Young Egyptians are now opening their eyes to climate change, an activist has said as the country prepares to host a UN summit on the issue.
In the decade since environmental group Youth Love Egypt was formed, more than 45,000 volunteers have participated in its clean-up campaigns and training programmes.
But there is still much more work to be done in the country, said Ahmed Fathy, the group's founder.
Hosting the Cop27 conference in Sharm El Sheikh in November could be the catalyst Egypt needs to boost climate change awareness and action in the country and beyond, he said.
“Change takes time,” Mr Fathy told The National. "When we started to talk about plastic pollution in 2015, Egyptians were laughing. But people are now facing the crisis. They can see climate change with their own eyes.”
While Egypt produces only 0.6 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, it has suffered the consequences of climate change in the form of drought, higher temperatures, rising sea levels and other adverse effects.
The Mena region stands to lose from 6 to 14 per cent of its gross domestic product from climate-related water issues by 2050, the World Bank has said.
The youth population is an important demographic in the region and one that can inspire change. Half of the Mena population is under the age of 25 and two thirds are under the age of 35, the Arab Youth Council on Climate Change has said.
More than half of the 3,400 people aged 18 to 24 who participated in Asda’a BCW Arab Youth Survey 2021 said they were concerned about climate change and the environment.
By comparison, 11 per cent of youth were concerned about the issues in 2008.
Inspired by a 'clean start'
Mr Fathy was inspired to start YLE following the January 2011 uprising that removed president Hosni Mubarak from office. His resignation on February 11, 2011, was literally and figuratively a clean start, as Egyptians swept and cleared the streets of rubbish after weeks of demonstrations.
“It was the feeling of the 2011 revolution — that the people feel that it is their country,” Mr Fathy said.
YLE was established in 2012 with several missions in mind, including protecting the environment, conserving biodiversity, promoting tourism, spreading environmental awareness and educating and empowering youth.
Mr Fathy met the environment minister at the time, Mostafa Hussein, to discuss opportunities for collaboration.
One of the first projects developed in partnership with the government was a campaign promoting Egypt’s protected areas, such as Wadi El Rayan National Park in the Fayoum oasis, south-west of Cairo.
The organisation has also helped to beautify and develop public spaces, such as the Square of the Unknown Soldier in Alexandria and El Orman Garden in Giza.
It was not until later that YLE began to focus more on issues related to climate change.
“To be honest, I should start with myself. At the time, I didn’t know what climate change was,” Mr Fathy said. “I started to get very involved with climate change around 2015.”
Between 2016 and 2019, YLE embarked on a mega project to remove plastic from the Red Sea.
It has declared several islands completely free of plastic after clearing more than four tonnes of waste. The project led to a government ban on single-use plastics in the Red Sea province.
In June last year, YLE launched the Nile Tree initiative to plant 1.4 million trees along the river's banks by 2024.
Preparing for Cop27
To prepare for Cop27, YLE has boosted an environmental pioneers programme, which began in October 2020. It aims to train 1,500 men and women aged 18 to 30 on climate issues every year.
As the national co-ordinator of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, YLE selected four Egyptians to attend a climate summer school in Kenya this month.
YLE, which was accredited by the UN Environmental Programme in 2017, has been actively participating in climate change conferences in recent years, including Cop26 in Glasgow.
This year, Mr Fathy was selected as one of 12 members of the Arab Youth Council on Climate Change, an initiative led by the UAE, the host of Cop28.
The council aims to achieve a “qualitative leap in the interaction of Arab youth with environmental issues” and support youth climate action, its website said.
“I’m sure co-operation between the UAE and Egypt will help Cop27 and Cop28,” said Mr Fathy.
Cop27 will mark 30 years since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed by about 150 countries in Rio de Janeiro, indicating widespread recognition that climate change is potentially a major threat to the world’s environment and economic development.
The Paris Agreement, adopted by 196 countries at Cop21 in 2015, set a goal of limiting global warming to about 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
Financial resources in the spotlight
Mr Fathy said the most pressing issues that should be addressed at Cop27 were climate finance and “loss and damage”, which means offering compensation to developing nations for the effects of climate change caused by developed countries.
“The discussion at Glasgow was that poor countries want the rich countries to pay for the crisis that happened because of them … so I hope that it comes back to Sharm El Sheikh to see what’s next,” Mr Fathy said. “A lot of African countries are in a bad situation because of climate change.”
The US and Europe have pushed back against the idea of compensation, fearing it will obligate them to spend decades paying for historic emissions.
“Major political decisions, notably on finance for loss and damage, need to be taken at Cop27,” UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa said at the Bonn climate talks last month.
“We now need to ensure that Sharm El Sheikh will truly be the place where important promises of the Paris Agreement are turned into reality.”
An unfulfilled promise of $100 billion in annual climate financing from developed countries is another point of contention.
US climate envoy John Kerry said in March that rich countries may be able to meet that goal by 2023, although the original target had been set for 2020.
Egypt faces a funding gap of about $250bn out of $324bn to introduce the mitigation and adaptation measures outlined in its National Climate Change Strategy 2050.
The country plans to spend $211bn on mitigation programmes to avoid and reduce emissions, and another $113bn on adaptation programmes to respond to the impacts of climate change.
“The government is doing a lot,” Mr Fathy said, referring to projects such as the 2,000-kilometre high-speed electric rail network with Siemens and green hydrogen plants along the Red Sea.
In 2020, Egypt issued the Middle East’s first green sovereign bond with a value of $750 million to finance projects in clean transportation and sustainable water management.
As much as it is in the country’s interest to do its part on the road to net zero, the cost burden may be unsustainable for Egypt and many other developing countries.
“Egypt is one of the countries with the lowest carbon emissions. We are facing the crisis for something we didn't do,” Mr Fathy said.
He said the success of Cop27 would depend on whether commitments are translated into action. “What we need is action and we need it now,” he said.