By Sunil Acharya
The discussions about the need to phase out climate disrupting fossil fuels and phase in renewable energy is largely confined among few environmental and climate change experts. However, the economic blockade imposed by India has demonstrated that going Fossil Fuel Free is not only an environmental or climate change issue to Nepal but a survival and sovereignty agenda. While India must lift the blockade unconditionally and immediately, it has come in as an eye opener to shift away from imported fossil fuel based economy to ecologically sustainable economy. Even without the blockade, we are already neck deep in crisis since the import to export ration is about 8:1, fossil fuel import costs us more than our export earnings, not to mention the health and environmental impacts. The August 2015 agreement between India and Nepal to lay oil pipeline from Raxaul to Amlekhgunj will only exacerbate the already critical situation. The misplaced optimism about importing dirty fossil fuel via pipeline and exporting clean hydropower electricity to India can be aptly summarized by a popular Nepali adage, hamri aama sarhai nai bathee chan, chamal sanga pitho po saathchan – our mother is so clever that she exchanged rice with flour.
While keeping fossil fuel in the ground and transitioning to 100% renewable energy by 2050 AD is slowly gaining momentum globally, Nepal should pursue this pathway urgently not only from a climate change consideration but also for the prosperity of the nation and its citizens.
The transition will not be easy and prompt but the time is now to take the leap. This article outlines some of the urgent and long term measures in key economic sectors that Nepal should implement to break the fossil fuel addiction that is the major cause of economic dependence and build a resilient economy.
Biomass is the largest primary source of energy in Nepal. Interestingly, fossil fuel (petroleum products and coal) consumption comprises only around 16% of primary energy sources. The country with technical renewable energy potential of 77,949 MW (combined total of hydro, solar and wind) has less than 1% of its exploitable potential installed which supplies only around 5% of the total energy consumption.
Clearly, the use of inefficient biomass and economically suicidal fossil fuel should be replaced by renewable energy. The problem is government’s reluctance to speed up renewable energy generation despite having formulated and shelved strategies like ‘ten thousand MW in ten years’ or ‘twenty five thousand MW in twenty year’.
In the current situation, Solar energy can play an instrumental role as its potential is proven and installation is quick while hydropower takes time to build and wind power generation projects take at least a year of assessment before installation. Though, hydropower will continue to play primary role in the energy mix, the share of solar energy in the total energy mix can be increased rapidly by immediately revising the current subsidy policy to suite urban residents and businesses. Of course this has to be supplemented with implementing the net-metering policy where people can sell excess electricity to the grid or buy whenever necessary. In the off-grid areas nano and micro/mini solar grids have a potential to play an important role in addition to independent solar home systems. A financing mechanism can be created which guarantees payment to the energy producers by pulling in funds from national contributions and international clean energy funds like the Green Climate Fund. This will apply not only to Solar but also for wind and hydropower in the longer run. Export oriented hydropower projects must be avoided and generated electricity has to be utilized to enhance the national economy by supplying uninterrupted electricity to industrial and transport sector.
Having ditched the electric trolley bus network in Kathmandu and ropeways in several parts of Nepal, we have come to a situation where disruption of petroleum products for a week can bring the entire transport system to a standstill. But still, the transport sector energy consumption is less than 10% of the total energy use which means there is an abundant opportunity to develop environmentally sustainable and non-motorized transport system. Wide roads mistakenly considered ‘development’ not only drain government coffers heavily but promote problematic vehicle centric mobility. We need a people centric mobility strategy where walking, cycling, busing (electric) and light rail (electric) in that order will meet the mobility needs in cities and towns thereby not requiring cars and motorbikes. For long distance freight and passenger travel, electric rail networks should be built instead of much hyped ‘fast track’ roads.
Moreover, cities should be designed as such where essential services for people are within walking distance thus reducing need for transportation.
Food and Water
Widespread adoption of agro-ecological practice (both in rural and urban area) to grow food in which the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are not required will enhance food security. We can avoid use of fossil fuel in processing, packaging and transporting food by bringing the producers and consumers closer together which will in turn boost local economy. Even if a food grown is organic, if it travels hundreds of miles carrying large ‘food print’, its organic essence is lost.
Significant amount of energy is required for water use, example for pumping ground water, waste water treatment, bottling and in industrial processes. Solar pumps, natural treatment processes, avoiding use of bottled water, etc must become the central part of the water management strategy to avoid use of fossil fuel.
Buildings Construction and Operation
Buildings construction and operation consumes large amount of embodied and operational energy. Some studies have calculated that Nepal requires additional one million urban houses between the period of 2011 to 2021. At the business as usual scenario, per year 117 million bricks and 10% increase in cement use is required to meet the housing demand at the current urbanization rate. These calculations were made before the great earthquake of 2015 meaning the housing and construction material demand has increased. Both brick and cement are highly energy intensive and cause severe air pollution in the production process.
Use of low carbon construction materials-which emit less green house emission during production- that are locally available coupled with labor-intensive construction methods will reduce the embodied energy. Operational energy can be greatly reduced by use of energy efficient electrical appliances and natural warming/cooling methods. It requires an enabling policy environment to adopt such materials and technologies.
Industries and Manufacturing
The current energy consumption by industrial sector is just around 10% but as we aim to attain the middle income status within next decade, this sector will have to grow significantly. Growing industrial sector and manufacturing does not mean it has to rely on fossil fuel. Industrial and manufacturing energy need should be supplied by renewable energy. In addition, avoiding production and use of materials that embody large amount of energy, mainstreaming the culture of ‘reducing, reusing, and recycling’ will be imperative. Moreover, breaking the culture of consumerism which encourages waste of resources must be replaced with the culture of sharing.