Good COP, bad COP

Kathmandu shrouded in smoke and smog from stubble and industrial pollution from northern India, as well as the valley's own vehicular emissions on Monday morning. Photo: AMIT MACHAMASI

Just as the deadlocked climate summit in Glasgow was being extended by a day last week, Kathmandu was once again shrouded in smoke and smog from stubble burning and industrial pollution from northern India, as well as the valley’s own vehicular emissions.

Nothing could have drawn the link between global negotiations in Scotland to save the planet from catastrophic heating, and the clear and present danger stemming from flawed policies of national governments.

India was blamed for watering down the final resolution by changing ‘phaseout’ to ‘phasedown’ of coal, while rich countries like Australia, the US and others did not have to put their cash where their mouths were to make up for historical emissions.

There were two Conference of Parties (COPs) going on simultaneously in Glasgow last week: one where mainly male politicians in suits protected their national interest to negotiate commas and brackets, and the other dominated by young women trying to warn world leaders that it was their future they were messing with.

The toxic air covering northern India and Nepal while COP26 was taking place was a stark reminder that developing countries cannot go around hectoring industrialised countries about ‘climate justice’ when their own policies poison their air, water and soil.

With winter approaching, it looks like this year’s Indo-Gangetic smog will only get worse since India does not have to ‘phaseout’ coal, and there is no mandatory timetable even for ‘phasing down’.

Nepal is not doing much better. Its petroleum import bill is doubling every few years, and we do not see the political commitment to implement provisions in the updated Nationally Determined Contribution, or the Climate Ambition at the Top of the World report that was unveiled in Glasgow.

Nepal was praised internationally (and also modestly patted itself in the back) for its three pledges in Glasgow: to increase forest cover to 45% by 2030, start reducing emissions to become carbon negative after 2045, and ensure climate resilience for all vulnerable people by 2030.

The forestry target is the most do-able, because Nepal’s total forest area is already at 44.74% -- we just have to make sure no more trees are cut in the next nine years. So, no Nijgad.

But we have no idea how the government expects to help all Nepalis adapt to climate impact. That goal is so vague and non-measureable as to be meaningless.

And then there is the aim to be ‘net-zero’ by 2045. Net-zero is an excuse to keep burning fossil fuel, hoping that forests somewhere will absorb the carbon. Besides, net-zero will not protect citizens from toxic emissions car tailpipes and smokestacks.

Nepal’s commitment is conditional upon financial support, and there may be a strong moral argument for ‘loss and damage’ compensation because the country only contributes 0.5% of total global greenhouse gas emissions.

However, we do not have to wait for donors in order to switch from petro-energy to hydro, solar and wind. Tax rebates for electric public transport, subsidies for cooking appliances, switching industries like cement, steel and manufacturing to electricity just need political will.

As we have argued here before, Nepal needs to do this not so much to avert a planetary emergency, but to save our economy from collapse, and to protect the public from breathing poisonous air.

Every year, Kathmandu’s pollution level sets a new record. This spring, the Valley’s air quality index (AQI) hit nearly 700 because of vehicular emissions combined with wildfire smoke. This was 40 times the level deemed safe to breathe by WHO’s new guidelines. Covid patients at ICUs across the country are being replaced by people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Given Nepal’s small carbon footprint, we might even attain net-zero status before 2045 because vehicles manufacturers are going electric, so we could not import diesel buses after 2030 even if we wanted to. But government policy must align with our Glasgow pledges. The on-again-off-again tax rebated on EVs in the past four years does not bode well for the future.

In addition, Nepalis need help to adapt to cope with the water crisis and resulting food insecurity as well as the impact of weather-related disasters like Melamchi and Manang this year.

After returning from lobbying rich country delegates in Glasgow, Nepali activists and scientists should now turn their attention to putting pressure on our own government to get climate smart.

Sonia Awale

Sonia Awale


Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.