Global crisis, local solutionsNepal must not wait for rich countries to pledge funds for climate action, we can do a lot on our own
One year after meeting in Glasgow, world governments are meeting again in Sharm El-Sheikh next week to decide on urgent measures to avert a global climate catastrophe.
A lot has happened in that one year. Record heat waves have baked North America, Europe, South Asia and China. Wildfires have raged across the tundra, there have been unprecedented floods in Pakistan, storms have ravaged coastlines. Weather extremes that scientists had said would happen in the 2040s are already taking place.
The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Sharm El-Sheikh is happening even as smoke from crop residue burning shrouds north India and blows up towards Himalayan glaciers, accelerating their melt. Nepal saw unseasonal post-monsoon rains that killed as many as 100 people in landslides and debris flows.
There have been a slew of scientific reports in the run-up to COP27, each more alarmist than others. Despite climate denialism, there is no question that we are already in a climate emergency. It is too late to start thinking about what to do, it is time to cut emissions to limit average global temperatures to within 1.5C above pre-industrial levels by 2050.
This week’s Emissions Gap Report 2022 by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) calls itself ‘a testimony to inadequate action on the global climate crisis’ and calls for a credible pathway to 1.5°C which would require annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to be reduced by 45% in the next eight years, and continue to decline rapidly after that.
In the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Sixth Assessment Report scientists have even more apocalyptic predictions. Even if the 1.5C cap is reached between 2041-2100, up to 14% of terrestrial species in nature will likely face a very high risk of extinction. If the increase is 3C then 29% of species will be gone, and half of all plant and animal species will be extinct if greenhouse gases continue to be pumped into the atmosphere at the present rate, and global average temperatures rise by 5°C.
The IPCC warns of widespread impacts to ecosystems, people, settlements, and infrastructure from increases in the frequency and intensity of weather extremes. The worrying thing is that this is not a prediction – it is already happening.
In its chapter on the world’s mountain regions, the IPCC says there will be accelerated glacial retreat, increased permafrost thaw, and an increase in the number and size of glacial lakes. Plants and pathogens will move to higher elevations.
The Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau is the biggest storehouse of frozen water aside from the two polar regions, and up to 1.2 billion people downstream in Asia depend on rivers that originate there. The IPCC says disruptions in the water cycle will affect agriculture, and increase landslide and floods hazards.
Whatever Nepal burns or does not burn and how much is not going to make much a different to the planet. But it will determine Nepal’s economic survival. It is imperative that Nepal’s new government after the November elections take resolute steps to reduce petroleum imports top reduce the country’s trade deficit, and to lessen air pollution.
This month’s COP27 UN Climate Summit in Egypt will be immediately followed in Nepal by federal and provincial elections on 20 November.
The election manifestos of the political parties once more make grandiose promises, but a shift to renewable energy is not the main priority. Reducing fossil fuel use is a not an election slogan for any of them.
Even so, environmentalists and energy experts say the polls are an opportunity to elect leaders who make genuine and realistic pledges to switch to renewables, protecting public health by reducing air pollution, and managing solid waste.
“Our stance on the climate crisis has been limited to making lofty commitments at an international platform, back home there is not much to show implementation-wise,” says climate activist Shilshila Acharya of the Avni Center for Sustainability in Kathmandu.
She adds: “For climate to take a front seat in our politics, we need leaders who have understood and internalised the importance of slow-moving disasters. But they are only looking at personal gain. It is up to us citizens to vote for candidates who will implement solutions.”
Indeed, while the climate crisis is global, the solutions are local. Nepal’s transition to electric mass transport and household electrification to replace LPG are two low-hanging fruits for which Nepal does not need international funding.
To be sure the Nepali Congress (NC) has committed to increasing the use of electric vehicles to 50% in the next five years. Prime Minister Deuba had promised at COP26 in Glasgow last year to make Nepal carbon neutral by 2045, but that is not going to happen with current policies.
Switching just 10% of vehicles in Nepal to battery-power would save at least Rs21 billion a year in petroleum imports. It is clear that reducing Nepal’s carbon footprint is necessary to reduce the country’s trade deficit, and the climate contribution is a bonus.
Nepal has seen substantial growth in the sales of electric vehicles (EVs) despite a ban on luxury cars. In the last three months alone, 705 new EV units were sold -- a five-fold increase compared to the same period last year.
But most of these were private vehicles. Electric public buses still costs three times more than similar sized diesel ones, and do not enjoy the tax rebates given to private electric cars and two-wheelers. This is in direct contrast with a stated government policy to make a quarter of all private vehicles and 20% of buses in the country electric by 2025.
“Electric mass transport is the solution to our problem, it will clean up the air, reduce carbon emission and use up surplus electricity,” states Bhushan Tuladhar of Sajha Yatayat which is has already rolled out three of its 40 electric buses.
But there are headwinds. Because electric buses are initially so expensive, financing and tax rebates are needed. Charging infrastructure is also critical. Tuladhar adds: “We just need to translate our commitments into concrete action.”
For every litre of petrol or diesel sold in Nepal, the government has been collecting Rs1.5 pollution tax since 2008. The accumulated to nearly Rs10 billion could be used to subsidise electric vehicles and clean energy. Similarly, an electric trolley bus depot in Tikune rotting away with old vehicles could have easily been a charging station for Sajha’s new electric buses.
On paper, Nepal has some forward-looking policies, some of the best in the world. The 2019 National Climate Change Policy, the 2022 Solid Waste Management Policy, the 2022 Forest Regulation, and the 2022 Land Use Regulation all address the country’s need to adapt to the impacts of climate change.
However, as the World Bank notes in its recent Country Climate and Development Report for Nepal: ‘Implementation of this reform agenda and prioritization of investments is incipient. Moreover, enhanced prioritization and efficiency of public expenditure are required to maximize climate and development benefits,’
Nepal’s average temperature is expected to increase by 0.9°C between 2016 and 2045 under a medium-range emissions pathway. This means winters could be drier and monsoons wetter, with up to a threefold increase in rainfall. In fact, this is already happening across the Himalaya.
It is also a warning that floods, fires, avalanches, droughts will be more severe. The World Bank report forecasts that the number of people in Nepal annually affected by flooding could double to 350,000 in the next eight years. Nepal’s economy is also expected to shrink by 7% due to climate impact.
“All of our targets for emission reduction hinge on proactive implementation locally. We could have committed to net zero in the next five years if we were really serious about it, why wait till 2045?” asks environmentalist Acharya. “At this rate with our business as usual attitude, we are unlikely to be carbon neutral even if we had committed to 2060.”
This year’s climate conference at Sharm El-Sheikh has been dubbed the 'implementation COP'. One of the priorities at the discussion this year would be designing a mitigation program given that the combined climate pledges of 194 Parties under the Paris Agreement could put the world on track for at most around 2.4°C of warming by 2100, far from limiting it to 1.5°C and prevent further catastrophic consequences.
Other priorities for Nepal at this conference include lobbying for the G20 nations to loss and damage fund as well as adaptation support, says Manjeet Dhakal, adviser to the Least Developed Countries (LDC) support group at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
“With the Ukraine crisis and the pandemic there is reluctance to climate funding, it is even more clear we cannot wait for the international community and must do our bit to adapt immediately and save lives as well as prepare for slow-moving disasters,” Dhakal told Nepali Timeson the phone from Sharm El-Sheikh.
“We are nowhere near achieving our targets but for the first time we are now beginning to see a reduction in emission, however small that might be and that makes all these lobbying and climate conferences worth it,” he added.
Global lobbying at the international climate platform is crucial for a country as vulnerable to the climate crisis as Nepal. But implementation has to be local. It is once the delegates are back the real work begins.
Reducing Nepal’s notorious urban pollution this winter could be a start. Says Bhushan Tuladhar: “If Kathmandu’s mayor wanted to, he can mobilise his people and at the very least stop open garbage burning this winter through awareness campaigns and proper waste collection services. The only thing missing is the political will.”