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FEATURE: Where does Bangladesh climate policy go, after Paris?

CDKN’s Miren Gutierrez investigates the development trade-offs under hot discussion in Bangladesh as the country contemplates delivering its national climate commitments, following the Paris conference (COP21). 

As countries continue devising their climate action plans, aid for developing countries in order to mitigate and adapt to climate change remains on the negotiating table. For nations like Bangladesh–very much at risk from rising sea levels and other hazards—this is a key and complex issue.

Bangladesh is one of the planet’s most densely populated countries, situated over the large delta where three of Asia’s biggest rivers–Brahmaputra, Ganges and Meghna— meet. While cyclones and flooding have always been a part of life, they now appear more frequent and less predictable. River erosion has intensified and the sea levels have risen, carrying salty water farther inshore. In many places, life as people knew has disappeared.

For example, Bangladesh relies almost completely on groundwater for drinking provisions. Pumping water causes the land to sink; so as sea level rises, the risk of flooding increases even more. The country’s climate scientists have concluded that ‘by 2050, rising sea levels will inundate some 17% of the land and displace about 18 million people’, according to the report ‘Borrowed Time on Disappearing Land’, published in 2014 by The New York Times.

In the face of such challenges, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina warned in 2014 that, although Bangladesh was working on plans to face climate change, ´new and additional resources will be needed for their implementation´.

In the wake of the Paris Climate Conference, the dilemma is not only about the sums that are to be committed as aid, but also how much of this aid is to be translated into policy and practices to cut emissions by shifting to green energy and conserve carbon reservoirs.

However, both challenges require different strategies and perspectives.

Bangladesh’s climate plans include adaptation and mitigation strategies, but will that be enough? And are they compatible? Adaptation is country specific, or even local specific, ‘but mitigation demands collective efforts of global communities,’ says the paper ‘Climate change, sea level rise and coastal vulnerabilities of Bangladesh with adaptation options’ authored by Lokman Hossain and Mohammed Kamal Hossain.

“If Bangladesh stops its total CO2 emissions at once,” conclude the same authors, the problem (climate change) will remain at the same extent, because it is an outcome of excess greenhouse gas emitting countries. Bangladesh is not self-sufficient to face such a large scale problem, either. So, global initiative should be taken to save the country, as it is a global problem, to a greater extent.”

As preparation for the climate summit, all countries worked on their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). The objective was to create a new international climate agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that puts the world on a path toward a low-carbon, climate-resilient future. Developing INDCs was a process that identified these efforts, and analysed where there was potential to increase ambition domestically so all countries can work collectively towards reducing emissions.

But what do INDCs actually mean to a country like Bangladesh? Were they just about fulfilling an international requirement? Not quite.

“Sometimes you need to tick a box if you want to have your foot on the door. But once that is done, let´s talk about what others have to offer,” said Kashmala Shahab Kakakhel, an expert and a board member of Climate Action Network (CAN) International. She is the former head of the CDKN initiative to advise the government of Bangladesh in preparing its INDCs.

“Bangladesh is one of the best examples globally of community-based adaptation. They have been taking care of themselves. It also leads the Least Developed Countries (LDC) group in issues such as loss and damage and climate finance. It comes to no surprise that premier (Sheikh Hasina) committed in NY, at the UN climate summit (last year), to realistic INDCs,” added Kakakhel.

Indeed, after every cyclone or flood, people in Bangladesh have rebuilt their homes, they have learned to grow rice and other crops in new ways, they have tried new farming methods to deal with salty water, or they have moved further inland and migrated.

Further efforts are being requested of Bangladesh, but “the idea is that your INDCs don’t hamper your growth, and Bangladesh is committed to becoming a Middle Income Country by 2021… Bangladesh can invest in renewables, put in place mitigation strategies with adaptation co-benefits, etc. and still prosper along an economic trajectory that commits to not go above the 2 tons per capita limit,” said Kakakhel [Editor: to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, experts estimate that by the middle of this century, average per capita emissions around the world must level out at 2 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent – ‘The Science of Climate Change’ explains more].

INDCs were expected to work combining parts of a top-down system (in which countries together aspire decrease global emissions enough to control mean global temperature rise to 2 degrees C), with a bottom-up system (in which countries set forth their contributions in the framework of their priorities, conditions and capabilities). As a result, it is hoped that INDCs, combined, create a productive response synergy between national and international decision-making on climate change.

In the case of Bangladesh, “the bottom up approach refers to the individual actions on the ground that are good practice for replication at country level. Initiatives that, accumulated, result in a reduction of emissions,” she said. “For example: energy efficient systems in transport systems or LED lighting or the one million households that use solar[1]. While the top down approach consist of reviewing the total net emissions and an objective of where it needs to be to meet targets collectively. And then walk backwards towards those targets.”

Bangladesh has access to climate finance through the Climate Change Trust Fund (government) and the Climate Change Resilience Fund (multiple donors), which could help channel funds towards climate strategies.

But according to Kakakhel, this is not only a question of funds. “There is the transfer of needed technology, intellectual property rights, but also the level of preparedness in the country. Bangladesh needs money, but has to know for what. If you don´t plan properly and allow people to build houses in a flooding zone, it is not a question of putting the blame on climate change. You have to take ownership of your problems.”

For Nazneen Ahmed, of BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, Bangladesh´s efforts to shift to low-carbon growth are already “evidenced by the formation of the Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Authority (SREDA) and also in the formulation of a number of plans and policies. For example, Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan 2009, Energy Efficiency and Conservation Master Plan 2030, and the Renewable Energy Policy 2008 that targets 10 percent of total electricity generation from renewable sources by 2020.”

However, how Bangladesh intends to exactly reduce greenhouse gas emissions “becomes unclear particularly in the face of the Rampal power plant issue,” she adds in an op-ed in The Daily Star. “This is because the potential threat Bangladesh poses to the Sundarbans by allowing the construction of the Rampal power plant contradicts its INDCs statement to the UNFCC, in which it recognised ecosystem conservation as a mitigation action – subject to the availability of external resources – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

The 1320 megawatt coal-fired power station at Rampal Upazila –a joint partnership between India´s state owned National Thermal Power Corporation and Bangladesh Power Development Board— has generated criticism as the proposed project is been planned on an area close to the world´s largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans, which is a UNESCO world heritage site.

In its INDC, Bangladesh projected the costs of ecosystem-based adaptation and conservation measures for 2015 to 2030 to be $3.5 billion –a figure which the country is probably expecting to meet with foreign aid. ´If natural ecosystems like the Sundarbans, which constitutes around 50% of the country’s reserved forests, are lost as a result of short-sighted and expedient policies like the Rampal, what would Bangladesh´s stance be in the global aid discourse?´ wonders the expert.

Ahmed warns also about the importance of the Sundarbans as a significant carbon sink, since the carbon storage capacity per square kilometre of coastal marine habitats, including mangroves, is 50 times higher than that of tropical forests, according to a report by IUCN.

Bangladesh is also developing coal power plants that are supposed to be “carbon neutral” as part of its climate change strategy and action plan (known as BCCSAP), and they have been added to the country’s INDC. However, Climate Home reports a slow progress in a January report.

Like in other countries, the implementation of the INDC is indeed a challenge in Bangladesh that has to do with developing without compromising both the economic and social development, future livelihoods and the environment.

Meanwhile UNDP is supporting the development of a National Adaptation Programme (NAP), which will be integrated with its INDC and BCCSAP; GIZ is revising the BCCSAP and updating it, adding more localised vulnerability assessments; and CDKN is supporting development of mitigation related sectoral action plans for energy, industry and transport sector from INDC, says Areej Riaz, Country Programme Manager at CDKN and Climate Finance and Readiness focal person at LEAD Pakistan.. “Although this shows momentum, there are many externalities yet to be considered,” she concludes.

Image: Bangladeshi woman, credit Amir Jina,

[1] The Bangladeshi government aspires to deliver electricity to all households by 2021. With financial support from the World Bank and other donors, it intends to generate 220 megawatts of electricity for around 6 million households by 2017 by way of a solar home system programme.

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