Experts doing target preparations to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goals claim that falsified reports and bureaucracy are derailing their efforts to mitigate climate change. The Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) refer to Sri Lanka’s climate action plans to cut down greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and so on. Sri Lanka released their first NDCs in 2016 with [...]


Lanka lags behind on its climate commitments, mainly due to defects in policy implementation


(Above) The Puttalam wind farm, (below) paddy farming contributes to high GHG levels (Pix by Jayarathna Wikramaarachchi and Hiran Priyankara Jayasinghe)

Experts doing target preparations to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goals claim that falsified reports and bureaucracy are derailing their efforts to mitigate climate change. The Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) refer to Sri Lanka’s climate action plans to cut down greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and so on.

Sri Lanka released their first NDCs in 2016 with a revised version in July 2021. However, an investigation by the Sunday Times revealed that, despite highly-praised and ambitious commitments, defects in implementation that derailed the 2016 commitments are likely to also hinder the 2021 pledges.

The 2016 NDCs committed to a 60% renewable energy target in 2020. Fifty percent of the total installed power generation capacity in 2019 consisted of renewable energy. However, Sri Lanka’s energy portfolio in 2021 only boasts a 35% use of renewable energy to meet electricity demands. This marks a decrease from the 50% renewable energy usage that existed in 2016.

“The 60% target was not mentioned in the technical committee reports made during the commitment-forming phase of 2016,” said one energy expert, adding that the distortion of targets and commitments for diplomatic and political reasons was a common practice among policymakers. “These studies are done extremely diligently so the technical committee is well aware of the gestation time limitations for a policy to be implemented. No expert would even have dreamed of a 10% increase in renewable energy in four years.”

Many things are changed after final submission, the source continued. Only one out of the six NDCs set in 2016 were fully achieved and three were started. The same obstacles stand.

“The government machinery is frozen in its bureaucracy,” he pointed out. Anytime work is initiated on the ground, “corrupt” regional politicians demand compensation. Billions worth of investments are necessary to even begin to achieve the commitments set for 2030. As of now, however, “not a single cent” is invested in research of these mechanisms.

While the 2021 NDC report was more quantifiable and target-oriented than the 2016 one, the team behind it is handicapped by insufficient information and data. “There simply isn’t enough investment into the research aspect of environmental policymaking,” said another source, requesting anonymity. “So there isn’t enough information against which we can set baselines or measurable standards.”   

“Political statements can’t make policies successful without public investment and money,” she said. “Sri Lanka is suffering disproportionately where the climate is concerned but is still committing to the Paris Agreement. But much of this is conditional and we as a country can only invest in part, so we need financial and technological support.”

“The NDCs are intentionally vague,” the source noted, adding that this was because “We had to leave room for the country’s development too.” The recent public move towards more sustainable business practices has improved since it is more economic to do so.

The Ministry of Environment says Sri Lanka’s CO2 emissions increased from 29 million tonnes to 31 million tonnes from 2016 to 2021. The highest contributing sectors were transport, power and energy, and agriculture.

Meanwhile, experts had expected the agricultural sector to meet emission reduction proposals with skepticism as it may affect efficiency and cultural practices. “But we saw that they were more than happy to help, and chicken farmers, for example, were glad to comply with investments into bio-gas production in every farm,” the source noted.

Precision agriculture and the move away from high nitrogen fertiliser, which is 20 times worse than carbon and causes water and air pollution, were already in motion. A significant step was the adoption of the ‘Colombo Declaration on Sustainable Nitrogen Management’ with an ambition to halve nitrogen waste by 2030. “The recent ban of chemical fertiliser was only a shock move because of its leapfrog nature but the industry had been in transition.”

Agriculture was not included in the 2016 NDCs. The 2021 submission adopted a broader view. Progress quantification is still difficult, however, as the agricultural NDCs were assessed from an adaptation point of view. “It would be a bit unfair to try to monitor progress since 2016, but it will be possible in a few years since NDCs have been identified in the 2021 document,” the source said.

The principal activities contributing to the GHG levels in Sri Lanka are paddy production and livestock farming. “Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, our emission levels are not being estimated accurately,” noted Buddhi Marambe, Senior Professor in Crop Science, Faculty of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya.

He feels available estimates are not a fair representation as they are based on the overall paddy fields in Sri Lanka, a total of 1.1mn hectares. But not all of that is responsible for methane emissions, Prof Marambe says. The significant contributors are paddy cultivated in bog soil and half bog soil which contain high levels of decomposing organic matter that trap methane below its surface.

Research by Prof Marambe and Dr Ranjith Punyawardena in 2020 found that only about 58,000 hectares of rice is grown on these types of soil. “The emissions from other fields are extremely low,” Prof Marambe said. “So, if at all, organic water-rich waterlogged soils are the issue.”

For an accurate estimate, the paddy fields must be separated between bog soils and half bog soils against cultivation as a whole. Even for livestock-related emissions calculations, Sri Lanka still uses European Union emission factors, which are again unfair to the country. A student-led research to devise a method to calculate emissions taking into account Lankan parameters had to be abandoned owing to the pandemic.

Sri Lanka needs heavy technological assistance if it is to strike a balance between development and achieving the NDCs, Prof Marambe said. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s recent address at the UN Food Summit highlighting an immediate move towards organic farming, therefore, was a concern. “Unless these technological interventions, which naturally cost a lot, are introduced, achieving these goals by 2030 might not be possible,” he warned.

Forest cover targets set for 2030 remained at 32% but the type of land included in this percentage had been changed to include plantations. “This won’t be a problem for the NDCs since the goal is reduced carbon, which even a rubber plantation will do,” an expert source said. However, the depletion of climax forests poses risks of other environmental tragedies like the loss of endemic species and increases in human-wild animal conflicts.

Energy sector plans

Close to 50% of Sri Lanka’s energy is made up of renewable energy, said Anil Jasinghe, Secretary, Ministry of Environment, adding that swift measures were underway to increase renewable energy creation and use.

Multiple wind power and solar power projects were started during 2016-2020. A large scale 100MW plant, the Mannar Wind Power (Thambapawani), commenced commercial operations on May 6, 2021. Activities began to implement the second phase of the 200MW Mannar Wind Farm in 2025 and Pooneryn 240 MW wind farm in 2023-2025.

Sri Lanka has also begun projects to increase solar electricity generation capacity through public-private partnerships and the adaptation of currently available technology. The environmental impact assessment of the Siyambalanduwa Solar Power Park was concluded and the call request for proposals will commence at the end of this month with a plan to commission the plant in 2023.

An Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) is in progress to implement the 150MW Solar Park in Pooneryn. Other solar power projects under the US$ 100mn Indian Credit Line are in progress. Another 363MW was added to the national grid by the Solar Roof Top Programme, and the government hopes to add a further 120 MW through the same project. Nearly 600MW is expected to be developed as small-scale solar power plants by 2030.

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