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 November 19, 2013
World's most vulnerable nation to climate change turns to coal power

 In October, a global risks analysis company, Maplecroft, named Bangladesh the world's most vulnerable nation to climate change by 2050. The designation came as little surprise, since Bangladesh's government and experts have been warning for years of climatic impacts, including rising sea levels, extreme weather, and millions of refugees. However, despite these very public warnings, in recent years the same government has made a sudden turn toward coal power---the most carbon intensive fuel source---with a master plan of installing 15,000 megawatts (MW) of coal energy by 2030, which could potentially increase the country's current carbon dioxide emissions by 160 percent.

"Bangladesh is now capable of generating 10,213MW electricity," Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recently said at a ceremony where she laid foundation stones for seven new coal plants. "By December, this will rise to 10,289MW. By January, an additional 770MW power will be added to the national grid."

The government is moving rapidly to bring more power to an energy-starved nation where over half the population doesn't have access to electricity. But the decision to move to coal power---and not other alternatives---has sparked criticism in a nation where 17 percent of its landmass could vanish underwater as the oceans rise, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), not to mention higher storm surges and more severe tropical storms.

"Bangladesh is facing climate change related disasters (Cyclones Aila and Sidr etc.) regularly," environment scientist, Abdullah Harun Chowdhury with Khulna University, told mongabay.com.

Already, one of the proposed coal plants, the Rampal power plant, has led to strong opposition in Bangladesh, including a five-day long march that attracted some 20,000 people, according to organizers. Critics say the Rampal project puts the Sundarbans---the world's largest mangrove forest---at risk. But it's not just Rampal: the Bangladesh government is currently planning around a dozen new coal plants across the country.

According to engineer and activist with Southeast Asia Renewable Energy People's Assembly (SEAREPA), Mowdud Rahman, the government's decision to move toward coal "came as an utter surprise to all."

In 2010, the government released the Power System Master Plan, which for the first time put forward the goal of generating 50 percent of Bangladesh's energy via coal power by 2030. Such a transition would be extreme: in 2010 coal power made up less than 1 percent of Bangladesh's total energy output. But in less than 20 years the master plan reads that coal should be "the primary energy supply."

"We have no effective policy to adopt technological improvement and efficiency enhancement in energy production rather we see only increasing dependency on coal," Rahman says of the report, adding "we are not seeing any development in renewable energy sector or exploring gas reserve."

A standard 500 megawatt coal plant emits about 3.3 million tonnes of carbon annually (depending on the type of coal burned), according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Therefore, building 15,000 megawatts of coal power plants could lead to an additional 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere every year, more than doubling the country's current emissions of 61 million tonnes (2011 data).

However, Bangladesh's master plan says it will mitigate these emissions by around 12 percent using "Ultra Super Critical (USC) technology as a part of the Clean Coal Technology." In addition, even if the coal plants are built Bangladesh's per capita emissions would still be significantly below many rich countries'.

In the report, the Bangladeshi government pledged to feed nearly 60 percent of this new coal energy with domestic coal sources. Currently, Bangladesh has only a single coal mine capable of producing around 1 million tonnes a year, but to hit their target the government would need to mine over 33 million tonnes annually within less than 20 years. This would require opening up vast new mines across Bangladesh, an issue that has resulted in large-scale protests in the past. In 2006, three were killed and hundreds injured when police opened fire on protesters against a proposed coal mine in Phulbari run by UK company, Global Coal Management (GCM).

Bangladesh's rush to coal seems little-known abroad; in fact the country is consistently lauded as a leader in climate change action and adaptation in the world media. An image that is helped by strong government rhetoric on climate change and on-the-ground innovation: according to the UN World Bank, Bangladesh is the world's fastest growing market for home solar panels.

But Chowdhury says the current administration in Bangladesh is practicing a "double standard" by "[collecting] money from developed countries" due to climate change impacts, while at the same time building a whole series of new coal-fired plants.

"At present worldwide people are trying to reduce the coal use for power generation and they are trying to introduce the renewable sources," he notes. "If you visit the last report of the Indian electricity generation ---you will see that coal based production is decreasing."

Ashish Fernandes, an expert on coal with Greenpeace India, says that Bangladesh's neighbor, India, should serve as a teaching example.

"India is already suffering from its irrational coal boom of the last seven years, with higher electricity prices, displacement of people, loss of forests and massive health impacts. Bangladesh is uniquely positioned to avoid the mistakes india is making and leapfrog to the renewable energies of tomorrow, instead of pinning its hopes on a fuel source that belongs in the 19th Century."

Bangladesh sits within the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) bloc of nations at the ongoing 19th annual Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Warsaw, Poland. In general these are countries that face the worst immediate impacts from climate change, even as they bear the least historical responsibility for our warming planet; but the LDCs are also the driving force behind pressuring wealthy nations to increase emissions cuts and supply more funding.

Farah Kabir, Bangladesh's director with ActionAid International, told reporters at Warsaw last week, "We are in a piece of land which is smaller than Denmark, with a population of 160 million, trying to cope with this extreme weather, trying to cope with the effect of emissions for which we are not responsible."

But Rahman says that fact doesn't mean Bangladesh should get a free pass to pursue high-carbon energy sources in an age when every emissions cut counts.

"The liberty to impeach rich country only for carbon pollution has long gone," he told mongabay.com. "[The] blame game must stop now and Bangladesh has to do its individual part to bring significant change for its own existence."

In 2010, nations worldwide pledged to keep global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels. Currently, experts say progress toward this goal is moving too slowly and with too little ambition, threatening the world with catastrophic climate change.

"Climate change and its effect is not prediction anymore; in the context of Bangladesh it is the reality," Rahman says. "Salinity intrusion in southern part of Bangladesh has become severe. We have been experiencing worsening cyclones and storms in recent years than before. Drought and flood has become a common phenomenon here."

In the past few years, more and more developing countries are finding themselves among the world's biggest carbon polluters. According to a report released last month, 11 of the world's top 25 carbon polluters in 2012 were developing countries, these included number one---China---and number four---India---both largely due to their dependence on coal. Bangladesh wasn't in the top 25, but that could change if the government makes good on its rush to coal.