

Is there a conflict of interest between the work of the Ministry of Environment and other ministries? Is your opinion advisory or mandatory?

No, there is no conflict. The opinion of the Ministry is mandatory. The law states that the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) is responsible for the environment. Our opinion is binding by the force of law and unlimited support from President Al-Sisi. 

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