No smoke without fire

In all the debate about Nepal’s increasing fuel imports from India and the country’s growing carbon footprint, what gets lost is that nearly 80% of the energy consumed in the country is from burning biomass, a fancy name for firewood, agriculture residue and dried cattle dung.

The use of petroleum products is a distant second at 12.5%, while electricity and renewable sources like solar power account for about 3.4% and 2.5% of the total energy used.

This energy mix reflects an utter lack of focus and wrong-headed priorities in Nepal’s energy planning. Nepali households, tea shops, hotels, schools, even the mess for Army and Police predominantly rely on biomass for cooking. This is not only inefficient because of the low energy conversion rates, but also because of the hazards of the smoke to public health, the environment and the local climate.

This is not to say that imported petroleum products are any better. But the dominance of biomass in our energy sources should make us seriously consider ways to minimise the negative side-effects of the reliance on biomass and to transit to cleaner sources of energy for cooking.

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Nepal’s rural homes are typically built without chimneys and are poorly ventilated. A lot of the smoke, including minute particulates, stay indoors. Since women and children are exposed for longer periods, they suffer the most from acute respiratory infections. Long-term exposure to indoor air pollution causes cataract, bronchitis, tuberculosis, and cancer, and indoor pollution is the main reason for stunting in children. The WHO estimates that over 7,500 Nepali women and children die every year due to indoor smoke-induced illness.

Incomplete biomass burning also contributes to the emission of soot particles in the air adding to smoke from brick kilns, forest fires, open garbage burning, and diesel vehicles and generators. Called black carbon, these particles are blown up to the mountains and when deposited on the snow and ice, accelerate melting. The rise in average global temperature and emission of soot particles, if unmitigated, will further alter water flow dynamics, threatening the livelihoods of millions in the region.

Since the early 1980s, attempts were made in Nepal to reduce indoor smoke with the promotion of improved cooking stoves. According to the Nepal Biomass Strategy 2017, about 1.3 million Nepali households use improved stoves and 365,000 have biogas plants. However, there is a worrying trend towards imported LPG for cooking.

In 2016, Nepal imported 566,400kL of LPG, which was almost eight times higher than the amount imported in 2000. In developing countries, the increased use of propane fuel by households is an indicator of higher income. LPG reduces hazards of smoke and conserves forests, but this exponential growth adds to our fuel import bill.

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Nepal needs to be careful about alternatives to biomass in the country’s next phase of economic development. Poor implementation of public policies has contributed to the inability to replace biomass and imported petroleum products with clean fuel sources like hydroelectricity, particularly for household cooking.

Efforts to replace biomass with cleaner energy sources must be reinvigorated – it can be a low hanging fruit in Nepal’s decarbonised economic development pathway. A more holistic energy policy is required, one that provides universal energy access, green jobs, improved health, gender and social equity, lowering the petroleum import bill and mitigating black carbon emission.

As a starting point, the Energy, Forest and Environment Ministries, WECS and the Alternate Energy Promotion Centre in consultation with the private sector and donor agencies must collectively establish a baseline of Nepal’s current energy use. They must also consider measuring sources of emissions according to international protocols so a low-carbon development strategy can be designed.

Elected rural and urban municipal, provincial and national governments, as well as community groups need to work together in linking biomass replacement efforts with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals so that it resonates with scenarios outlined in IPCC’s latest Special Report 1.5.

Learning from the past, new strategies to replace biomass usage must consider the household’s geographic and social milieu, income, individual preferences, behaviour, technology, availability and affordability of fuel types. This requires bringing together unique business and development models that can be sustained through funds with varying costs of capital such as public, pricing, overseas development assistance, multilateral loans, as well as philanthropic outlays.

A biomass energy transition strategy should build on learning from Nepal’s experience with promoting improved stoves and open defecation free districts with robust monitoring and evaluation through community engagement.

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

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