From a fossil past to an electric future

PIPE DREAM: Part of a 69km petroleum pipeline connecting Amlekhganj in Nepal to an oil refinery in India, under construction in Patlaiya. The pipline is proof to many that the Nepal government has no intention of switching to renewable energy any time soon. Pic: Jiyalal sah

President Bidya Devi Bhandari will be leading the Nepali delegation at the Climate Summit (CoP24) in Poland next month, and environmental activists are lobbying with the Nepal government to get her to make a far-reaching policy statement on renewable energy.

They say Nepal’s commitment of turning 20% public vehicles into battery-operated ones by 2020 is not ambitious enough, and the President can announce in Katowice more meaningful steps towards electric mobility.

In a symbolic move to end Nepal’s fossil fuel addiction, President Bhandari is already riding an electric  but activists say that is not enough. She needs to create political momentum by getting her government to announce a cut-off date for Nepal to turn all public vehicles into electric ones.

Manjeet Dhakal, adviser to the Least Developed Countries (LDC) support group at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), says: “Nepal can move towards electric mobility if its head of the state announces a goal to this effect at the international climate change conference in Poland.”

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Last week, Prime Minister KP Oli flagged off Nepal’s first five electric buses in Kathmandu, and unveiled the country’s first National Plan of Action for Electric Mobility.

Bhushan Tuladhar of Sajha Yatayat, the public transportation company that got the first lot of electric buses on loan from the Lumbini Development Trust for Kathmandu routes, says: “Public transport is directly related to public health, and it is also linked to Nepal’s economic well-being. This can be the beginning of a new era in clean transportation.”

The National Plan of Action envisages a separate unit at the Ministry of Environment for the promotion of electric transport, but many are skeptical about it, given Nepal’s poor track record in implementing commitments.

A recent report by Nepal Climate Action Network South Asia (N-CANSA) says Nepal is actually moving in a reverse, non-renewable direction despite many past policies, strategies and international obligations to lower its dependency on fossil fuels – the biggest source of CO2 emissions.

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Nepal’s Climate Change Policy 2011 and the Environment-friendly Vehicle and Transport Policy 2014 aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by steadily reducing imports of petrol, diesel and LPG. In 2016, Nepal passed its National Determined Contributions (NDC) aiming to turn 20% public vehicles into battery-operated ones.

But since then, the country’s addiction to fossil fuel has only deepened. All the policies and strategies did not make a dent on imports. In 1993/94, the year Nepal ratified the UNFCC, Nepal’s total import of petroleum products was worth only Rs5 billion. By 2008, it had grown to nearly Rs40 billion, and in the past ten years it has more than tripled to an annual Rs150 billion. (See graphs)

The reason is the explosive growth in the number of fossil fuel vehicles from only 84,000 ten years ago to 438,000 today. Most of the increase was during the tenure of Maoist finance minister Baburam Bhatttarai in 2008-9. Part of the reason for the growth in petroleum imports was also the corruption-driven artificial shortage of electricity which saw a proliferation of diesel generators. Import of diesel grew five times in the past ten years.

For every Rs100 earned from its exports, Nepal spends Rs169 just to import petroleum from India. Nepal is now also importing half of its electricity need from coal-fired thermal plants in India. Although it went down slightly with monsoon supply and new hydro powerplants coming on stream, Nepal imported 424MW of electricity from India this summer, which was about 35% of peak demand.

Says Durga Upadhyay, a co-author of the CANSA report: “If it was not for remittances, our foreign currency earnings from exports would not even pay for petroleum imports.”

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Despite policies and symbolic moves to reduce petroleum imports, Nepal’s consumption is growing as the road network spreads and vehicle imports increase. The government’s plans to build a 36km cross-border petroleum pipeline from India and storage stockpiles in each Province indicates that there is no end in sight to the country’s fossil fuel addiction.

Manjeet Dhakal says these moves indicate that Nepal’s policymakers believe the cost of ending the dependence on petroleum is too high. “But that is an outdated concept,” he says, “it is now possible to drive a country’s economy without using fossil fuels. PM Oli should learn from Costa Rica, a country he visited recently.”

Some argue that Nepal’s economy is so petroleum dependent that it cannot switch suddenly to renewable without assistance for the conversion of cars, and to add new hydropower plants. Nepal’s per capita carbon footprint is negligible, they add, so whether or not Nepal goes for electric mobility is not going to save the planet.

However, former energy minister Dipak Gyawali says: “The volume of carbon emitted by Nepal might be small, but the rate at which we are increasing it is even higher than the industrialised West.”

Gyawali says Nepal should immediately declare a peak emission year, pass a policy to gradually replace all government vehicles with electric ones and impose a tax on fuel that can be used to subsidise electric vehicles.

Nepal needs to do this more importantly to reduce its balance of payment deficit, save the country from bankruptcy, and reduce its political dependence on India, than to save the world from global warming.