Egypt’s Lukewarm Response To Climate Change


Two years after Egypt joined other nations as a signatory of the 2016 Paris Agreement, many questions remain over what the Egyptian government is planning to do in order to adapt to some of the inevitable consequences of climate change.

Egypt contributes only about 0.6% of global greenhouse gas emissions (the biggest contributors are the United States at 14.8% and China at 25.9%). Compared to certain developed countries with similar population sizes, Egypt contributes greenhouse gas emissions that are five times lower than Japan and three times lower than Germany. Even if we consider per capita emissions, Egypt’s contribution ranks very low, while several Persian Gulf counties are in the top 10 of worst per capita emitters, surpassing even the US.

More importantly, between 1990 and 2012, Egypt’s gross domestic product grew at a faster rate than its greenhouse gas emissions, which may indicate that Egypt’s economy is becoming less reliant on fossil fuels, or that it may have achieved higher energy use efficiency over time. Egypt’s relatively small area and population size (compared to the United States or China, for instance), in addition to its being a less industrialized developing country, have kept its global contribution very low until now.

Yet even if Egyptians can perhaps bear less guilt for global warming, Egypt is among the most vulnerable to its impending consequences. Even under the best-case scenarios predicted by climate scientists (in which global temperatures rise by only about 1.5 degrees by the end of this century), Egypt is facing a rise in sea level of about 1-1.25 meters, which would inundate most of Alexandria, Port Said and the parts of the Nile Delta closest to the Mediterranean.

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egypt hurghada climate change red sea

Tourism around the Red Sea and its rapid development could have a significant impact on the area’s ecosystem — Photo: NASA Earth Observatory

This would lead to the displacement of millions of people, cause the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, and decimate the tourism sector. This is in addition to increased drought, water shortages and salinization of the Nile and ground water in the Delta, the impacts of which are already starting to be felt by Egyptian farmers today. This would, in turn, lead to losses in crop yields and massive food security problems.

The total estimated economic loss for Egypt from a 1.25-meter rise in sea level is upward of $4 billion. This estimate does not even take into consideration the impacts on Red Sea tourism, which are more difficult to predict. A rise in the incidence of coral disease and coral bleaching events over the next 50 years due to warmer waters could decimate Red Sea coral reefs, rendering them no longer attractive to tourists, which could lead to the further loss of millions of dollars of annual revenue and thousands of jobs.

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Ahead of the Paris Agreement, Egypt submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, which is a statement of the country’s objectives and plans for mitigating and adapting to climate change. The statement outlines in broad terms the Egyptian government’s plans for every impacted sector, including agriculture and water, coastal zones, tourism, health and national heritage.

For example, under adaptation strategies for managing water resources in the face of impending shortages, the statement lists actions such as, “maintaining water level in Lake Nasser,” “increasing water storage capacity,” “improving irrigation and draining systems,” “desalination,” “rain water harvest” and others. For coastal zones, the statement points out that adaptive actions will be “highly site-dependent” and that there will be “proactive planning for protecting coastal zones,” which will include providing job opportunities in “safe areas” for displaced residents.

How exactly will Alexandrian shores be protected from sea level rise?
The policies mentioned in the statement include efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors, collaborating with European countries to transfer technologies for increasing energy-use efficiency, raising public awareness, supporting sustainable development and progressively increasing the use of renewable energy sources. The planned establishment of the Dabaa Nuclear Power Plant in collaboration with Russia is among these projects intended to help transition Egypt away from fossil fuels.

While official public documents give the impression that the Egyptian government is committed to leading on climate change, the official documents that are available to the public are very broad in nature. Even the annual State of Environment reports produced by the Ministry of Environment hardly provide any detail. This makes it rather difficult for a concerned citizen to assess whether the planned actions are adequate.

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So as I read these documents, I find myself asking: How exactly will Alexandrian shores be protected from sea level rise? Will a sea wall be built? Will some kind of pumping and drainage system be established? How confident are we that the chosen solutions will be effective? How will they be financed? How will compliance with various emissions policies be ensured?

I am again bemused by the lack of transparency and by the absence of climate change as a live topic in our day-to-day existence, and I wonder about the reasons for this silence. Could it be related to the fact that climate change will impact the poorest and most vulnerable Egyptians long before it impacts the rich and privileged? Why does the Egyptian government seem to be working on adaptation strategies on its own and “behind the scenes,” rather than openly involving, and thus empowering, those who will be directly affected? And why are we not demanding to know more? At this point, I still have more questions than answers.

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