Energy has remained an indispensable part of human life. Heat and light energy are ubiquitously supporting the lives of people from birth to the graveyard. The primary source of energy is the sun and the solar system that feeds into all materials living or dead as a storehouse of potential energy. This kind of potential energy is being harnessed by human beings through the development of power plants, burning of fossil fuels, and by transforming solar, wind power and bio-mass into electrical, heat and light energy.
The wider use of electricity in manufacturing was started in the eighteenth century which fueled the second industrial revolution in Europe and America. Asian countries followed suit later and started producing electricity from coal, fossil fuel and water resources. Nepal developed its first power plant in 1911 AD during the reign of Rana Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher. The 500 KW of power generated from Pharping hydropower was mainly used to light the palaces and the small number of affluent family homes in Kathmandu. Other power projects were gradually developed after the political changes in the country in 1950. By mid-March 2021, the total installed capacity of electricity generation had reached 1458 MW; of this 1299 MW is generated from hydropower, while the other sources consist of solar plant (30 MW), thermal plant (53 MW), alternative energy (72 MW) and the remaining 3MW from bagasse from sugar industries. Altogether 93 percent of the population of the country has access to electricity, mostly for household consumption.
The energy mix of Nepal shows that less than 4 percent of the electricity produced is from non-renewable sources (fossil fuel and coal-fired plants) while more than 96 percent is produced from renewable sources. But a large amount of fossil fuel, the largest single import item of Nepal over the last several years, is going into running transport and construction services. Data published by the Department of Customs show that the country imported petroleum products and transport equipment worth Rs 294 billion in the fiscal year 2020-21 which makes up almost 20 percent of the total import of that year. The increased use of fossil fuel in transport services has been the main cause of the growing carbon footprint in the country.
There is global concern on the issue of climate change as countries are facing the brunt of rising temperatures resulting in the melting of glaciers and snow, sea-level rise, erratic rainfall, drought and infestation of new pests and diseases in crops, making life difficult and challenging for people across the world.
The release of greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide is the major cause of global warming and climate change. This sort of malaise can be remedied through the replacement of traditional sources of energy by renewable and clean energy that does not emit harmful gases into the atmosphere. The use of clean energy on one side prevents the advancement of climate change while on the other, measures like reforestation help in reversing the damage already done to the climate.
In Nepal, people are experiencing the impact of climate change in various forms and manifestations. The snowcapped Himalayan peaks are changing due to ice melting; unusual heavy rains were experienced during the months of June to August this year causing landslides in the hills and floods in the plain areas. The infestation of armyworms in crops, particularly in districts like Dang, Kapilvastu and Chitwan is also somehow connected with the changes happening in the ecosystem across international boundaries. The reckless scrapping of the sloping hills by the local municipalities in the name of building roads, has introduced the problems of landslides. Thus, the devastating impact of floods and landslides were experienced in Sindhupalchowk, Manang and Gorkha districts where dozens of people lost their lives or sustained injuries while losing property including land, houses and farm animals.
On the international front, the debate on climate change is being redrawn with the joining of Joe Biden's administration in the Paris Convention after a hiatus of four years under Trump's presidency. The signatories of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are meeting in the 26th Session of the Committee of Parties (COP) at Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021 where they will deliberate on the progress made by the countries in limiting their carbon and greenhouse gas emissions. The convention has set the target of limiting global temperature rise within 1.5 degrees by 2030 and 2 degrees by 2050 from the pre-industrial level. Further, the current need is to strengthen the abilities of the countries in adapting measures of climate change, build resilience and follow the pathway to lowering greenhouse gas emissions and establish a climate resilience development paradigm.
Taking cognizance of the benefits related to the use of clean and green energy, there has been a sharp decline in the production of coal-based energy in recent years. For example, China has announced that it will gradually reduce coal imports. While Japan announced earlier this year that it would retire about 100 of its most inefficient coal plants and invest in renewable energy and that the country will be carbon neutral by 2050. President Joe Biden has joined the worldwide effort to move away from fossil fuel and promised to double US assistance to developing countries for moving towards the path of clean and green energy. The United States is now making a huge stride in harvesting wind and solar energy. The state of Texas is now considered as the storehouse of wind energy while California is making good progress in replacing traditional sources of energy with solar power.
Prospects for Nepal
Least developed countries (LDCs) like Nepal have contributed less to the emission of greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But these countries are compelled to bear the damage inflicted on them due to the damaged ecosystem largely imported from their neighbours. On the other hand, the country bears weaker financial, technical, legal and institutional capacity to combat the scourge of natural disasters. The preventive measures and preparedness in mitigating the adverse impact of the floods and landslides are far below the mark. Thus, countries need to work together in unison in order to prevent the loss of biodiversity, protect the environment and ecosystems and achieve the goal of sustainable inclusive development.
The use of renewable energy is beneficial to all living beings on the planet as it avoids the production of greenhouse gases unlike fossil fuel burning, reduces air pollution, decreases dependency on imported fuel and creates jobs related to manufacturing, installation and maintenance services.
Countries around the world are making a mark in the realm of clean and green energy in an effort to contain and reverse the process of climate change. Nepal has the comparative advantage of producing hydroelectricity from numerous rivers and rivulets flowing down from the Himalayas and other high mountains. Besides the potential of large and medium-sized projects like Karnali, Budhi Gandaki, West Seti, Tamor and Arun that are connected to the national power grid, numerous mini and micro hydel projects can be implemented in order to meet the energy needs of the communities as off-grid connection.
Among other alternative sources, solar energy is said to have the most potential in the Terai due to the long hours of sunshine while there is high potential in harnessing wind energy in the hills and mountains, as differential air pressures in the valley and pocket areas keep the wind blowing throughout the year. Bio-mass, bio-fuels and improved water mills can be other viable sources of energy for small communities and individual households. However, hydropower is considered to be the most dependable and commercial source of energy for Nepal due to the abundance of water resources in the country.
Despite the high expectation of people which came with the new federal structure in the country, the outcome has been very discouraging. The provincial governments are becoming just showpieces of federalism in the country as they are nowhere when it comes to proving their worthiness in the delivery of services to the people and society. The rural and urban municipalities are nearer to the local community, but they do not have adequate resources to cope with the numerous problems related to climate change and natural disasters. The federal government is unstable due to inter-party fighting and mired in the process of dissolution and remaking of the government. The situation becomes more critical in the wake of new challenges bought about by the emergence of Covid-19. Thus, the issue of climate change and its impact is not receiving adequate attention amid the overall political economy and governance ecosystem of the country.
Nepal government's imperative must lie in working together with countries at the regional and global level to cope with the challenges brought about by the warming of the biosphere and the effect induced by this. The government should mobilise international support for carbon sequestration and the adoption of measures to achieve resiliency in agriculture and industries affected by climate change. This should be reinforced by increasing the national capacity of bodies involved in carrying out field-level research and the dissemination of the findings. Similarly, local bodies and the provincial governments should be encouraged to reduce their carbon footprint by generating electricity from renewable sources like mini and micro-hydel plants, solar and wind energy and the adaptation of measures to sustain the production of food and other crops. Thus, a combined effort at the global, regional, national and sub-national levels would ultimately help in reversing the process of climate change and making the world a better place to live in. The ethos of "think globally and act locally" is best suited in coping with the challenges related to climate change.
(Ojha is former Secretary of Commerce.)