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Bangladesh pitches for climate-sensitive growth

South Asian nation bets on gas as a bridge fuel in its updated Nationally Determined Contribution, to enable leap from low- to high-income country by mid-century
Children play near a wind farm in Kutubdia, Bangladesh (Image: Alamy)
Children play near a wind farm in Kutubdia, Bangladesh (Image: Alamy)

Ahead of the UN climate talks, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina reiterated her commitment to “leading the path to a solution”. This is “not only because we wish to avert the worst of climate change,” she wrote in the Financial Times, “it also makes economic sense.”

Considered one of the worst victims of climate change due to its geography and socioeconomic status, Bangladesh has started cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in accordance with its climate pledges. But as it strives to graduate to middle-income status by the end of the decade, the country is grappling with the need to square its carbon-heavy growth path with the need to transition away from fossil fuels.

What’s in the climate pledge?

In August 2021, Bangladesh updated its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). The NDC sets a 22% cut of all heat-trapping emissions by 2030 compared with 2012. This is to be achieved through a wide range of mitigation measures in the energy, land use and waste sectors.

The pledge outlines a series of mitigation strategies for the power sector in particular, such as increasing the share of renewable sources in the energy mix, which is currently negligible; reducing coal; and installing prepaid meters. It also looks to reduce traffic congestion, promoting non-motorised vehicles, shifting from road to rail and more. Crucially, it wants to invest in natural gas, a controversial strategy to offset more polluting fuels.

“Taking the business and economic activities in 2012 as yardsticks,” explained Mirza Shawkat Ali, the director in charge of the climate change department at the environment ministry, “we have calculated that [without interventions] Bangladesh would gradually generate nearly 410 million tons of GHGs in 2030.”

“Out of this projected total, we have proposed to cut 27.56 million tons, or 6.73% of emissions in 2030,” Ali said. “We have also proposed a further 61.9 million tonnes, or 15.21%, of emission cuts, provided we get financial and technological support,” he added. “Bangladesh contributes less than 0.5% to the global emissions budget. As a Least Developed Country we have offered our highest.”

Fossil-fuelled growth

According to Bangladesh’s NDC, the energy sector accounts for about 55% of the country’s emissions, followed by agriculture, forest and land use, waste and industrial processes. By 2030, the UN expects the energy sector to make up more than 76% of Bangladesh’s carbon emissions. 

In 2009, the government estimated Bangladesh’s per capita income to be USD 690 per year, while electricity coverage stood at 45%. This is the moment in the country’s history when fossil fuels took centre stage, with heavy investments in coal, oil and gas. 

The strategy paid off. In 2015, Bangladesh became a lower-middle-income country and poverty declined from 44% in 1991 to 15% in 2016, based on the international poverty line of USD 1.90 a day. Boosting electricity generation helped Bangladesh achieve over 7% economic growth in 2019, and the country’s GDP rose by 5.47% between July 2020 and June 2021, when the rest of the world’s economy collapsed during the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2020, per capita income rose to USD 2,227. Bangladesh’s official plan for 2041 seeks to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030 and acquire high-income country status around 2041. The government has set a target to increase installed electricity generation capacity to 40 GW by 2030 and 60 GW by 2041, of which 40% would come from renewable sources.

The bridge fuel bet in Bangladesh’s NDC

While Bangladesh achieved remarkable success in key development indicators such as energy access, connecting nearly 100% of its population to the grid, up from 20% in 2000, its economy remains reliant on fossil fuels, notably on natural gas. According to the International Energy Agency, gas makes up over 60% of the total energy supply, complemented by oil, biofuels and waste, and coal.

The fuel, which is less polluting than oil and coal, is also known as a ‘bridge fuel’, a way of reducing a country’s emissions while allowing its economy to develop. As part of its NDC, Bangladesh is trying to replace as much coal and oil as possible with gas, to progressively reduce its emissions.

“Since the energy sector is the highest contributor, the government mainly focuses on reducing emissions from this sector,” said Mohammad Hossain, director-general of the regulatory agency under the Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources (MPEMR) tasked with planning and regulating Bangladesh’s power sector. “We have already cancelled 10 coal power projects which would have produced 8,4GW of carbon-intensive electricity by 2030.”

However, critics argue that natural gas expansion is inconsistent with the Paris Agreement’s goals. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that global gas consumption will have to decline by 55% by 2050 for a chance to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

Decarbonising energy infrastructure

Waseqa Ayesha Khan, the chair of the parliamentary watchdog on the MPEMR, a group of 10 MPs tasked with ensuring the ministry’s transparency and accountability, told The Third Pole that if the government wants to significantly reduce emissions, it needs to start by addressing wastage of gas and electricity.

“In Bangladesh we supply natural gas to households for cooking and other domestic purposes,” she explained, adding that since users are charged a monthly flat fee regardless of how much they consume, this leads to a lot of fuel being wasted. “To stop wastage of gas and electricity, we have suggested that the government install prepaid meters for all domestic and industrial users.” The mass rollout of prepaid meters, she said, would reduce gas consumption in the two sectors by at least 50%.

M. Tamim, a former junior energy minister, said he welcomed the idea of supporting development through adding more solar, which should help offset a certain amount of fossil fuels in the long run. “But implementing big solar power projects requires vast swathes of land, and we are a land-hungry country,” he said. To aid Bangladesh’s energy transition, he added, rich nations should share their advanced solar technologies to increase the panels’ efficiency and reduce the amount of space needed for each unit of energy.

Getting ready for the energy transition

The country’s obsolete power network is another roadblock to Bangladesh’s energy transition. “Our distribution network is decades old, and would not accommodate more than 10% of renewable energy,” Tamim said. Bangladesh’s electricity distribution network is not equipped to automatically regulate power flows, which means that an electricity overload due to additional renewable energy at certain times of the day would burn transformers and power lines. Currently, Tamim explained, power officials resort to creating outages to control the power load, while a more advanced grid system could independently regulate the flow of electricity, making room for more renewable power.

Upgrading the grid to deal with climate change, Tamim said, would cost at least USD 20 billion. 

Bangladesh enters this year’s COP26 negotiations with a clear pitch for sustainable growth, making the case for a certain amount of fossil fuels in the energy mix to sustain the country’s economy in the coming decades, and getting it ready for a deeper energy transition. But Bangladeshi experts agree that this will only be possible if the right financial resources are unlocked and directed towards better infrastructure and adaptation in the country. The USD 100 billion per year promised so far to developing countries, wrote prime minister Hasina, “is tiny compared with what developing nations will need in order to build a zero-carbon future”. If “western leaders listen, engage and act decisively on what science demands of them,” she added, “there is still time to make COP26 the success it desperately needs to be.”