World Environment Day on 5 June is being marked amidst a COVID-19 lockdown, offering Nepal a chance to ‘build back greener’.
With right new policies, the country can turn a new leaf on the economy, and reorient itself on a sustainable growth path by switching to sustainable energy. Alas, Finance Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada’s budget last week showed that the country is headed to business as usual once the lockdown is over.
He hiked the tax on electric vehicles five fold, throwing a monkey wrench into any hope of a green growth model. At a time when countries around the world are switching to electric transport, cities are building new bicycle lanes, Nepal has regressed to increasing fossil fuel use.
In 2018/19, Nepal’s import of petroleum products was at Rs200 billion — 2.2 times higher than the country’s total income from all exports. Cutting diesel and petrol consumption by even 10% would save the country Rs20 billion a year, use domestically generated electricity that would otherwise be wasted, reduce air pollution and improve public health. In May alone, the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) lost an estimated $15 million in ‘spilled’ energy.
“As the government forges efforts to build back the economy amidst the coronavirus crisis, these are important times to think ahead and consider options that enable us to also build back greener and better,” says the World Bank’s country manager for Nepal, Faris Hadad-Zervos in a write up in this paper on World Environment Day.
NEA chief Kulman Ghising had been pushing the Finance Ministry to reduce the tax on induction stoves, electric kitchen appliances and other plug-in devices. He is worried current surplus power is already being wasted, and the 1,300MW of electricity that NEA and private power producers are going to added to the grid in the coming year will have no customers.
Khatiwada reduced the tax on Snickers and Mars bars, but not on electrical appliances and vehciles. Activists say that even if he kept a tax on electric luxury SUVs he could have given tax breaks for battery-powered buses.
There are other benefits to reducing pollution. The main complaint tourists make about Nepal is about air quality in Kathmandu. Many young Nepali professionals list health hazards due to pollution as a big reason for emigrating.
The marked improvement in air quality in the past two months of lockdown showed it can be done. Switching to electric transport will not happen overnight, but enforcing emission tests would show immediate results. If breathalysers can stop drunk driving, police can easily extend that to testing and fining polluting vehicles.
However, Kathmandu’s air quality did not improve as much as expected, and one reason is that vehicular emissions makeup only 34% of suspended fine particulate matter in the city air. Brick kiln smoke as seen in photo (above) taken near Taudaha last month, and open garbage burning make up most of the rest.
The budget speech could have subsidised viable alternatives like compressed stabilised earth bricks, or taxed the stacks right out of the Valley. But it didn’t.
Then there is water pollution. Bagmati can be turned into a river again by expediting the much-delayed sewer mains to divert city drains to the proposed water treatment plant in Chobar. The garbage problem can also be solved. Sixty percent of Kathmandu’s trash is still biodegradable and can be converted and sold as compost. Of the rest, most is plastic that can either be recycled, or reduced at source by enforcing past bans on single use plastic thinner than 30 microns.
This is not day-dreaming, all these measures are easily and quickly do-able. They just require political will that was sorely lacking in the Finance Minister’s budget speech last week.