Bangladesh is truly a climate success story
Ffifty years ago, Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan amid a devastating climate disaster. The year before, in 1970, Cyclone Bhola had killed up to half a million people. The human toll of the disaster – one of the deadliest cyclones in recorded history – has been magnified by a woefully inadequate response from the Pakistani government. In the face of renewed demands for independence in what was then East Pakistan, the military carried out brutal repression and genocide. During the War of Independence, hundreds of thousands of people were killed, around 200,000 women were raped and 6 million homes were destroyed.
From those beginnings, Bangladesh has remained, in the imagination of much of the developed world, a poster of poverty and looming climate catastrophe – a warning of what will happen to the world’s poor if climate change doesn’t. is not addressed.
The low altitude and high population density of the country make it particularly vulnerable to sea level rise and natural hazards such as cyclones. But Bangladesh’s narrative as a pending climate victim is almost entirely misinformed. From the struggle for independence to today, as I wrote recently for Revolutionary JournalBangladesh is in fact a success story, demonstrating the power of self-determination in development and climate policy.
A precise story of Bangladesh’s recent development is expected to start with natural gas. The country’s internal wealth of resources has been the driving force behind its modernization.
In 1974, the government nationalized Bangladesh’s energy resources, but rather than selling its gas abroad, the country chose to keep much of it. And rather than using the gas for domestic consumption, the authorities channeled it into activities such as power generation for industrial growth, fertilizer sector development, water supply for irrigation. and cement production.
This, in turn, fueled a dramatic expansion in agricultural production, and by 2019 Bangladesh was self-sufficient in food and had also become a major exporter of textiles, clothing and leather products. Its economy is now the fastest growing in South Asia, but with natural gas making up over 60% of its primary energy use, the country is greener than many of its neighbors, such as India, which is more dependent on coal. Along with these economic advances, Bangladesh reduced both extreme poverty and child mortality by around 70% between 1990 and 2016. Life expectancy is only seven years below that of the United States. . In 2015, Bangladesh’s progress was recognized by the World Bank, which elevated it to the rank of “lower middle income” country.
Bangladesh has also adapted to climate change through improved forecasting, community-wide public training and education campaigns, and investments in infrastructure. As a result, the death toll from cyclones since Bhola has risen to two or three digits in recent years. These casualties are still tragic, but far from the shocking human cost of half a century ago. Of course, these adaptation efforts have their limits, especially as the effects of climate change worsen, but Bangladesh has gained time to make an energy transition without compromising the needs of its population.
Mmuch of Bangladesh’s growth model has flown in the face of recommendations from international development institutions, well-meaning NGOs and global environmental groups.
The International Monetary Fund, for example, has long criticized subsidies such as those Bangladesh uses in the energy sector, downplaying the benefits that the combination of these and domestic use of gas has brought to the economy. economy of Bangladesh. Others urged diversification of countries’ economies and energy sectors to reduce carbon emissions, generally touting investments in “greener” energy sectors and phasing out fossil fuels, including natural gas. Still others argue that for low-lying countries to survive global warming, significant reductions in energy use are needed now.
But generic recommendations didn’t make much sense for Bangladesh in the past. And in the future, they could be even further away from the base.
On the one hand, although the nation has opportunities for hydropower, harnessing it will not be possible without the large-scale displacement of communities. The potential for wind and solar power is also limited: most of Bangladesh’s land is fertile and needed for food production, while unused non-agricultural land is scarce.
In addition, to lift millions more out of poverty and raise living standards across the country, Bangladesh needs to produce and consume much more energy, which means that some imagined a reduction in energy consumption. is no longer possible.
In short, Bangladesh illustrates why priorities at the international level are not always appropriate at the local level. For countries like Bangladesh, the question should not be how to phase out fossil fuels the fastest, but how to make the best and cleanest use of them – and the infrastructure around them.
This will require continuing to prioritize the productive domestic use of the country’s remaining natural gas reserves and finding ways to use the infrastructure, resources and knowledge of this sector to harness energy sources. cleaner that make sense for local circumstances, such as geothermal and hydrogen.
Geothermal energy has been used in many countries for heat and power generation, but it does not represent a very large share of total global energy production, mainly due to the high cost of the required infrastructure. However, the use of oil and gas exploration wells and depleted wells for the production of geothermal heat and electricity is becoming possible, as a recent study by my colleagues and I showed. Hydrogen, meanwhile, became an important part of the energy industry in the mid-20th century, but has recently received renewed attention as a potential replacement for oil and gas. As with geothermal energy, Bangladesh’s existing infrastructure could be reused in several ways to support a hydrogen economy: already, half of the world’s hydrogen is produced with natural gas.
Granted, all of this would require huge investments, but Bangladesh, with its well-developed gas sector, has opportunities to switch to geothermal and hydrogen over time, and in a manner consistent with its climate and development goals. . But to achieve this, the two imperatives must be taken equally seriously, and the actors best placed to balance them are local.
Ta vision of Bangladesh because a place about to be submerged by rising waters is outdated, just as the idea that it could quickly switch to renewables is unrealistic. In the 50 years since Cyclone Bhola, the country has made its way to development using natural gas. Rushing away from this path would lock up the nation’s fossil fuel resources and undermine its hard-won sovereignty and development gains.
For countries like Bangladesh, fossil fuels cannot be abandoned overnight, at least not in a global climate change mitigation framework that might be called sustainable or fair. The transition to a low-carbon economy in less developed countries should go as fast as possible and not faster, which means affordable and abundant energy services, along with all the economic and human development benefits that come with it. , cannot be abandoned in pursuit of climate change mitigation objectives.
There will be multiple models of transition, all deeply linked to development imperatives, local histories, governance and resource endowments. Choices must be made democratically. They must respect sovereignty. And they must enable developing countries to build the technology, infrastructure and institutions they need to chart their own course.