Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1274, (10 - 16 December 2015)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1274, (10 - 16 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Working against the clock

Nesmahar Sayed talks to Laura Oexle, the diplomat responsible for a German-Egyptian dialogue on climate change in Egypt

Working against the clock
Working against the clock
Al-Ahram Weekly

Over the past 18 months, Laura Oexle, head of the Science Department at the German Embassy in Cairo, has taken stock of the most pressing environmental issues facing Egypt. Although personally enjoying Egypt’s hot weather, her discussions with officials and activists have evolved around the impact of climate change and global warming on the future of the country and how to raise awareness about environmental threats.

What are the Cairo Climate Talks (CCT)?

Cairo Climate Talks are a series of monthly events for exchanging experiences, raising awareness and fostering cooperation between policymakers, businesses, the scientific community and civil society.

They include podium discussions with leading policymakers and experts from Egypt, Germany and around the world, usually accompanied by workshops for experts. The talks are in cooperation between the German Embassy in Cairo, Egyptian Ministry of Environment, German Science Center, and German Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit.

Why did CCT start?

Building on the strong partnership between Egypt and Germany in the fields of climate, energy and environment, the German Embassy initiated CCT at the end of 2011. Our approach was to offer capacity building for Egyptian stakeholders to enhance exchanges between experts and to bring these important topics to the public.

What are the main topics that CCT focusses on?

The topics are related to energy, climate and environment. This year we covered coastal zone management, sustainable tourism, the Nile and urban agriculture. We also support and implement outreach projects to the broader public, such as a sustainability summer school for students and the public screening of the movie Home at Al-Azhar Park.

Has the CCT been successful?

I think we are succeeding in bringing together stakeholders in Egypt and Germany, and offer them a platform to exchange thoughts and ideas. After three years of events, I am proud that CCT is a popular brand. We usually reach a lot of interested people with our events, which contributes to raising awareness on climate-related topics.

How can developing countries like Egypt contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and maintain global warming below two degrees?

Climate change can only be halted if all countries participate in this endeavour. We are at a turning point, where concerted action is needed if we want to save our planet. Right now, delegates in Paris are trying to translate this vision into an agreement. Germany advocates a fair and comprehensive agreement with ambitious targets.

In order to support developing countries and countries in transition — which are often the ones most affected by climate change — the agreement should take into account mitigation as well as adaption measures. The Green Climate Fund will be an important instrument to finance such measures in countries like Egypt, alongside with projects that promote technology transfer.

What are the main environmental issues in Egypt?

Water scarcity and energy supply. When our guests talk about smart management of resources, pressure from population growth [is always a factor in discussions] and makes action even more urgent.

Pollution is another major issue in Egypt, and we often hear during discussions that we need to change the mentality of the Egyptian people. But this starts with environmental education and a public discussion on environmental issues, which is what CCT is trying to do.

How do you address youth and children in CCT?

We have reached out to schools in the past, organised recycling projects at schools, helped bring the Plant for the Planet initiative to Egypt and, in cooperation with Siemens, selected schools for the Green Box project. These boxes are educational kits to increase knowledge about energy and the importance of using alternative energy sources to protect the environment.

We are definitely planning to do more projects at schools and reach out to schools that have not yet benefited from any of our projects.

In recent weeks, Egypt faced serious climate change consequences in the governorates of Alexandria and Beheira, for example. Do you communicate with the government about such events?

It’s quite probable that there is a relation between increasing temperatures through climate change and extreme weather conditions, such as heavy rainfall in the northern parts of Egypt. Egypt, being water-scarce and much surrounded by the sea, might be severely hit by the adverse consequences of climate change.

In the run-up to Paris we had intense meetings within the framework of CCT with Egyptian negotiators to discuss our respective positions.

How can Egypt make use of sustainable energy, taking into consideration the economic situation and the high cost of such energy?

I think the only sustainable way out of Egypt’s energy crisis is to invest in renewable energies such as wind and solar, especially since Egypt has ideal conditions for both. The German experience teaches us that environment-friendly investments and economic growth go hand in hand. Also, several studies prove a price advantage for renewable energies, especially for onshore wind and solar, over conventional sources of energy and nuclear in the long run. Therefore, Egypt’s economic situation should be an argument for renewables rather than against.

Also, Egypt’s banking system should develop financial incentives for both businesses and private households to invest in renewables. This is indispensable to allow market, and, hence, price mechanisms, to work.

International donors and multinational corporations are investing huge sums in the Egyptian energy sector. German development cooperation supports the expansion of renewable energies and has implemented projects in the energy sector worth 377 million euros, including wind farms in Zaafarana and the Gulf of Al-Zayt on the Red Sea Coast. The planned wind farm in the Gulf of Suez will be the biggest of its kind in Africa.

What is smart transportation? How can Egypt benefit from it to reduce traffic problems and pollution?

Smart transport means creating a comprehensive and environment-friendly traffic system that fits the needs of a megacity like Cairo, by applying innovative technologies and alternative concepts of moving around the city.

Public transportation, especially expanding the metro network and a rapid bus system with dedicated lanes on the streets, should play an important part. Alternative options of moving around Cairo could involve transport on the Nile or by bike.

In order to tackle this issue, we might have to think outside the box. In the long run, policymakers will have to strike a deal between making available affordable and interconnected means of transport and viable business models, where transport systems generate income that covers expansion investments and maintenance costs.

What are CCT’s view of the main problems regarding the River Nile and water usage here, and possible solutions?

Egypt is a water-scarce country outside the Nile Valley. The effect of water scarcity is exacerbated by climate change, since rising sea levels lead to an intrusion of saltwater into groundwater and fertile land, on the one hand, and rising temperatures accelerate desertification, on the other. The Nile, as the primary source of Egypt’s fresh water, plays a crucial role.

Intelligent water demand management, which includes more efficient water use in agriculture (which consumes 80 per cent of Egypt’s freshwater), and dramatically reducing the pollution of the Nile are [top priorities].

The Egyptian government has introduced several measures to reduce the pollution of the river and, thus, increase the quality of the Nile’s water and preserve biodiversity. It might need more coordinated efforts, more transparency and information sharing, and a higher level of environmental education.

How can civil society help on environmental issues in Egypt?

Including civil society and reaching out to the public is crucial when it comes to implementing policies. We have to convince people of the added value in terms of economics and quality of life. Civil society can complement the policies of the government in a valuable way.

Also, and this is especially true for more remote regions in Egypt, the population itself knows best which environmental problems they are facing. Developing mechanisms for their voices to be heard helps the government identify problem areas.

What is “Energiewende” and how did it impact the German economy?

Some years ago, Germany initiated a process called “Energiewende” which is a radical transformation of our energy sector. We decided to phase out nuclear energy by 2022, and set a very ambitious target that by 2050 we intend to meet 80 per cent of our electricity demand with renewable energies.

We introduced feed-in tariffs for renewable energies, and we are extremely happy that early this year the Egyptian government officially adopted a feed-in tariff for wind and solar energy.

Investments in renewables have also created an impressive number of jobs in Germany. Economic figures prove that going green by investing in green technology was a main engine of economic success in Germany.

After 18 months in Cairo, what are your observations regarding the Egypt’s environmental problems?

Living in a megacity like Cairo, you are confronted with environmental hazards every day: pollution, waste, lack of green spaces. What strikes me is that some people (not only in Egypt but everywhere in the world) do not seem to make a connection between their own behaviour and pollution. In a country of 90 million, individual behaviour on a collective level makes a huge difference.

Smart resource management, for instance using less water or electricity or implementing energy-saving measures in people’s homes, will be an indispensable precondition for successful environmental policies.

Perhaps, organise a day when no plastic bags are handed out in Cairo. I’m not sure if something like that is doable, and would probably be difficult to organise in Germany as well. But events like that really make a difference and raise awareness among the public.

[Environmental] education at schools is also very important and links abstract ideas with day-to-day behaviour.

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