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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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At COP24, countries agree concrete way forward to bring the Paris climate deal to life

MD Staff

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After two weeks of crunch negotiations – with overtime – the almost 200 parties gathered in Katowice, Poland, for the United Nations COP24 two-week climate change conference, adopted on Saturday a “robust” set of implementing guidelines for the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement, aimed at keeping global warming well below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels.

Following several sleepless nights, cheers and applause welcomed the COP24 President, Michal Kurtyka, as he opened the conference’s closing plenary meeting, which had been postponed close to a dozen times.

He thanked the hundreds of delegates in the room for their “patience”, noting that the last night “was a long night”. General laughter followed when the room’s big screens showed a delegate yawning whole-heartedly; the meeting had been set to wrap up on Friday.

“Katowice has shown once more the resilience of the Paris Agreement – our solid roadmap for climate action,” said Patricia Espinosa, who heads the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change  (UNFCCC) secretariat and who was speaking on behalf of António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General.

Mr. Guterres, who has made addressing the impacts of climate change one of the top priorities of his term as UN Secretary-General, came three times to Katowice in the past two weeks to support the negotiations but, given the repeated delays, was forced to leave before the closing plenary, due to prior engagements.

The adopted guidelines package, called the “rulebook” by some, is designed to encourage greater climate action ambition and benefit people from all walks of life, especially the most vulnerable.

Trust and climate action financing

One of the key components of the ‘Katowice package’ is a detailed transparency framework, meant to promote trust among nations regarding the fact that they are all doing their part in addressing climate change. It sets out how countries will provide information about their national action plans, including the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as mitigation and adaptation measures.

An agreement was reached on how to uniformly count greenhouse gas emissions and if poorer countries feel they cannot meet the standards set, they can explain why and present a plan to build up their capacity in that regard.

On the thorny question of financing from developed countries in support of climate action in developing countries, the document sets a way to decide on new, more ambitious targets from 2025 onwards, from the current commitment to mobilize US$100 billion per year as of 2020.

Another notable achievement of these negotiations is that nations agreed on how to collectively assess the effectiveness of climate action in 2023, and how to monitor and report progress on the development and transfer of technology.

“The guidelines that delegations have been working on day and night are balanced and clearly reflect how responsibilities are distributed amongst the world’s nations,” said Ms. Espinosa in a press statement. “They incorporate the fact that countries have different capabilities and economic and social realities at home, while providing the foundation for ever increasing ambition.”

“While some details will need to be finalised and improved over time, the system is to the largest part place,” she added.

Article 6: the one major matter nations couldn’t find consensus on

Ultimately, the negotiations tripped on one key issue which will be back on the table at the next UN climate change conference, COP25, set to take place in Chile. This is the matter known in specialized circles as “Article 6,” regarding the so-called “market mechanisms” which allow countries to meet a part of their domestic mitigation goals.

This is done for example through “carbon markets” –  or “carbon trading”, which enables countries to trade their emissions allowances. The Paris Agreement recognizes the need for global rules on this matter to safeguard the integrity of all countries’ efforts and ensure that each tonne of emissions released into the atmosphere is accounted for.

“From the beginning of the COP, it very quickly became clear that this was one area that still required much work and that the details to operationalize this part of the Paris Agreement had not yet been sufficiently explored”, explained Ms. Espinosa, noting that the majority of countries were willing to agree and include the guidelines on market mechanisms but that “unfortunately, in the end, the differences could not be overcome”.

Other key COP24 achievements

In addition to the political negotiations among Member States on the Paris guidelines, over the past two weeks, the hallways of COP24 buzzed with close to 28,000 participants having lively exchanges, sharing innovative ideas, attending cultural events, and building partnerships for cross-sectoral and collaborative efforts.

Many encouraging announcements, especially on financial commitments for climate action, were made: Germany and Norway pledged that they would double their contributions to the Green Climate Fund, established to enable developing countries to act;  the World Bank also announced it would increase its commitment to climate action after 2021 to $200 billion; the climate Adaptation Fund received a total of $129 million.

The private sector overall, showed strong engagement. Among the highlights of this COP, two major industries – the sports and the fashion worlds – joined the movement to align their business practices with the goals of the Paris Agreement, through the launch of the Sports for Climate Action Framework, and the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action.

Many more commitments were made, and concrete, inspiring actions were taken.

“From now on, my five priorities will be: ambition, ambition, ambition, ambition and ambition,” said Patricia Espinosa on behalf of UN chief António Guterres at the closing planery. “Ambition in mitigation. Ambition in adaptation. Ambition in finance. Ambition in technical cooperation and capacity building. Ambition in technological innovation.”

To achieve this, the UN Secretary-General is convening a Climate Summit on 23 September, at UN Headquarters in New York, to engage Governments at the highest levels.

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EU plays instrumental role in making the Paris Agreement operational

MD Staff

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The UN climate conference (COP24) in Katowice, Poland, concluded today with the adoption of a clear rulebook to make the Paris Agreement on climate change work in practice across the world. The completion of the rulebook was the EU’s top objective in these negotiations.

The Paris rulebook will enable the Parties to the Paris Agreement to implement, track and progressively enhance their contributions to tackling climate change, in order to meet the Agreement’s long-term goals.

Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy Miguel Arias Cañete said: “In Europe, and working united as Europeans, we have reached a balanced deal on the rules to turn the Paris Agreement into action.The EU played an instrumental role in reaching this outcome, working with allies from both developed and developing countries and with major economies, in particular China, to raise ambition and strengthen global efforts to fight climate change. We have responded to the urgency of science by acknowledging positively the IPCC special report on global warming of 1.5°C. This was a key ask for the EU and its allies. The Paris rulebook is fundamental for enabling and encouraging climate action at all levels worldwide – and success here also means success for multilateralism and the rules-based global order. The EU will continue to lead by turning our commitments into concrete action, leaving no one behind in the transition to a climate-neutral future; and inspiring other countries to make this necessary transition. I would like to thank Minister Kurtyka and the Polish COP Presidency for a job well done, and to Minister Köstinger and her team from the Austrian Presidency for helping the EU stay united and leading.”

EU action

The EU’s nationally determined contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement is to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 40% by 2030 compared to 1990, under its wider 2030 climate and energy framework. All key legislation for implementing the 2030 emissions target has already been adopted, including the increased EU’s 2030 targets on renewable energy and energy efficiency – which if fully implemented could lead to an EU GHG emissions cut of some 45% by 2030, the Commission has estimated – as well as the modernisation of the EU Emissions Trading System and 2030 targets for all Member States to cut emissions in sectors such as transport, buildings, agriculture and waste.

Back in November 2016 – just before the Paris Agreement entered into force – the Commission presented the Clean Energy for All Europeans Package, aimed at setting the most advanced regulatory framework that will make the European energy sector more secure, more market-oriented and more sustainable.
We acknowledge that this transition is going to be more difficult for some regions than others – notably those regions, where the economy is based on coal production.
The Commission, together with these legislative proposals, outlined a special initiative to work with coal and carbon-intensive regions in transition so that they can also benefit from the clean energy transition. The clean energy transition is a transition for all Europeans and its socio-economic impacts must be carefully managed.

EU ambition also goes beyond 2030. Following the invitation by the EU leaders, the Commission on 28 November presented a strategic long-term vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate-neutral European economy by 2050.

The strategic vision, which follows wide stakeholder consultation and takes into account the recent IPCC special report on 1.5°C, is an ambitious vision for ensuring a prosperous, modern, competitive and secure economy, providing sustainable growth and jobs and improving the quality of life of EU citizens.

The strategic vision, which the Commission presented to global partners at COP24, will kick-start an EU-wide debate which should allow the EU to adopt a long-term strategy and submit it to the UNFCCC by 2020. To this end, the European Council invites the Council to work on the elements outlined in the Communication.

The EU also remains committed to the collective global goal to mobilise USD 100 billion a year by 2020 and through to 2025 to finance climate action in developing countries, from a variety of public and private sources. In 2017, the EU, its Member States and the European Investment Bank together provided a total EUR 20.4 billion in climate finance, around a 50% increase from 2012.

Key outcomes

The Paris Agreement rulebook contains detailed rules and guidelines for implementing the landmark global accord adopted in 2015, covering all key areas including transparency, finance, mitigation and adaptation.

Key COP24 outcomes include:

  • The first ever universal system for the Parties to track and report progress in climate action, which provides flexibilities to those countries that genuinely need it. This will inspire all Parties to improve their practices over time and communicate the progress made in clear and comparable terms.
  • A good, consensual outcome on adaptation issues. The Parties now have guidance and a registry to communicate their actions as regards to adapting to the impacts of climate change.
  • As to the global stocktake process, the next moment to review collective action, which the EU considered vital for the Paris Agreement, the result provides a solid basis for further elaboration on the details of the process. The global stocktake will invite Parties to regularly review progress and the level of ambition based on the latest available science.
  • Finally, with the decisions on finance and technology, there is now a solid package that the EU trusts will provide reassurances to our partners on our commitment to continued global solidarity and support.

Background

The 24th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – ‘COP24′ – took place from 2-14 December in Katowice, Poland, presided over by the Polish government. It brought together ministers and government officials, as well as a wide range of stakeholder representatives.

The Paris Agreement, adopted in December 2015, sets out a global action plan to put the world on track to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature rise to 1.5°C. It entered into force on 4 November 2016. 195 UNFCCC Parties have signed the Agreement and 184 have now ratified it.

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Cleaning up couture: What’s in your jeans?

MD Staff

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Today you made a decision that could change the face of the planet. You decided what to wear.

When was the last time you looked in your wardrobe and couldn’t find anything suitable?

Screen stars on Netflix wear stunning but different couture in every episode. Celebrities boast cutting edge design, always pictured in a new outfit. Are you keeping up? Don’t worry. The latest news is that you don’t have to.

If you listen to Deputy Mayor of Paris—and Parisians would know—Antoinette Guhl, as stated in the report A New Textiles Economy: “Circular is the new black! We need a fashion industry based on three principles: clean, fair and good.”

Our clothing is an expression of individuality. We use it to make ourselves unique as well as provide comfort and protection. But the environmental cost of our clothes is adding up.

The industry’s environmental footprint is immense. It extends beyond the use of raw materials. Combined, the global apparel and footwear industries account for an estimated 8 percent of the world´s greenhouse gas emissions.

Lifecycle assessments show—taking cotton production, manufacture, transport and washing into account— it takes 3,781 litres of water to make one pair of jeans. The process equates to around 33.4 kilogrammes of carbon equivalent emitted, like driving 111 kilometres or watching 246 hours of TV on a big screen.

Even just washing our clothes releases plastic microfibres and other pollutants into the environment, contaminating our oceans and drinking water. Around 20 per cent of global industrial water pollution is from dyeing and textile treatment.

Yet globally, the industry wields considerable power. It is worth US$1.3 trillion, employing around 300 million people along the value chain.

UN Environment’s Llorenç Milà i Canals, Head of the Life Cycle Initiative, said fashion presents a massive opportunity to create a cleaner future.

But steps must be taken to involve everyone involved in the value chain to address environmental hotspots; define and take bold action on them.

“All actors must play their part in redefining the way value is generated and kept within the apparel sector, moving away from disposable apparel to a sector that generates and sustains value for society without polluting the environment,” he said.

As consumers, this means buying less. Some studies estimate that the average garment is worn ten times before being discarded. Demand for clothing is projected to rise two per cent a year—but the number of times we wear them has dropped one third compared to the early 2000s.

This waste costs money and the value of natural resources. Of the total fibre input used for clothing, 87 per cent is incinerated or sent to landfill. Overall, one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or incinerated every second.

There are steps we can all take today. Like checking materials are durable and keeping them for longer. Reducing the amount of clothes we buy, reusing and buying second hand items and recycling. Wash them less and smarter: use concentrated liquid soap rather than powdered detergent, which is abrasive and washes more fibers into water.

But while our attitude towards our clothing needs a rethink, so too does the way in which our clothes are produced. Collectively, on a large scale, reducing our environmental footprint requires cutting resource consumption and designing pollution out of clothing altogether.

The fashion industry is starting to take note.

A Pulse survey of decision makers from all industry segments confirms that sustainability is climbing up corporate agendas. Of executives polled, more than half said sustainability informed their strategy—up from last year.

Innovative new technology can play a part in cutting resource use. Cotton and recycled polyester still put a strain on the environment, so finding and developing new sustainable materials is key to reducing natural resource consumption.

In the meantime, developing countries—with a nascent textile industry —have an opportunity to build circular models into production from the start. They can set the bar high for the rest of the world to follow suit.

Ultimately, the key to a sustainable future lies in radically rethinking the way we consume and use clothing, and disrupting current business models. That means buying less. And it means putting pressure on our fashion industry to design a more responsible product.

UN Environment

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