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Clean Energy and the Ambiguity in National Documents

9 MIN READ

Clean Energy and the Ambiguity in National Documents

Nepal’s Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba addressed the World Leaders Summit in Glasgow on November 1, 2021, as the leader of Nepal’s delegation.

This summit is a part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s 26th Conference of Parties or popularly being known as COP26. Here, he affirmed Nepal’s commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2045.

He further stated, “We will ensure that 15% of our total energy demand is supplied from clean energy sources and maintain 45% of our country under forest cover by 2030”.

The Second Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), 2020 is the guiding document for this National Statement made by Deuba at the event.

Climate professionals have criticized the goals of this document as some being unrealistic and some being less ambitious.

Whether or not these goals are achievable is a matter for debate in and of itself. This article, however, focuses on the ambiguity in the NDC and other documents when addressing the energy sector, and it specifically asks what “clean energy” means in them.

The NDC is a non-binding document that countries under the Paris Agreement submit periodically where they highlight their efforts for climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Similarly, In the Nepal Energy Sector Assessment, Strategy, and Road Map report prepared by ADB, the primary energy supply mix in 2014 show the proportion of hydro as 3% and electricity as 1%. What does electricity mean here?

Under the Mitigation Component, Nepal has set the targets for the energy, Industrial Processes and Product Use (IPPU), Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU) and the waste sector. On the energy side of the second NDC, the two goals regarding energy generation are as follows:

“By 2030, expand clean energy generation from approximately 1,400 MW to 15,000 MW, of which 5-10 % will be generated from mini and micro-hydropower, solar, wind and bio-energy. Of this, 5,000 MW is an unconditional target. The remainder is dependent upon the provision of funding by the international community.”

“By 2030, ensure 15% of the total energy demand is supplied from clean energy sources.”

The description details that “Nepal categorizes mini and micro-hydropower (i.e. hydropower of less than 1MW capacity) and solar and wind as renewable energy.”

United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) defines renewables as “electricity generated by fuel sources that restore themselves over a short period of time and do not diminish”.

Although some renewable energy technologies have an environmental impact, according to the USEPA, renewables are regarded as environmentally preferable to traditional sources and, when replacing fossil fuels, have significant potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

There is no legal document in Nepal that specifically distinguishes between renewable and clean energy. The distinction between these two has also been a source of debate around the world.

Although prominent authorities have not provided a clear definition of clean energy, it is widely understood as the energy that emits minimal pollution in the form of carbon dioxide, radiation, or chemical pollutants which should have little to no effect on the environment.

Though mostly used as synonyms, some clean energy technologies might not be considered renewable and vice versa. For instance, nuclear power is commonly understood as non-renewable because the source of its energy U-235 (a type of uranium) is rare, however, it is accepted as a clean energy source as there is no emission in the electricity generation process.

Hydropower is renewable energy as running water from rivers is considered to be renewable. The definition provided by NDC and other national papers, however, includes mini hydropower (100KW to 1MW) and micro-hydro power (<100KW) only and not the small, medium, and large hydropower plants. Quite the contradiction, Nepal has included them in clean energy, while the opposite would have been true.

Why? By taking the example of hydropower, mini and micro hydropower are both renewable (as water sources can replenish) as well as clean (as it generates negligible pollutants) energy sources.

However, the medium and large hydropower projects, especially those that create impoundments or dams are associated with the emission of methane.

It should also be noted that methane is a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Currently, hydropower such as Kulekhani I (60 MW) and Kaligandaki A Hydroelectric Power Station (144 MW) block the natural course of rivers to create impoundment.

Many storage projects with individual capacities of hundreds of megawatts are currently in the planning and construction phases in Nepal, including the Budhi Gandaki Hydropower Project, the Uttar Ganga Storage Hydroelectric Project, and the Pancheswor Multipurpose Project. Apart from emissions due to impoundments, GHG emissions also occur in spillways and turbines of hydropower plants.

Nepal’s NDC seems to be unclear in terms of what constitutes renewable and what makes up clean energy.

Does NDC use renewable and clean energy as synonyms?

No. Because the definition clearly states “mini, micro-hydro, solar and wind as renewable energy”

Does NDC use clean energy as a subset of renewable energy?

The ambiguity in crucial documents demonstrates our lack of clarity in climate-related knowledge. To ensure that we have effective policies in place to mitigate and/or adapt to the effects of climate change, we must first have concrete and gap-free knowledge regarding climate change and the sciences surrounding it.

Also no. Because the document has stated the ambition to reach 15,000 MW energy generation, which would include small, medium and large hydropower projects.

Does NDC use renewable energy as a subset of clean energy?

Most probably. But this is not correct.

It is not only the NDC, but other information sources as well show ambiguity. The Official Portal of the Government of Nepal shares that in the country’s total energy consumption by fuel type, electricity contributes to 2% and renewable to 1%.

This information is confusing as it is not clear if the 2% energy from electricity comes from non-renewable sources or it is using electricity as a synonym to medium and larger hydropower.

Similarly, In the Nepal Energy Sector Assessment, Strategy, and Road Map report prepared by ADB, the primary energy supply mix in 2014 show the proportion of hydro as 3% and electricity as 1%. What does electricity mean here?

Is it the energy generated from renewable sources only? Isn’t the energy produced by hydro basically electricity?

‘Clean energy’ and ‘renewable energy’ are two terms that are commonly used in climate talks. Others such as ‘green energy’ are also emerging.

If these are not clearly defined, it would be difficult to expect plans to be comprehensible and actions to be well focused. In our case, if large hydropower plants are emitting GHGs, the need to reduce these emissions could be silenced if they are considered clean, therefore, defeating the purpose of mitigation.

The ambiguity in crucial documents demonstrates our lack of clarity in climate-related knowledge. To ensure that we have effective policies in place to mitigate and/or adapt to the effects of climate change, we must first have concrete and gap-free knowledge regarding climate change and the sciences surrounding it.

Maybe this or the coming COP can decide on a common definition of important terminologies so that the global effort for tackling climate change will be more focused and clearer.

(Aryal is a graduate student at the Central Department of Environmental Science, Tribhuvan University; and Pokharel is a researcher at ISET-Nepal)

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