Why a 72-year-old Swedish climate activist pedalled to Egypt

Dorothee Hildebrandt, 72, on her e-bike in Sharm El Sheikh. AP

She has pedalled thousands of miles from Sweden to Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh to deliver a simple message: Stop climate change.

The trip took 72-year-old activist Dorothee Hildebrandt and her pink e-bike — which she fondly calls Miss Piggy, after the temperamental character from The Muppet Show — more than four months. She crisscrossed Europe and the Middle East until she arrived in Sharm El Sheikh, at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula.

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Her mission is to raise awareness and urge world leaders gathered at the annual UN climate conference Cop27 to take concrete steps to stop climate change, she said. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and scientists say the amount of heat-trapping gases needs to be almost halved by 2030, to meet the temperature-limiting goals of the 2015 Paris climate accord.

Since her arrival a week ago, Ms Hildebrandt and her e-bike have become a fixture at the summit. From a friend’s place where she is staying, some 15km from the conference centre, she bikes to the Cop27 venue every day, meeting other activists and attending events. Many are keen to take photos with her around the conference venue.

“They really have to stop climate change,” Ms Hildebrandt says of the world leaders. “Even if it is uncomfortable.”

“It was uncomfortable for me … this long ride,” she told AP. But she wanted to show that if there’s a will, “you can do it.”

Past climate talks have traditionally seen large protests at the end of the first week of the two-week summit, often drawing thousands. This year protests have been relatively muted, with sporadic and small demonstrations during the first week. Activists have blamed the high cost of travel, accommodation and restrictions in the isolated Egyptian city for the limited number of demonstrators.

The largest demonstration so far was on Saturday, a day after US President Joe Biden made his stop at the summit. Hundreds of protesters chanted, sang and danced in an area not far from where the negotiations were taking place amid tight security.

Dorothee and her pink e-bike, which she calls Miss Piggy. AP

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Dorothee and her pink e-bike, which she calls Miss Piggy. AP

Born in the town of Kassel in central Germany, Ms Hildebrandt says she got her first bicycle at the age of 10 and never stopped pedalling. In 1978 she moved to Sweden.

She retired in 2015. Her activism and biking, which she documents on social media, is for the children and further generations of the world, she says. A sign on her bike reads “Biking for Future and Peace.”

In her home town of Katrineholm, 150km south-west of Stockholm, she founded “GrandmasForFuture — Katrineholm” in the town. The group focuses on raising awareness of climate change.

Ms Hildebrandt says she also wants western industrialised nations to pay for the destruction they have caused so far — an issue called loss and damage, about reparations from big polluters to the global south which has been hurt the most.

Unhappy with results from the previous climate conference, Cop26 in Glasgow, Scotland, she saw her chance in Sharm.

Starting out on July 1, Ms Hildebrandt cycled through 17 countries, covering 8,228km and averaging about 80km a day. Her Facebook posts got thousands of views and she says she received positive feedback from followers and people she met along the way.

In the Turkish coastal city of Antalya, her bike broke down. A cyclist who works in tourism in the city took Ms Hildebrandt and her bike to a mechanic for repairs and she was able to continue.

Dorothee has cycled through 17 countries, covering 8,228km and averaging about 80km a day. AP

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Dorothee has cycled through 17 countries, covering 8,228km and averaging about 80km a day. AP

In Lebanon, she took taxis from the port city of Tripoli to Beirut for her safety. She then had a mandatory guide with a vehicle and a driver to travel to the Jordanian border through Syria.

“I could have used my bike throughout Syria, but the costs would have been too high for me,” she said.

Even in Sinai, local authorities barred her from cycling from the port of Nuweiba to Sharm, apparently due to concerns for her safety, she said.

Still, she is confident she has got her message across.

On Thursday, she was invited to cycle with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, an avid cyclist. She asked the president about the lack of large protests, compared with previous summits. She said Mr El Sisi said protests are not barred in Egypt.

“Everyone is allowed to demonstrate everywhere in Cairo and Sharm El Sheikh”, he apparently told her.

Cop27 has turned the lack of dissent in Egypt, where most public protests are effectively banned by authorities.

After the summit ends on November 18, Ms Hildebrandt will bike to Cairo, then on to the Mediterranean city of Alexandria before travelling to Israel’s port of Haifa, and on to Greece.

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