Coastal, low-lying, and brimming with communities settled on rivers and waterways, Bangladesh is one of the world’s most climate vulnerable countries. Rising sea levels, increasingly powerful cyclones, and propensity for flooding are issues already affecting vast numbers of coastal residents, and experts predict these impacts could displace one in seven people in the country by 2050 — the year by which the international community has pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions under the Paris Agreement.
While Bangladesh has contributed a negligible amount to total global carbon emissions, it nonetheless finds itself bearing a significant burden of the resulting climate crisis. These dynamics characterize the country’s position on the frontlines of the climate justice movement.
While the Bangladesh government revises its coal-fired energy development plans — which have been developed and financed by Japan’s International Cooperation Agency (JICA) — a strong, youth-led climate justice movement in the country is calling for a Green New Deal entailing a complete pivot away from fossil fuels toward a renewable energy future.
Proponents for this transition argue that, instead of plans to replace coal developments with liquefied natural gas (LNG), Bangladesh should pursue a direct transition to 100 percent renewable energy. Under this proposal, such a transition would be facilitated by JICA’s withdrawal of coal financing substituted by funding for renewables, a move that would help to compensate for the social and environmental burdens associated with its support for fossil fuel development in Bangladesh.
Contextualizing the Call for Climate Justice
A pertinent component of Bangladesh’s climate story is the striking disparity between the scale of the country’s vulnerability to climate impacts and its relatively minimal culpability in creating the global crisis. Here, climate change is a serious and present issue already — but a collective international failure to limit global warming to between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius could lead to devastating and compounding ramifications, including widespread loss and damage of homes and assets, food and water insecurity, crop failure, biodiversity loss, intensified cyclones, and unlivable heatwaves.
Bangladesh is already facing an internal climate migration crisis, with growing numbers of coastal residents moving to Dhaka to resettle every year. Projections show that a sea level rise of just half a meter by 2050 would result in the loss of a further 11 percent of the country’s land mass and impact roughly 15 million people. The newly released IPCC report underlines these concerns, indicating that sea level rise in Asia has increased faster than the global average, and that both the annual and summer monsoon precipitation will increase in the South Asia region in the 21st century.
YouthNet for Climate Justice Bangladesh is a large youth network working to support vulnerable communities facing the climate crisis. The organization’s founder, Sohanur Rahman, said he became involved in the climate justice movement after witnessing the impacts of climate change on the ground. “As a coastal resident, I witnessed many tropical cyclones in my childhood. It had been very terrifying and many people lost their houses in my very own community due to climate-induced natural disasters,” he said.
“Developing countries like Bangladesh have the least contribution to the current climate catastrophe but are paying the highest level of cost of loss and damage each year. The future of my motherland, of my fellow young people, is at stake,” Rahman continued.
Energy Plans Under Revision Signal Change is Possible
One of the world’s fastest growing economies, Bangladesh aims to reach economically “developed” status by 2041, a goal that until recently was seemingly predicated on the expansion of coal-fired power. Even while the availability of financing for coal developments around the world rapidly dwindled, Bangladesh’s 2016 Power System Master Plan developed by JICA set a target of supplying 50 percent of its power through coal by 2030, and as recently as 2019, the country ranked sixth in the world for levels of coal power capacity in development.
Initial signs indicating a shift in the government’s energy plans came in June 2020, when the country’s Power, Energy and Minerals Minister Nasrul Hamid announced the government was reviewing 90 percent of coal projects in the development pipeline. It was then reported that the minister sought approval to convert infrastructure for 13 large coal fired power plants in development — whose capacity represented more than the country’s total current power consumption — into LNG-based plants.
In June 2021, Hamid announced the decision to drop plans for 10 coal-fired power plants and indicated an embrace of renewable energy development as part of Bangladesh’s commitment to the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) chaired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Environmentalists and renewable energy advocates welcomed these revisions, but criticisms remain regarding plans to replace them with LNG as well as the continued development of coal-fired plants under construction.
Further indications that the Bangladesh government is seriously reconsidering its fossil fuel-based power system are evident in its newly released 8th Five Year Plan (8FYP). The 8FYP clearly acknowledges overcapacity issues with the current energy system and stipulates the favorability of renewable energy development. However, JICA is still in the process of developing a separate plan — the Integrated Energy and Power Master Plan (IEPMP) — that will dictate the country’s direction for energy development for decades to come.
LNG Falls Short of Viability as a “Bridge Fuel”
While gas is often championed as a cleaner “bridge fuel” toward a decarbonized future, it is strongly opposed by environmentalists who point out that in examining the entire lifecycle of LNG, emissions are not any lower than emissions from coal.
Gas is composed primarily of methane, which is further separated at processing plants. The gas delivered through horizontal pipelines is usually a concentration of more than 90 percent methane. These pipelines are prone to leakage, and methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases: The IPCC estimates that the impact of methane on global warming is 87 times that of carbon dioxide over a 20 year period. This issue is further complicated by the common lack of transparency on behalf of gas companies when it comes to leakage and accidental events.
The establishment of infrastructure for new gas plants also presents further barriers to decarbonization in that arrangements for shutting down operations ahead of their approximate 30-year lifespan typically involves significant red tape. As a result, transitioning to gas would effectively lock in years of emissions.
Advocates of bypassing gas development also point out that if coal and gas developments proceed, Bangladesh will have 58 percent more power capacity than needed by 2030. This would increase the financial burden on both consumers and the Bangladesh Power Development Board, and see new plants left sitting idle.
The compound issues of existing overcapacity, financial burdens, and environmental impacts of coal and gas for Bangladesh indicate that master plans for energy development are more compatible with domestic and international finance interests than with the country’s aspirations for economic development, access to power, or poverty alleviation.
Fossil Fuels: Existing Environmental and Human Rights Burdens
Importantly, revisions to the government’s energy plans do not at present entail ceasing development of coal plants already under construction. The Rampal power plant is one of the 10 percent of coal plants previously slated for development that fall into this category. Fierce public opposition to the plant cites threats to the World Heritage-listed Sundarbans mangrove forest it is situated on, as well as forced displacements and human rights abuses associated with the plant.
Another plant that is already operational and is yet to face threats of closure is the 525 MW Barapukuria subcritical plant in northern Bangladesh. A case study found it had contaminated well water and irrigation systems in the area with toxic heavy metals, with lead levels 35 to 395 times higher than the World Health Organization’s drinking water standards, and chromium levels a staggering 8,025 to 18,675 times higher.
JICA currently provides significant funds to the sole public-owned project in Bangladesh, the controversial 1,200 MW Matabari coal plant under construction by the Japanese firm Sumitomo Corporation. Matabari is built on land previously used for shrimp farming, crops, and salt production — activities that supported livelihoods and food security needs for residents of Matabari — and opponents of the plant cite unlawful displacement of residents who were unable to attain adequate compensation as well as air pollution impacts that could cause up to 14,000 premature deaths in the surrounding area. JICA has received the green light to finance Matabari Phase 2, despite significant local opposition.
The Place for Foreign Finance in a Renewable Energy Future
The presence of foreign financing in Bangladesh’s energy development has been a major influence in the country’s energy development trajectory to date. Its 2016 Power System Master Plan is aligned with the economic interests of Japanese companies in selling coal and LNG power generation technologies to the developing nation.
In a press release from JICA addressing the upcoming integrated energy master plan in development for Bangladesh, the agency alluded to transitioning the country toward low or zero carbon energy, and referenced two climate-related Sustainable Development Goals.
While proponents for renewable energy in Bangladesh support this change in direction, they argue that Japan’s continued financial support for coal developments like Matabari undermine these purported efforts. Instead, JICA should support the people of Bangladesh by cutting off all coal finance and funding renewable energy development. Climate justice activists agree these promises should be accompanied by significant financial assistance.
“These plans require funding from international, regional, public and private sources to achieve the target,” said Rahman of YouthNet. “Polluter countries built on fossil fuels must provide reparations to Bangladesh for its planned renewable energy development and climate mitigation,” he continued.
Climate justice. in principle, calls for the fair consideration of a country’s contributions to global carbon emissions in relation to its climate vulnerability, reparations for loss and damage incurred so far, as well as assistance with the costs of future mitigation and adaptation. In Bangladesh, activists emphasize the need for a multifaceted response that includes progressive government policy as well as climate financing for clean energy development from notorious foreign fossil fuel financiers.
The Case for a Green New Deal in Bangladesh
Despite its recent fossil fuel-fired development ambitions, Bangladesh is indeed a prime candidate, and existing world leader, for decentralized solar power systems. It is home to the world’s largest and longest running off-grid solar power program, which began as a rural household pilot in 2003 and at its peak provided power to 16 percent of the country’s population — about 20 million people. The program was found to have reduced emissions by 9.6 million tonnes between 2003 and 2018, with Power, Energy and Minerals Minister Hamid describing the Solar Home Systems (SHS) program as crucial in achieving the country’s vision of “electricity for all.”
Rahman of YouthNet Bangladesh said the SHS system was made viable and affordable through a competitive business model that employed consumer friendly financing. For climate and renewable energy advocates, a Green New Deal for Bangladesh would entail the conversion of land currently under revision for coal development directly into renewable energy development by 2050. With adequate foreign financial support and political will, they argue Bangladesh can and should bypass gas altogether.
“It is high time to create a Green New Deal for Bangladesh by knocking out dirty coal and transitioning into renewable sources instead of LNG in the energy master plan,” said Rahman.
Bangladesh’s Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Authority (SREDA) has drafted a solar energy plan that recommends the government ramp up solar energy development to 40,000 MW by 2041 through small, modular solar power stations. Supporters of the plan say the transition would align the country’s power capacity additions with demand for power, and, citing a similar pilot in India, suggest it would result in a reduction in overall power costs as tariffs on solar energy drop and the cost of batteries to stabilize energy grids continue to become more affordable. Upgrades to current grids would also bring more efficiency to existing capacity, in turn alleviating some of the overcapacity issues.
“A report by the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology in Sydney completed a long-term scenario analysis, taking into consideration Bangladesh’s land constraints, which showed that renewable energy production can reach 33 percent by 2030,” said Rahman.
Echoing the calls of climate justice activists, Simon Nicholas of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) describes JICA’s current position in developing Bangladesh’s energy plan as a “platinum opportunity,” calling for the agency to prioritize grid investments, adhere to realistic forecasts for power demand, scale up renewable energy development, roll out power storage technologies, abandon coal fired plants in the pipeline — including Matabari 2 — and reverse suggestions to replace coal proposals with LNG plants.
For Rahman, his colleagues in the climate justice movement, as well as energy policy experts, leaning on LNG and allowing coal plants already under construction to continue dampens the government’s announcements in support of renewable energy, undermines Paris Agreement targets, and maintains the status quo for the country’s energy sovereignty.
At a significant time for the global climate movement and Bangladesh’s energy trajectory, the country has the opportunity to instead lead a renewable energy revolution for the region and in the process tackle the twin crises of inequality and climate change.