Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 June 2008
Issue No. 900
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Carbon deals

Mahmoud Bakr finds out that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is on top of Egypt's environmental agenda

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The latest factory in Beni Sweif to use clean energy

"Kick the habit, towards a low carbon economy," is the slogan the United Nations chose to mark World Environment Day, celebrated on 5 June. For decades, scientists have been warning of the greenhouse effect, but climate change made it to international agendas only a few years ago, since the signing of the Kyoto protocol. Now politicians and businessmen the world over are coming up with ideas to face up to the challenge of rising CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gases.

"Egypt signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change [UNFCCC] in 1994 -- one of the first Arab countries to do so," says Maged George, minister of state for environmental affairs. It was this convention that gave birth to the Kyoto Protocol that went into effect in late February 2005.

To comply with its commitments, Egypt formed the National Committee on Climate Change and the Egyptian Council on the Clean Development Mechanism. Both bodies are affiliated with the Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs (MSEA) and have representatives from other government agencies. Within the past two years, Egypt has set up 36 projects costing over $1 billion to clean up the environment, an effort that reduced CO2 emissions by an estimated 6.5 million tonnes. The projects range from those that improve the use of energy to those that encourage the use of new and cleaner types of energy, such as solar energy and wind. Egypt is also actively promoting the use of natural gas, a less polluting source of energy than other fossil fuel. "We're planting more trees and our recycling techniques are much better than they used to be," added George.

To coordinate the implementation of international environment agreements, such as the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Egypt has set up a national committee on the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The committee is looking into ways of reconciling national priorities with international concerns.

MSEA and the GEF secretariat have launched a national programme to enhance energy efficiency with a budget of $10.5 million, equal to Egypt's share of finance provided worldwide by the GEF. The funds will be used in ways suggested by Egypt's Higher Energy Council.

According to George, "Egypt's emissions of greenhouse gases are merely 0.56 per cent of the global figure. And yet, global warming is expected to affect every aspect of our life, including agriculture productivity, water resources, rising sea levels and biological diversity."

MSEA is selling carbon credits to finance its sustainable development plans. It has launched several projects to reduce pollution, enhance industrial safety, improve work conditions, and boost competitiveness. In cooperation with the World Bank, MSEA is implementing a project to reduce the emissions of nitro- oxides at a factory affiliated with fertiliser companies in Alexandria. Through the first financial package provided by the World Bank (80 per cent loan and 20 per cent grant), emissions of nitro-oxides were slashed from 200 milligrammes per cubic metre to 20 milligrammes since March 2000.

"One of our key projects is a unit that removes nitrous oxide [N2O] from the gas exhaust of the Abu Qir-2 fertiliser factor," said George. "The unit is reducing emissions by 1.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent [CO2e], a measure devised to gauge the harmfulness of greenhouse gases." This project is being financed by the Austrians and uses German technology.

According to George, Egypt has more environmental projects underway and institutions to run them than any other Arab or African country. MSEA is currently boosting the capabilities of the national committee for the clean development mechanism, which is in charge of promoting sustainable development projects in Egypt. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is a tool by which industrial nations can meet their environmental quotas by buying carbon credits from outsiders, a mechanism that has proved particularly helpful to developing nations.

Since scientists linked the high concentration of greenhouse gasses, such as CO2, with global warming, the international community has been devising ways to reduce the emission of such gases into the environment. According to environmental expert Magdi Allam, greenhouse gases are a mixed blessing. "Without such gases, it would be hard for the planet to maintain its average temperature of 14 degrees Celsius. The earth surface would actually get much colder in the absence of CO2, methane, and water vapour." The problem, however, is that human activities, such as the burning of fuel and the clearing of forests, have set us on the path to global warming.

Earth is originally a cold planet with no means to keep it warm aside from the sun. Even so, there are cyclical fluctuations, lasting thousands of years, during which the climate of the planet changes radically. "The planet got warmer, scientists say, some 18,000 years ago, when the last ice age ended. But the last 30 years or so were dramatic in terms of human-related climatic change," added Allam.

"Greenhouse gases absorb the sunlight, especially infrared rays. This is a natural phenomenon that the planet needs for survival," says Emadeddin Adli, the national coordinator for the small grants programme of the Global Environment Facility. The problem is one of proportion, however, as Adli states. For thousands of years, the carbon cycle of the ecosystem was stable, yet it was only with the spread of industry and the clearing of the rain forests that problems started to appear.

Ahmed Abdel-Moneim, director of the office of environmental commitment and sustainable development at the Egyptian Federation of Industries argued that the main culprit in the global warming saga is the increased demand for energy. "Due to higher levels of energy consumption, a momentum has been created that is hard to reverse. Environmental experts want to bring back the consumption of fossil fuel to the level of 1990 by 2010," he stated, "But the Global Energy Council is forecasting a doubling of that consumption within the same period. Over the past 100 years, the ratio of CO2 in air has increased by 20 per cent, from 290 particles per million to 350."

Reports discussed at the Earth Summit indicate that the temperature of the planet has risen by 0.3 to 0.6 degrees over the past 100 years. By the end of this century, temperatures could rise again by anywhere between 1.2 and 3.5 degrees, leading to harsh climatic phenomena, such as gale winds, tornadoes and rising sea levels. In Egypt, the Delta is in danger of being submerged as a consequence. Unpredictable weather conditions are also likely to disrupt the networks of communication, transport and sewage disposal.

Wafaa Ismail, coordinator of the energy sector at the office of environmental commitment and sustainable development, says that the challenge now is to switch from fossil fuel to cleaner sources of energy. "When you want to generate energy equivalent to the burning of one tonne of oil, you can burn coal and leave behind 1.05 tonnes of carbon, or oil and leave behind 0.82 tonnes of carbon, or natural gas and leave behind 0.63 tonnes of carbon." The ability of a country to reduce its carbon emissions is therefore linked to the type of fuel it is using.

Egypt has been replacing diesel oil with natural gas for the past few years. In the last quarter of the 20th century, Egypt's consumption of fossil oil rose from 7.5 million tonnes including only a small percentage of natural gas, to about 40 million tonnes including 16 million tonnes of gas. In all, Egypt increased its consumption of natural gas by 5.3 times between 1975 and 2000. As a result, Egypt's carbon emissions increased from 22 million tonnes of CO2 to 109 million, but things could have been worse had the country not switched to natural gas.

Environmentalists are now considering a package of measures aiming to keep our harmful emissions to a minimum while boosting clean development methods. The National Action Plan on Climate Change, which Egypt is about to launch, aims to make our energy consumption more efficient and less polluting.

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