In the wake of the 2011 revolution, persistent energy shortages prompted President Morsi to overturn a long-standing ban on coal imports for the cement industry in July 2013. The cement industry enjoys a large lobbying power in Egypt was successfully able to claim high losses, pushing to advance the coal agenda. Thus, in 2015, under current President al-Sisi, the country’s environmental law was formally changed to allow the use of coal by heavy industry, and to permit coal-fired electricity generation (1). The law was also amended to eliminate a blanket ban on the use of coal and heavy fuels in residential areas.
While officials are quick to point to various ‘advantages’ of coal use notably in cement plants, environmentalists argue that the use of coal as energy would be catastrophic for Egypt, which already has one of the worst pollution levels in the world (4).
The cement industry’s record on pollution has been dismal The imposition and enforcement of penalties for violations has been weak. Some fines are so small that cement companies find it cheaper to violate the law than to reduce harmful emissions (2).
Further, pollution during transport is a risk as many lorries fail to prevent coal spewing into the air by covering the loads with canvas.
Power plants consume vast amounts of water, mainly fresh, as a coolant. Its discharge into the sea raises water temperatures, endangering coral reefs. The dust from the coal will also put the reefs in danger.
Finally, the risk to Egyptians’ health are huge. A study published by now-removed Minister Laila Iskander, estimated that using coal in the cement industry would come with a US$3.9 billion annual health bill, and that one coal-fired power plant would raise this figure to $5.9 billion on a yearly basis. The study has since been taken down from the ministry’s website.
By 2013, an anti-coal movement composed of academics, doctors and environmentalists had coalesced around the Egyptians Against Coal (EAC) Facebook page and movement (1), a movement of academics, doctors and environmentalists. “The first thing we did was share the photo of Lafarge’s illegal shipment of coal in Alexandria port,” explained Sarah Rifaat, Arab World coordinator for environmental NGO 350.org and one of EAC’s founding members.(6). The NGO 350.org is concerned abut climate change.
The campaign's objective was to raise awareness of the health and environmental threats associated with coal and to prevent coal from becoming a normalized source of energy in Egypt. Within months, the group garnered an increasing amount of attention online, organized meetings with affected local communities, cement industry representatives and government officials, held workshops and press conferences, and filed a court case against the April 2015 amendments to Egypt’s environmental law.
A joint statement released by several rights and environmental groups in 2014 accused the government of giving in to pressure by cement factories while turning a blind eye to the disastrous impact of coal on Egypt and its citizens, stating that “Coal affects the brain, the nerves, the lungs, and the blood. Research proved that inhaling coal dust causes redox reactions and increases chances of lung cancer, blood viscosity, and narrowed blood vessels.” All these effects, the statement explained, are the result of being around coal, and before even starting the process of burning it to generate power.
In a surprising turn of events in February this year, it was announced that all coal-fired power plant projects would be put on hold for the next five years. This postponement is assumed to be partly the result of the devaluation of the Egyptian currency, which doubled the price for new coal projects. A new Siemens gas-powered mega project creating a surplus in electricity generation and the discovery of the supergiant “Zohr” gas field in Mediterranean waters in 2015 could have also played a part in the government’s decision to delay planned coal-fired power plants.(1) (6).(See less)