Nepal needs to get its climate act together

Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden address the 76th UN General Assembly on 21 September. Photos: XINHUA

The United Nations General Assembly is convening just six weeks ahead of the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, and follows a stark warning from the United Nations last week that the voluntary Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs) by countries is not at all enough to stop cataclysmic climate collapse.

The UN collated the pledges by the world’s 191 countries and projected that the earth’s surface would be 2.7 Celsius hotter by 2100. This warning is even starker than the report to governments by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last month that laid out a best-case scenario in which despite reduced greenhouse gas emissions, global average temperature was still set to exceed 1.5°C by the turn of the century.

This means countries must not only have more ambitious targets in their NDCs, but richer countries must do more, and giants like India and China have to wean themselves away faster from fossil fuels. What they have committed to so far is just not enough.

Some of this is the subject of a meeting of 40 world leaders in New York this week co-chaired by UN Secretary General António Guterres and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson ahead of the Glasgow Climate Summit. Guterres told the General Assembly that the world needed to reduce carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 to stabilise the climate. 

On Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged that China would stop building more coal-fired power plants abroad, the US President Joe Biden promised $11 billion to help developing countries adapt to the climate crisis.

Nepal, being one of the most vulnerable countries in world to a hotter world, the tenor of the discussion in New York this week will literally determine our future. Not only are our mountains melting in front of our eyes, but erratic weather means more floods, landslides and droughts that have dried up springs. Scientists have said that the Himalaya will get hotter faster than other parts of the world, and could warm by 1.8-2.2°C by the turn of the century.

Adapting to a hotter Himalaya will need money for climate resilient agriculture, lowering flood risk of glacial lakes, and help to transition to renewable energy. But when Nepal’s delegate at the General Assembly gets up to speak in New York next week to ask for more pledges for adaptation, it will carry very little moral authority if the government back home is backtracking on its own NDC commitments.

And that is what is happening. After taking one step forward with tax rebates on electric cars in this year’s budget, the government of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has taken two steps back. This week, it slashed taxes on the import of 10 or more diesel buses by new luxury hotels to 1%. It cut by half the duty on petrol motorcycle assembly in Nepal.

The Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC) is so bloated with cash that it gets from taxing petroleum that it is investing in high rise office blocks in Kathmandu, putting up more petroleum storage facilities and planning new pipelines. The government still has pipe dreams about building a mega-airport in Nijgad. They just don’t get it.  

What Nepal should have done is slash taxes not just on battery cars, but also on electric public transport. At the moment the tax for electric or diesel buses is the same. At this rate, there is no way Nepal is going to meet its commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and its commitment to net-zero by 2050.

In fact, the Ministry of Environment’s submission to the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) last month revealed that Nepal’s carbon footprint had doubled in the past 10 years to 28,166 gigagrams of carbon dioxide (Gg CO2) annually.

Ironically, at a time when the government seems to be actively promoting diesel buses to benefit a few of the richest hotel owners in the country, and has done nothing to reduce the tax on electric buses, its NDC pledges to strengthen public transport and turn 90% of all vehicles electric by 2030.

The NDC document says that Nepal will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 28% by 2030 – that is laughably unlikely given the current policies in place. One arm of the government has no idea what the other is doing.

All this is critical not just because Nepal needs to do its bit to reduce its carbon emissions and to slash its ballooning petroleum import bill, but also so that the country can secure funds from the UNFCCC for adaptation measures.  

In fact, consistent delays in completing and submitting these reports to the UN has meant that much of the resources Nepal could have mobilised for climate action have lapsed.