Fossil Fools

Nepali migrants are working in regions where it is going to be too hot to work

Illustration: Diwakar Chettri

With weather records being broken planetwide, the COP28 climate summit in Dubai this month is being ridiculed as a greenwash even before it begins. The UAE is the world’s fifth biggest exporter of refined petroleum, and the president of the conference is the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC).

There is an even bigger irony: Expo City in Dubai is being readied for the conference 30 November-12 December by migrant workers from Nepal and other South Asian countries labouring outdoors in 42°C heat.

“Greenwashing, that is exactly what it is going to be,” says Shilshila Acharya of Avni Center for Sustainability in Kathmandu. “Every day we are bombarded with one dire projection after another which needs emergency action, but we now have oil barons leading climate talks.”

She adds: “COPs have become a necessary evil but having this summit in the UAE sends the wrong message. The fossil fuel industry will obviously protect its own interests. We know the problems, we know the solutions but we do not have the right people in decision-making positions.”

In September, the human rights group FairSquare found evidence of Asian and African migrants working outdoors in excessive heat and humidity despite laws prohibiting it when the wet-bulb temperature exceeds 25°C.

Humans can handle wet-bulb temperatures up to 35°C for a limited time, but above that the body can no longer effectively cool itself via perspiration. Most Gulf countries have summer daytime curfew hours, but FairSquare found migrants working at the COP28 conference site even when the wet-bulb temperature reached 33°C.

Similar charges were made ahead of the 2022 Qatar World Cup when South Asian migrant workers were similarly made to work outdoors building football stadiums with many fatalities.

Nepal and other South Asian nations hope that the Dubai summit will take steps to set up the Loss and Damage Fund to help cope with climate-induced disasters. But the Biden administration has outright rejected it, and other industrialised countries are not too keen.

In July, COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber said the summit would fast-track phase out of fossil fuels, push climate finance, and allow climate activists access.

Bangladeshi climate scientist Saleemul Huq was a strong proponent of the Loss and Damage Fund, but passed away suddenly this week in Dhaka. In an op-ed printed posthumously in the Guardian 1 November and co-authored by Farhana Sultana of Syracuse University, he wrote: ‘The fossil fuel industry continues to produce, maintain and benefit from greenhouse gas emissions, and must fundamentally change its business model. Meanwhile, greater efforts by local governments, civic groups and nonprofits remain crucial.’

Indeed, even while there is not much hope for action from the climate jamboree in Dubai, most climate action happens at the local level. Countries like Nepal do not have time to wait around for outside help to cope with disasters like the Sikkim glacial flood that are sure to be more frequent.

However, besides paying lip service like during the visit by UN Secretary-General António Guterres this week, Nepal’s leaders show little inclination to act on climate preparedness with adaptation and mitigation strategies.

Instead of developing climate-smart infrastructure, leaders have green-lit ecologically and economically harmful projects like the $6.7 billion Nijgad airport. Meanwhile, much needed upgrades of existing highways and transmission lines face costly delays.

The draft Electricity Bill does not give enough priority to increase domestic consumption of surplus hydropower for Nepal’s energy transition, and instead emphasises power exports to India. For this, transmission lines and substations need urgent upgrades.

Both China and India have announced that they will stop manufacturing diesel and petrol vehicles by 2030. Nepal will be forced to go all-electric in six years, and we might as well be prepared.

In the past year, Nepal imported 2,000 electric 4-wheelers and 700 two-wheelers, reducing petrol and diesel consumption by more than 20,000 litres daily. In fact, by cutting just 10% of its LPG, diesel and petrol imports Nepal can save $260 million a year.

“Transportation, cooking, irrigation and industries are four clear pathways for a green transition in Nepal,” explains environmentalist Anil Chitrakar.

He adds: “We need to promote electric vehicles, but not everyone drives. However, all 30 million Nepalis have to eat, so subsidising rice cookers and electric stoves would reduce LPG use. Surplus electricity can be diverted to industries through dedicated feeders.”

In the current climate, investing in expensive cascade hydropower projects on rivers like the Arun exposes them to glacial lake floods like the Sikkim disaster. Energy experts propose diversifying Nepal’s renewable energy mix to include solar, wind and biogas.

Photovoltaic costs have plunged even further this year, and solar plants are faster and cheaper to build. Industrial-scale biogas plants and waste-to-energy projects would also solve the problem of waste management.

“Irrigation pumps just in the Tarai consume 200MW of power. We can easily power them with solar panels and biogas can be upscaled again,” adds Chitrakar. “Nepal has proven solutions. We just need the political will to push them.”

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.