Decarbonise now

The conclusion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC could not have been more blunt: human-induced global warming poses an existential threat to the planet. And to Nepal.

To avert this, the report has called for pathways that look unachievable. The US government has already indicated it will withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement that agreed on measures to limit worldwide average temperatures rise to 1.5-2ºC by 2100. Developing countries like India and China are now the biggest producers of greenhouse gases.

Actions that could help minimise the impact of climate change risk have been slow. Part of the reason is socio-cultural. Citizens in developing countries feel they were not responsible for the problem, the impact may be felt at some point in the future, so why worry? There is a prevalent view that weather extremes have always been with us, people are used to coping with them, and have carried on with their lives. Some feel human ingenuity will prevail, and there will be a technological solution.

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Leaders of developing and least developed countries that suffer the worst consequences of global warming argue that their priority is economic development, and they can invest in clean energy later when they can afford it.

The net global C02 emission pathways in the IPCC Special Report requires the curve to come sharply down after 2020 and reach zero emission by 2040 or 2050 (see graph). How will this happen? To answer this, we have to first ask how we got here in the first place.

Climate change is a consequence of the global economic order of the past two centuries that was powered by burning fossil fuels. It has brought benefits, but also given the world inequality, dependence, degradation of nature, and nationalistic populism. In the US that is a partisan divide between climate change believers and deniers. Liberal democracy is faltering in Europe.

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The cost of light, Om Astha Rai

The great Himalayan thaw, Ajaya Dixit

In the past six decades, many developing countries including Nepal sought foreign aid to lift living standards, but the strategy did not bring about structural changes that would have helped ensure social welfare and environmental protection. The economic model was western-inspired wasteful consumerism. In Nepal, this saw social and political movements, and country suffered three border blockades, a decade-long war, five constitutions, a palace massacre, and the replacement of a monarchy with a federalised republican order. Nepal’s current socio-politics shows signs of regression, while the economy is built on ecologically-destructive extractive practices.

Most solutions are externally imposed, and have only worked when co-produced with communities. Past investments have been piecemeal and have not yielded the desired systemic impact. Similar inertia prevails in almost all countries: the status quo is too comfortable, and the ruling classes benefit from business as usual. Added to that is the populism of deniers.

Given the prevailing dogma in both the rich and poor countries, it is unlikely that carbon curve will become less steep as hoped for in the IPCC Report. Nepal’s Prime Minister K P Oli, while launching the fist electric buses in Kathmandu last week, announced a National Action Plan for Electric Mobility under which 20% of public transport will be battery operated by 2020.

This proposition, theoretically, can offset some emission and fuel cost, but without clear thought-through investment strategy, petroleum import will not fall. Since 2000, import of petroleum products has increased by more than three times.  Weaning the economy towards renewables needs statesmanship and vision – both of which our rulers lack.

Imported electric vehicles will not build backward linkages in the economy, and the trade deficit will continue to grow. Without a fundamental reorientation of its economy towards a more self-reliant clean energy supply, and a stronger commitment to protecting ecosystems, Nepal will not meet decarbonisation targets.

Globally, bringing carbon emissions to zero in the next 30 years will need incentives on investments globally and within individual countries which promote social equity, protect nature, improve governance and prioritise a low carbon lifestyle.

Ajaya Dixit is Executive Director of Kathmandu based ISET-Nepal. His monthly column Climate for Change in Nepali Times deals with the impact of global warming in Nepal.

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