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Cairo’s bad breath

MD Staff

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If the Nile is Cairo’s ailing heart, then polluted skies are its black lungs.

Choking the city with swirling dust from the early hours, they cake the towering apartment blocks with muck and blanket the Great Pyramids in an impenetrable haze. Air-conditioning units clog up, no longer able to fend off the filth; asthmatics often stay indoors – prisoners in their own homes.

For shopkeepers on Cairo’s biggest, most heavily-trafficked thoroughfares life can seem like a perpetual battle to breathe. “I don’t even smoke, but on some days it feels like I do!” said Hassan Sabry Mohammed, a fruit vendor in the downtown district, as he doused the surrounding sidewalk with water to keep the dust down.

He’s not alone. With some 20 million people crammed into a relatively compact space, Cairo was never going to have the cleanest air. No one, however, anticipated how bleak the situation has become. Rates of respiratory disease have soared, adding to the burden on the state’s already-ailing hospitals. The economy is taking a pummelling, with poor air quality knocking off at least one per cent of gross domestic product every year, according to the World Bank. Pollution is even changing the capital’s make up, as some young families gravitate towards the fast expanding satellite cities in pursuit of cleaner air. ‘Live Fresh’, scream highway billboards for a new desert compound. After years of stalled clean-up efforts, those who remain appear resigned to the conditions.

But for the first time in a while, there is some hope that Egypt’s mega metropolis might be getting to grips with its bad breath. Public transport projects are progressing at their fastest pace in almost a decade, while authorities appear to be slowly reining in illegal agricultural waste fires. This year’s ‘Black Cloud’, the annual burning of the rice straw in the Nile Delta, was less noxious than in past years. Most importantly, perhaps, a growing cadre of entrepreneurs, start-ups, and business leaders are turning their talents to tackling some of their hometown’s most debilitating woes. If cities like London, afflicted by the ‘Great Smog’ in the 1950s, could clean up their act, why can’t Cairo? “When I opened this place I thought I could make nice things from something that would otherwise just be burnt,” said Enas Khamis, whose non-profit group, Nafeza, employs deaf people to make arts and crafts out of rice straw. “So you’re helping people and the environment.”

Though among the most polluted cities of its size, Cairo and its residents are far from unique. Globally, only 12 per cent of urban areas meet the World Health Organization’s air quality standards. And at least one in nine deaths can be traced back to air pollution, or roughly seven million people a year. But while most cities suffer from some kind of air quality-related woe, it’s particularly problematic in many developing countries. Rapid urbanization, weak enforcement of environmental regulations and cheaper fuels have left hundreds of millions of poorer urbanites vulnerable to bad air. As populations continue to boom, often overwhelming services, experts say officials and citizens alike will have to pull out all the stops to tackle these crises. “There is increasing awareness, and more knowledge on the issue of air quality on a global scale, despite the lack of data in some regions. We also know a lot more about solutions now,” says Soraya Smaoun, a senior air quality specialist at UN Environment. “But I think a lot more pressure is needed to keep the momentum on.”

Farms to factories

Cairo is something of a classic case. Once a relative oasis of green along the Nile, its pollution problems have surged along with its population. The skyline has bulged, as developers race to accommodate numbers that have more than tripled since the 1970s. With narrow streets between most of the tower blocks, there’s nowhere for the toxins to go. Almost all of the city’s trees, its most effective dust sponges, have disappeared under the concrete, as has much of the surrounding agricultural land. Up to 30,000 acres of greenery is lost to urban sprawl across the country every year, so there’s even less of a barrier when regular blobs of sand and occasional storms blow in off the nearby Sahara. And like Tehran and Los Angeles, both of which suffer from varying degrees of poor air quality and which are at least partly surrounded by mountains, Cairo’s topography doesn’t always help either. The Mokattam hills, above the citadel to the city’s southeast, prevent the prevailing northerly winds from blowing away as much of the filth.

Into this already potent mix has come a growing mass of car and factory emissions. The number of vehicles in Egypt grew from seven to eight million between 2013 and 2014 alone, but neither Cairo’s roads nor its vehicle inspection standards have kept pace. Air quality is noticeably better during the school holidays when there are fewer trips. And among industry, too, there’s been a barely-controlled boom – often within densely populated neighborhoods. From Helwan’s massive brickworks and iron and steel works in the south to Shubra Al-Kheima’s sprawling smelters and chemical plants in the north, the city is now practically ringed by big-time polluters. Few of them seem to be sticking to the rules. “At the moment, industry is violating every imaginable industrial regulation,” said Laila Eskander, a former minister of the environment. “And no one is even talking about the quality of fuel.”

And then there’s the burning of agricultural waste. Every year, between September and November, long plumes of toxic smoke waft down to Cairo from the Nile Delta, leaving a cancerous trail of chronic respiratory problems in their wake. Unable to easily dispose of the detritus from their rice crops – and with nowhere to stash it on their small plots of land, many farmers torch the straw, despite a government ban. These fires, which are so big they can be seen from space, now account for almost half the country’s air pollution, the Ministry of Environment says.

Black lungs to bicycles

Unsurprisingly, all of this has exacted a grave public health toll. Roughly 40,000 people are dying from pollution-related problems across Egypt every year, according to Breathe Life 2030, a joint initiative of the World Health Organization, UN Environment and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to boost awareness of air pollution. And among the living, bleak air quality is saddling more and more Cairenes with severe medical woes. “There’s narrowing of the airways, increasing risk of infection, more bronchial spasms, lung infections, pneumonia,” said Mahmoud El-Zorkany, a professor of chest diseases at Cairo University. “It’s only getting worse.” In November last year, Cairo American College, a private school in the Maadi district, sent out air quality warning emails on 11 occasions, often shifting sports sessions indoors when the conditions were too grim.

There is, nevertheless, some reason to believe Egypt might be turning the corner. Because for all the challenges, there are at least some partial solutions on the table. Cairo’s third metro line, another much-needed link across the traffic-clogged Nile, is steaming ahead after some lengthy stoppages. A number of start-ups, like Swvl and Bus Pooling, have sprung up, intent on pushing private car owners into more sustainable modes of transport. Cycling, too, appears to be experiencing something of a boom, leading some environmentalists to wonder whether Cairo might one day take to two wheelers in serious numbers. “The idea was that the city is swelling with cars, and that the air quality is really bad and really exhausting for everyone,” said Moustafa Darsh Hussein, a former organizer at the Cairo Cyclists’ Club and a team member at the Green Arm, an environmental think tank. “We were thinking what can we do, and thought that if people use bikes instead of cars that might be a good solution in the long run.” He and his colleagues are busily installing bike racks at some metro stations and lobbying local authorities to mark out cycling lanes.

Even more pressingly, perhaps, the public and private sectors both appear to have come up with some solutions to the rice straw-burning epidemic. An architect, Essam Hosni, has designed building blocks out of the straw, possibly providing an answer to Egypt’s lack of affordable construction materials in the process. “It’s converting this problem to our benefit!” he says. Potters in the capital’s Old Cairo district have taken to packing their delicate wares with rice straw; some small businesses collect it, consolidate it, and sell it to the cement industry. And after years of negotiation, the Ministry of Agriculture seems close to agreeing a deal with farmers, whereby they would be paid to deliver their straw to government depots.

On a global level, too, the international community, including UN Environment, is devoting more attention and resources to confronting what’s now considered the world’s biggest environmental health risk. UN Environment and the World Health Organization have partnered to evaluate and work out how to better monitor the health implications of poor air quality. Starting with Addis Ababa, Nairobi and Kigali, UN Environment will also begin providing support for urban air pollution management systems. In a reflection of the urgency with which experts believe this problem must be tackled, the 2017UN Environment Assembly focused on pollution.There, experts are keen to push the idea that polluted cities, like the Egyptian capital, can transform their fortunes, and without breaking the bank.

“There are some low-hanging fruits. It’s not necessary to always use sophisticated technologies to monitor air quality and have complicated policies if they are not enforced,” says UN Environment’s Soraya Smaoun. “There are local solutions to monitor and manage air involving a wide range of stakeholders in sectors such as clean and sustainable transportation, waste management, cleaner industries to name a few. This is something that cities like Cairo can work on.”

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Does the Latest IPCC Report Offer Hope For Earth

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Hurricanes and storms on both sides of the Atlantic appeared to encore the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change.  It had just concluded the finalization of a special report on the impact of a 1.5 degree Celsius global warming above preindustrial levels.  Meeting in Incheon, South Korea (October 1-5), its three working groups of experts and government officials have huddled and jousted to strike a consensus on what will be necessary to restrict warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius when the globe is already up one degree.  What will earth be like with this level of warmth and what will happen if we fail?

Two earlier versions (January and June 2018) of the report were depressing to frightening.  They were made available for about a month for comment by experts and interested parties.  The real problem is a narrow window because human activity in the world emits 40 billion tons of CO2 per year — about 90 times the emission from volcanoes.  At some point, there will be enough in the atmosphere where the 1.5 degree rise will be a foregone conclusion.  While guesswork to some extent, it appears we have about 12 years before we exhaust the ‘carbon budget’; if we accept a 2C rise the date is 2045.

The tone may have been softened in the second report, but there is ‘substantial’ certainty the 2 degrees C target of the 2015 Paris Agreement, once considered safe, would be dangerous for humanity.  As the agreement also required governments to pursue efforts to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C, the remit to IPCC was to prepare a report comparing the consequences of the two alternatives as well as the feasibility and effort required to limit the rise to the lower figure.  The final report released on Oct 8, 2018 reviews 30,000 publications.

The fact that parts of the earth are already warmer than the 2 degree C figure and the results are observable should be a driver for governments.  In the Arctic, for example, where temperatures have risen up to 3 degrees C, the effort has seen chunks of icebergs breaking off and polar bears having difficulty in catching seals because of fewer blowholes — where they normally wait in ambush.  Current temperatures are higher than they ever have been in the past two millennia.

For low-lying Pacific Islands the 1.5C goal is critical for many there would lose habitat and some islands are expected to disappear under the 2C target.  The Maldives in the Indian ocean are partly under water, and some Pacific islands have already disappeared as average world sea levels rise by 3 mm a year.  Yet Tuvalu has become an exception and its land area, studied from 1971 to 2014, is growing.  Eight of its nine atolls are found to be still rising, increasing the “area by 29 percent, even though sea levels in the country rose by twice the global average.”

Even so the consequences of the earth already being 1 degree C higher than preindustrial times are apparent in the  proliferation of extreme weather events.  Unduly powerful hurricanes as in Puerto Rico or Houston, record-breaking forest fires in the U.S. and Australia, monsoons in South India this year that in Kerala have been the worst in this century, and the record temperatures in northern Europe are a few examples.  Last week the 155 mph Category 5 Hurricane Michael, 5 mph short of Category 6, devastated the Florida panhandle and continued its destruction onward into Georgia and beyond.  It was the strongest to hit this part of Florida since records began in 1881.  On the other side of the Atlantic within a week, storms and hurricanes battered Europe:  Hurricane Leslie in Portugal, storm Callum in Britain and heavy rains in France causing flash floods in the Aude region of south-west France.  All of which can be expected to worsen as the earth’s mean temperature rises, increasing in both frequency and intensity.

The IPCC report presents four pathways (p.19 Executive Summary) each with net zero CO2 emissions within the next quarter century.  The least interventionist scenario utilizes only afforestation to remove CO2.  The report is optimistic in demonstrating synergies (p.27) with sustainable development goals.  That CO2 removal technologies known as direct air capture (DAC) are also being developed successfully adds to the optimism.

At the same time the warnings are clear.  All the options require a rapid decarbonization of the fuel s:upply i.e. no fossil fuels — coal just about gone by 2050 and three-quarters of the energy from renewables (p.19 after four pathways graphs).  The risks for fisheries and coral reefs will remain high (p.13) even with the 1.5C scenario and coastal populations and farming will be worse off than now.  Severe weather consequences can be expected to worsen.  But all that is the world to be.  Hence the argument for the most interventionist scenarios where the atmospheric CO2 is eventually reduced.

For all this the need to act now is clear in the facts and numbers.

Author’s Note:  An earlier version of this article appeared on counterpunch.org.

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Air pollution linked to “huge” reduction in intelligence

MD Staff

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Air pollution can have a “huge” negative effect on cognitive intelligence – especially amongst older men – according to a study released this past August.

The research is one of the first of its kind to focus on the links between air pollution and cognition in older people. It was undertaken by scientists at Peking University in Beijing, China and Yale University in the U.S. and was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal. In particular, it found that long-term exposure to air pollution may impede overall cognitive performance.

The researchers’ sample set included a panel of over 25,000 people across 162 randomly chosen counties in China. The study was also based on daily readings for three atmospheric pollutants, namely sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter smaller than 10 micrometers (PM10) where the participants lived.

The research found that that accumulative exposure to air pollution impedes cognitive performance in verbal and math tests. It found that as people age, the negative effect becomes particularly pronounced on verbal scores, especially for men while, “the gender gap is particularly large for the less educated.” One of the reasons why the researchers suggest that older men with less education were worst affected by chronic exposure to air pollution is because those subjects often work in outdoor, manual jobs.

The scientists concluded that, “The damage on the aging brain by air pollution likely imposes substantial health and economic costs, considering that cognitive functioning is critical for the elderly for both running daily errands and making high-stake decisions.” Given this damaging effect of air pollution on cognition, particularly on the aging brain, “the study implies that the indirect effect on social welfare could be much larger than previously thought.”

“Polluted air can cause everyone to reduce their level of education by one year, which is huge,” Yale School of Public Health’s Professor Xi Chen, one of the report’s authors, said in an interview published in The Guardian.

The study also suggests that air pollution increases the risk of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

“Air pollution is a significant threat to public health and this study highlights the negative effect that such pollution may have on the ageing brain,” said Soraya Smaoun, Air Quality Coordinator at UN Environment. “A better understanding of the critical links between air pollution and health for policies and investments supporting cleaner transport and power generation, as well as energy-efficient housing and municipal waste management can reduce key sources of outdoor air pollution.”

According to the World Health Organization, seven million people die each year from exposure to polluted air, both indoor and outdoor. The three biggest killers which are associated to air pollution are stroke (2.2 million deaths), heart disease (2.0 million) and lung disease and cancer (1.7 million deaths).

The World Health Organization’s air quality database shows that that 97 per cent of cities in low- and middle-income countries with more than 100,000 inhabitants do not meet air quality guidelines presently. However, the percentage is much lower in higher income countries – 40 per cent.

What is being done about air pollution?

A worldwide movement to address air pollution is gradually taking shape and growing. Breathe Life – a global campaign headed by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, the World Health Organization and UN Environment – is supporting a range of cleaner air initiatives that cover 39 cities, regions and countries, reaching over 80 million people.

Most major cities are still struggling to keep air pollution within acceptable levels as set out by the World Health Organization guidelines. However, by instituting policies and programmes to reduce transport and energy emissions, and by encouraging the use of clean energy, cities are leading change and improving the lives of a large number of people.

In 2018, the World Health Organization found that more than 57 per cent of cities in the Americas and more than 61 per cent of cities in Europe had seen a fall in both PM10 and PM2.5 particulate matter between 2010 and 2016.

The rise of renewable energy is also ideally positioned to make a big difference, with investment in new renewable sources outstripping fossil fuel investments every year.

UN Environment

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IPCC Report: On Our global Jihad against Cognitive mind

Anis H. Bajrektarevic

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A major new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), was just released in Korea on October 8 (2018). Although it is nearly 800 pages long and includes more than 6,000 scientific references, it can be summarized in few sentences:

The average global temperature is now 1.0°C above its pre-industrial levels.That increase is already causing more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice, and is damaging untold number of land and sea ecosystems.

A 1.5°C increase, likely by 2040, will make things worse. A 2.0°C increase will be far worse than that. Only radical socio-economic and politico-diplomatic change can stop catastrophe. The world’s leading climate scientists have warned there is only a dozen years left for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C. Beyond that an irreversibility effect would be set in motion: even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. To avoid the most serious damage requires transforming the world economy within just a few years, said the authors, who estimate that the damage would come at a cost of a fantastic $54 trillion. This transformation goes – of course – beyond what we usually label as ‘economy’. It requires a change of entire human dynamics; moods and preference of how we extract, manufacture, distribute, consume, spend, live, travel, power all that, think of and teach about it.

Reactions are folding: “Limiting global warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels would be a herculean task, involving rapid, dramatic changes in the way that governments, industries and societies function” – says the Nature magazine. Science Daily predicts: “Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society … With clear benefits to people and natural ecosystems, limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to 2°C could go hand in hand with ensuring a more sustainable and equitable society”.

Ecological Footprint of ‘Here-Us-Now’ civilisation

However, for the informed and willing ones all was clear already with the Rio summit. Back then, I was quick to react: it was me being one of the very first to concept and introduce (and set as obligatory) the subject of SD (along with Environment Ethics) in the universities of Europe. Thus, for the past two decades I’ve been teaching my students that: “Currently, the amount of crops, animals and other bio matter we all extract from the earth each year exceeds what such a small planet can replace by an estimated 20% – meaning it takes almost 14,4 months to replenish what we use perannum – in consecutive 12 months – deficit spending of the worst kind.”

Lecture after lecture, generation after generation, I educated my students that: “Through pollution and global warming are legacies of products, processes and systems designed without thought to the environmental consequences, cohesion of international community along with rapid introduction of new international policies and strategies in a form of clean practices and technologies holds the solutions (e.g. promoting greater coherence between energy, research and environmental policies). Since the environmental degradation (incl. the accelerated speed of extinction of living species – loss of biodiversity) knows no borders – the SD (Sustainable Development) is a matrix of truly global dimensions.”

In the meantime, the Climate Change nihilists and paid lobbyists dominated media by accusing this sort of constructivism and predictive education as an environmental alarmism and scientific sensationalism. This is how we lost almost three decades from Rio over Johannesburg, Copenhagen, Kyoto and Paris to come to our current draw: an abyss of “only 12 years left” diagnosis.

How shall we now tackle our past optimism about the possibilities and the current pessimism about the probabilities? How to register our future claims rapidly and effectively on preservation of overall human vertical when we systematically ridiculed and dismissed every science short of quick profit (or defensive modernization), when we pauperized and disfranchised so many people of this planet  in past few decades like never before in history?

Hence, the rapid, far-reaching changes to almost every facet of society are needed to avoid catastrophic climate change, reforms far beyond anything governments are currently either doing or planning to do. Additionally, it requires complete reversion of our life styles and socio-economic fashions, passions and drives – e.g. elimination of “here-us-now” over-consumerism of everything tangible and non-tangible.

Social fractured Planet devastated by anti-intellectualism

Are we are able to mobilise our socially fractured, and anti-intellectualised globe that fast and that solid?

The world must invest $2.4 trillion in clean energy every year through 2035 and cut the use of coal-fired power to almost nothing by 2050 to avoid catastrophic damage from climate change, according to scientists convened by the United Nations. That of course includes an elimination of oil and gas from our Primary Energy Mix (PEM) as well as total eradication of the ICE-powered cars (of both diesel and petrol/ benzin). All that is required within the following decade.

What changes this new “Cambrian explosion” will cause on adaptive and non-adaptive inorganic clusters and systems of our biota, and its group dynamics? Notably, what impact it will have on the traditionally automotive-industry leaning regions, and what on aviation industry – which, at least when comes to continental Europe, could have been grounded decades ago – since even at our current technological level, the rail transportation would be cheaper faster safer than using planes? What implication does it bring to the extremely crude-exporting dependent Middle East, which is situated in a center of our planet but at the periphery of human progress? This is to name but few of numerous implications and unanswered dilemmas yet even unasked question[1].

No doubt, our crisis is real, but neither sudden nor recent. Our environmental, financial and politico-economic policies and practices have created the global stress for us and untold number of other species. Simply, our much-celebrated globalisation deprived from environmental and social concerns, as well as from a mutual and fair cooperation(instead of induced confrontation and perpetuated exclusion) caged us into the ecological globalistan and political terroristan. (Acidifying of oceans and brutalization of our human interactions are just two sides of a same coin. What is the social sphere for society that is the biosphere for the very life on earth, since what what we euphemistically call anthropogenic Climate Change is actually a brutal war against nature.)

The world based on agreed principles that – besides businesses and governments – involves all other societal stakeholders, re-captured global cohesion and commonly willing actions is not a better place. It is the only way for the human race to survive.

Deep and structural, this must be a crisis of our cognitivity. Therefore, the latest Climate Change (CC) Report is only seemingly on Climate; it is actually a behavioristic study on (the dead end of) our other ‘CC’ – competition and confrontation, instead of cooperation and (all-included) consensus. Simply, it is the Report on our continued global Jihad against cognitive mind.

  • [1] Still today, sustainability is lacking an operational definition: There is a controversy whether to consider a human-made capital combined with a natural capital (weak sustainability) or separately (strong sustainability). The central to this question is to which extend a human capital or rather technology can substitute the loss of natural resources.
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