In light of the Egyptian diesel crisis, is it possible to construct “low-emission zones”?

Low-emission zones can be implemented in the future and will have a high return in terms of reducing polluting emissions and regulating traffic
Low-emission zones can be implemented in the future and will have a high return in terms of reducing polluting emissions and regulating traffic

Near Ramses Square in the heart of Cairo, which is the second most polluted city in the world, according to the study of the World Health Organization that had been issued in 2016, Walaa Salah, 25 years old, has moved to live with her husband in their new home since 2019.

Walaa grew up in a rural village in Menoufia Governorate, surrounded by wide green fields and huge trees, until she moved to her new home when everything turned upside down.

Wala was initially bothered by the black smoke that was always rising from the public transportation cars near her home. Later, the discomfort became a health issue for the twenty-year-old girl, as she developed “severe asthma” that exacerbated her symptoms at night, depriving her of sleep.

Walaa is not alone in this regard. According to the Egyptian Ministry of Health and population figures, more than 20 million citizens of the Greater Cairo Region are affected by air pollution, and the number of Egyptians seeking medical treatment for respiratory diseases caused by poor quality air has surpassed 2 million, and the number of deaths due to air pollution caused by fossil fuels is estimated at around 65 thousand cases annually.

According to the World Bank study released in April 2020, the combustion of fossil fuels in the transportation sector is the main cause of air pollution in the Greater Cairo Region, as the road transportation sector is the second-largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, accounting for 22 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in Egypt.

Egypt’s road transport industry utilizes 3.5 million tons of fuel, accounting for 29 percent of overall diesel consumption of 12.1 million tons.

According to the Egyptian Mobilization and Statistics Authority, public vehicles consume more than half of this amount, accounting for approximately 53% of total diesel consumption in Egypt’s road transport sector, followed by trailer transport (19.5%), bus transport (9.4%), and other vehicles (18.1%).

According to the World Bank report, about 40% of public transport emissions (45 million tons of equivalent carbon dioxide) are only in Greater Cairo.

According to the report mentioned above, public transportation is principally responsible for one-third of air pollution from suspended particles, as it contributes 26% of the proportion of fine particles PM10, 90% of the proportion of carbon monoxide CO, and 50% of the proportion of nitrogen oxides NOx.

The report added that the contribution of cars to PM2.5 emissions is also significant due to the poor quality of fuel, the average life of the cars, and the frequent absence of pollution control technology. The low quality of Egyptian fuel used in most public transit exacerbates the problem.

Higher than allowed

According to Abdel Rahman Hegazy, co-founder and researcher of “Mowasalat for Qahara,” the fundamental problem with public transportation gasoline is that the proportion of sulfur in it is very high, causing the vehicle’s “filters” to fail to work properly because they cannot deal with contaminants and pollutants in the Egyptian diesel.

According to a study conducted by the Center for Environment and Development for the Arab Region and Europe, diesel fuel in Egypt, colloquially known as “diesel,” includes sulfur levels that exceed internationally allowed standards.

Actual sulfur levels in locally produced diesel in Egypt are more than 5,000 parts per million, which is estimated to be more than 500 times the sulfur concentration in the European Union, which is only 10 parts per million.

Egypt is classified among 14 countries with a high concentration of sulfur in diesel fuel, as a study by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (Civil Society Foundation) entitled “diesel without sulfur” indicates that Egypt is one of the few countries that did not take decisive measures to remove sulfur from diesel.”

High sulfur diesel increases the proportion of particulate matter (PM2.5), which is the most critical component in determining the health burden imposed by air pollution since it can penetrate deep into the lungs. It also causes ineffectiveness of emissions or exhausts control devices in engines, which increases pollutants arising from internal combustion, weakens engine performance, and releases uncontrolled emissions of other pollutants.

According to researcher Abdul Rahman Hegazy; public transportation passengers, along with pedestrians, are the most vulnerable to sulfur and diesel pollutants from public vehicles.

According to a paper published by The Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the largest cost of diesel falls on the poor segments in Egypt, as most of them depend on old and dilapidated vehicles that depend on diesel because they are affordable and are allowed to be driven on the streets of Egypt until now, as for many families It enables them to go to schools, work, do business and much more at an affordable cost.

Ezz El-Din Khaled, one of those in Cairo who has lived in the Bulaq area for ten years, shares a diesel-powered van with ten people to drive them to work in different parts of Cairo every day.

“I live in a poor region full of pollution, and the vehicle I take to work in the morning is the only available means of transportation in this area,” Ezz explains.

Dr. Yasser Hassan, Head of the Head of Air Pollution Research Department at the National Research Center, acknowledges that long-term exposure to diesel pollution causes nasal and eye irritation, changes in lung function, respiratory illnesses, headaches, fatigue, and nausea. In some situations, it might result in lung cancer.

Sulfur and climate change

According to researcher Mohamed Younes’ study, “Diesel without Sulfur,” diesel exhaust fumes not only affect public health or local air pollution but also contribute to rising global temperatures by emitting short-term pollutants such as black carbon, whose molecules remain in the atmosphere for days or weeks. However, its molecules absorb solar energy, which aids in the heating of the atmosphere.

Black carbon is considered the second most dangerous climate pollutant after carbon dioxide, as one kilo of it is equivalent to 3,200 kilograms of carbon dioxide, according to the report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Dr. Saber Othman, a climate change expert, says that the impact of climate change on Egyptian residents in high-emissions areas is double, as they are exposed to two dangers: the first is exposure to local pollution from fuel burning, and the second is the worldwide impact of rising temperatures and others.

According to researcher Abdel Rahman Hegazy, the best short-term solution to the sulfur existence in diesel is to eliminate it, monitor the vehicles that use it, and impose hefty penalties on them. In the long term, Hegazy thinks that the solution is to phase out the usage of diesel in Egypt’s public vehicles and replace it with electricity generated by clean energy sources.

According to Dr. Saber Othman, the solution is to increase the number of public transportation buses and making them available everywhere in the Republic, because citizens will use them, reducing the number of cars and vehicles on the roads and therefore emissions, He also agrees with Hegazy to stop the use of diesel in the republic’s vehicles.

Friedrich-Ebert organization proposed the establishment of low-emissions zones in Egypt, under which restrictions are imposed on polluting vehicles within limited areas such as an entire city, a central commercial district, or a certain historical and archaeological area, and in which only pedestrians and electric transport are allowed, in order to reduce traffic and air pollution caused by vehicles of all kinds.

But can these solutions actually be implemented? 

According to Dr. Yasser Hassan, Head of Air Pollution Research Department at the National Research Center, implementing low-emissions areas in Egypt is not difficult, especially given recent developments in Egypt, but this step must be preceded by some other steps, such as completely improving the public transportation system in Greater Cairo, enacting strict laws to regulate emissions from vehicles, and certainly ceasing to use diesel and fuel in vehicles replace them with green hydrogen and electricity.

Indeed, Egypt has taken steps to produce green hydrogen, signing a contract with the German company “Siemens” to begin discussions on implementing a pilot project to produce green hydrogen in Egypt as a first step before growing in this field to the prospect of exporting.

Dr. Saber Othman agrees with Yasser Hassan, believing that low emission zones can be implemented in the future and will have a high return in terms of reducing polluting emissions and regulating traffic. But first, we must halt and monitor the use of dirty diesel in Egypt.

This story was originally published on Zatmasr, with the support of Climate Tracker.

Eman Mounir
Eman is an independent investigative journalist from Egypt. Keenly interested in scientific, environmental, and feminist stories, she’s received an award in New Media from the University of Bournemouth in the UK, and other award in scientific journalism from the German Goethe Institute. She’s currently nominated for the True Story Prize in Switzerland, and previously nominated for Thomson Foundation’s Young Journalist Award. Eman studied Data Journalism with a 6-month diploma by ICFJ and ARIJ Network for Investigative Journalism. Currently, she is a fellow to ONE WORLD MEDIA foundation in United Kingdom.