Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Mitigation of global warming

There are very few journalists and even less editors in Nepal who know what they are talking about when it comes to the environment, energy, and climate change. Kunda Dixit, the editor of Nepali Times weekly, is one of those few who can be trusted on the issues of environment and its politics and everything in between. He was a scientist before he became a journalist, researching the microbiological pathways of making biogas work in cold climates. His book, Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered is used as a textbook in journalism schools all over the world to train scribes to write more intelligently about environment and development issues. A graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York, he is the authority in Nepali media to talk on climate change and global warming.

myrepublica.com caught up with him to ask about the basics of climate changes, environment degradations, and what it means for us in our lifetime.

What is climate change, and how does it affect Nepal? How vulnerable are we?

There is now three times more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than during the pre-Industrial Age. This has accelerated the earth’s natural warming trends after the last mini-Ice Age. You don’t have to be a scientist to see how it is affecting us. Glacial retreat is now a fact of life. We don’t know if this winter’s unprecedented eight-month drought was caused by climate change, but something is definitely wrong with our weather patterns, especially the timing of the monsoons and winter precipitation. The Imja Glacier now has a lake three kilometers long where there was just ice 30 years ago. For us, global warming is now a fact of life. And of death, because swelling glacial lakes have burst, killing people. The simulations show that Himalayan rivers will flood in spring in the coming decades as the ice above the snowline melts, and then go dry when there is nothing to melt. We don’t know when this will happen, but when it does, it will be catastrophic. We all depend on melting snows in spring for agriculture.

It seems people in Kathmandu don’t really care until it hits them hard. How does climate change affect the residents of Kathmandu, if it does?

We have to be careful. There is a tendency these days to blame everything – from Kathmandu’s water crisis and the garbage on the streets – on climate change. Like all cities, Kathmandu sucks resources and it burns fossil carbon. It should be worried because it is the REASON for climate change. We need to be worried about the fossil fuel we burn and pump into the atmosphere not just because it enlarges our carbon footprint but because it is economically unviable. For a country that has so much hydropower to import petroleum is bad economics, forget about bad for ecology.

Fifty years ago, we should have gone for electric trains, cargo ropeways, and urban electric transport. It makes economic sense because we reduce our petroleum import bill – and fuel is going to get more and more expensive as we approach peak oil use – it doesn’t pollute, it uses renewable energy, it is cheaper. It’s still not too late. We need to go electric not to save the planet, but to save ourselves. Electric vehicles are now made in Nepal, the Finance Ministry needs to immediately reduce the tax on electric vans and buses and battery-operated cars.

What is Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF), and how vulnerable are we in Nepal?

There are more than 200 glacial lakes in Nepal that are growing dangerously because of melting permafrost. When you walk along the moraines of Ngozumba or Khumbu, you see that this is nothing new: Nepal’s glaciers have been retreating for centuries after the last Ice Age. What glaciologists say is that the melting trend has increased dramatically in the past 50 years. When these lakes burst through the terminal wall of the glacier in an outburst flood (GLOF), valleys downstream are ravaged. The worst case scenario is a magnitude-eight earthquake in eastern Nepal that could cause dozens of glacial lakes, swollen by global warming, to burst simultaneously. We must plan for these disasters.

Nepal is such a small contributor to global warming. Why should it even matter to us at all?

It matters to us and it matters to the 1.5 billion people in Asia who depend directly on the rivers fed by melting ice in the “water towers” of the Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau. If the mass balance of this ice goes negative, the entire region will be affected. In fact, river flows are already affected. But we need more data to give us a better idea of what to plan for. Countries in the region also need better trans-boundary early warning so when a glacial lake bursts behind Mt Everest, villages on the Nepali side are warned in time.

It is thought that with so much forest covering 40 per cent of the land, Nepal was pretty much covered? Does it count for nothing, then?

Forest cover has increased in the mid-hills, but it is being depleted dramatically in the Tarai and the high mountains because of demand from across the border in India and Tibet. This is a serious, irreversible loss. In the Tarai, pretty soon the only forests left will be in the national parks, and even these are being encroached upon. When you see slow-growing pine logs being smuggled into Tibet by our impoverished highlanders to be bartered for Chinese rice, you feel like weeping.

What is carbon trading, and are we making money from it?

The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) allows developing countries cash rewards for taking action that will either increase carbon sinks or lessen fossil carbon emissions. We earn about US$3 million a year from our biogas program that reduces the use of kerosene. But the CDM does not compensate us for our community forests which has increased canopy cover by 20 percent in the past 20 years in the mid-hills because the CDM absurdly rewards only new plantations.

How does media cover environment in general? Do we know enough about climate change?

There are some bright spots, but the media either ignores climate change or blames everything on it. There is very little scientific background knowledge about the causes and effects, and the coverage is, therefore, erratic and sloppy.

What is the single largest threat to environment in Nepal?

All natural systems are interlinked. We are living in the most densely populated mountain region in the world, but these mountains are also the youngest and most fragile. Even without global warming, we have problems like deforestation-induced landslides, erosion, water sources going dry. Overexploitation of groundwater, uncontrolled sand and boulder mining on river beds which increases river velocity during floods.

And then there are all the other results of unplanned and unregulated urbanization: rivers polluted by untreated city waste, agrochemicals poisoning the land and water, lack of emission control dirtying the air. Nepal’s eco-systems were fragile even without global warming. Climate change just magnifies all the problems we have many times over. How to ensure that the changes of climate change are not too drastic and global average temperatures don’t rise more than two degrees is not in our hands. It is in the hands of the big polluters, two of whom are our next-door neighbors.

What can individuals do to improve the situation?

For many of us who live in countries in the periphery like Nepal, there is a real feeling that we don’t just have to suffer for someone else’s crime for global warming but we actually have to pay for them as well. But we have to stop blaming the government and the rich countries all the time and change our own lifestyles first. We need to install solar systems in our homes not just to save our planet but because winter load-shedding will be around for the next 10 years. Ride in electric transport not because it is cool but because it makes economic sense. Reduce your household use of energy and water. Harvest rainwater. Ride a bicycle where possible. Compost biodegradable waste and start a kitchen garden. Plant trees wherever you can



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