4 months after Glasgow, Nepal’s goals look iffy


It has been four months since the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow during which the world’s leaders agreed to cut down carbon emissions to keep global average temperatures at well below 1.5 °Celsius.

Since that conference, fossil fuel use has increased again after the pandemic slowdown, planetwide heating have exceeded projected increases with the two polar regions experiencing record warm temperatures this month.    

The United States and the European Union aim to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, a target that may be brought forward because of the oil and gas price shock caused by the Ukraine war.

Nepal’s two neighboring countries both pledged to cut emissions – India to net-zero by 2070, and China aiming to peak fossil fuel use before 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060.

In Glasgow, Nepal committed to start cutting carbon emissions from this year and be carbon negative by 2045, halt deforestation and increase forest cover to 45% by 2030, and protect all high risk groups from the impacts of climate change in eight years.

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The first goal is likely to be affected by soaring oil prices due to the Ukraine war, the second to increase forest cover is achievable since Nepal already has 43% forest cover – it just needs to stop further deforestation. And the last goal has been criticised for being too vague.

Nepal’s economy has been seriously impacted by the post-pandemic rise in fossil fuel use which has coincided with a soaring petroleum import bill in the past month due to the Ukraine war.  Although the country committed to start reducing petroleum use by 2022, that is now not likely to happen.

Nepal needs additional intermediate goals through its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to guarantee effective de-carbonisation results, says Manjeet Dhakal, of the Least Developed Countries (LDC) support team at Climate Analytics.

“It is important to look at the small steps needed to achieve the long-term goals,” says Dhakal. “How that can be achieved will depend on the target that Nepal has submitted prior to 2045 because these will help us achieve the ultimate net-zero target.”

The net-zero goal is more like a “vision” or “a long term strategic commitment” that needs to be supplemented by specific interim targets, he explained.

The latest Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in February warned that the impact of atmospheric heating was widespread, pervasive and already irreversible in places, with people and the natural world suffering storms, floods, droughts, wildfires and heat waves.

Kathmandu itself saw the highest average temperatures ever recorded for March which was 5 Celsius above normal. And although the wildfires season this year has not been as serious as 2021, smoke from burning forests in the Central Tarai have darkened the sky across the country this week.

The Nepal Disaster Report by the Ministry of Home Affairs says 80% of the country’s population is at risk from natural and climate-induced hazards.

Besides adapting to the effects of the climate breakdown, Nepal also needs to reduce its reliance on petroleum not just to lessen its carbon footprint and meet Glasgow goals, but to cut its unaffordable petroleum import bill and cut the health risk from pollution. The Swiss group IQAir last week ranked Kathmandu as the sixth most polluted capital in the world.

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While progress has been made in new investment in hydropower and renewable energy giving Nepal a monsoon surplus in electricity, the country is still dependent on importing power from coal-fired thermal plants in India in the dry season.  

On the bright side, experts suggest that the net-zero goal is possible if policies and regulations are implemented well in advance of the target date. Transportation makes up 20% of Nepal’s greenhouse gas emissions, and a switch to electric public transport is now imperative not just to meet emission reduction targets but also to reduce urban air pollution.

“There needs to be immediate action, careful planning, and coordination between various agencies of government,” says Bhushan Tuladhar, an environmental activist and board member of Sajha Yatayat which has placed a Rs3 billion order for 40 electric buses for Kathmandu, the first three of which will be delivered next month.

Tuladhar says that because coordination between agencies is lacking, the environment is often not a priority. “But if immediate action and investment in clean public transportation is implemented right away, it is possible, but that is a big if,” he cautions.

Nepal could start meeting its own NDCs by picking the lowest-hanging fruit: switching to electric buses, two-wheelers and private cars.  

Radha Wagle, joint secretary at the Ministry of Forests and head of its Environment Division was in the Nepal delegation in Glasgow, admits that the country’s commitment to net zero is ambitious: “We have made strong commitments, and some of them are conditional on financial aid, capacity enhancement, implementation support, and human resources.”

In its second NDC in 2020, Nepal set a target to increase sales of electric vehicles to cover 90% of private passenger vehicles and 60% of public vehicles by 2030 to reduce petrol and diesel imports by nearly one-third.

Nepal’s budget this year is Rs1.6 trillion but it has already imported Rs 100 billion worth of petroleum products in the past six months – 60% of all imports. With falling exports, remittances from Nepalis abroad and dropping foreign currency reserves, Nepal just cannot afford a bigger import bill.

“Addressing climate change is not solving only the environmental issues,” said Dhakal, “there are a lot of economic opportunities. Shifting to clean energy makes a lot of sense. It creates jobs, cleans up the environment, and reduces imports. We have the resources, it is all about management.”

Read also: Think globally in Glasgow, and act locally, Raju Pandit Chhetri

The number of vehicles in Nepal is increasing at around 14% annually, so energy security will be a strategic issue. Tuladhar says it will be particularly important to electrify buses to reduce fuel consumption by these vehicles that travel all day, and also reduce the demand for private vehicles. 

"This will require more incenstives for public transport operators to purchase electric buses and infrastructure such as charging stations," he adds. 

Nepal’s main advantage is that it has the potential to generate cheap hydropower with which it can electrify the transport sector, replace LPG use with induction stoves. With new plants under construction, the country is expected to generate more than 3,500MW by 2030, which will exceed demand.  

As an adviser to the chair of the LDC group at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Manjeet Dhakal says Nepal’s priority must be hydropower-led growth. “Nepal is on track to graduate to middle-income status by 2025, but just one climate-related catastrophe in the Himalaya could jeopardise economic growth,” he warns. 

Indeed, Radha Wagle  Nepal needs international support to help communities most vulnerable to climate-induced disasters to cope. “Our main challenges are financial resources, institutional capacity, and localised climate actions, and also a strong governance system,” she says.

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