Coal or Renewables: Against or For Sustainable Development? & Why the Sundarbans Must be Protected – Sajed Kamal

Coal or Renewables: Against or For Sustainable Development? & Why the Sundarbans Must be Protected – Sajed Kamal

              The Bangladesh government has decided to build a 1320 MW coal-fired power plant in Rampal Upazila in Bagerhat District in Khulna, and it is rapidly undergoing construction. The project is a joint partnership between Bangladesh Power Development Board and India’s state-owned National Thermal Power Corporation. 

            Two urgent questions: One, what impact does the Rampal coal plant have on the Sundarbans? The plant is located roughly 20 kilometers from the Sundarbans. Two, is there an alternative and sustainable way to generate energy to meet the growing demands of Bangladesh?

            Before delving into the questions, for those who might find it informative, and to keep in perspective what is at stake, let me give a brief introduction to the Sundarbans.

            The name, Sundarban. There are several explanations of how the name came to be. The most popular one is associated with the Sundari trees (Heriteria fomes), the dominant and widely used mangrove species of the forest. Sundari wood, very strong and heavy, has been used for building boats, house posts and furniture for centuries. It’s also been a source of firewood. Ban is a Bangla word for forest.  Combining the two we get Sundarban.

But there are other dominant trees in Sundarban, as well—such as Gewa, Goran, Keora, Ora, Passur and Bain. Consequently, some people maintain that, rather than from a single source, the name Sundarban evolved as a corrupted version of Samudra-ban, the forest of the samudra (sea) made up of a variety of dominant trees.

A third explanation. All through the ages, with its cluster of lush natural forest islands—about 200 of them, separated by about 400 interconnected tidal rivers, creeks and canals, its ever-renewing transforming nature with the seasons, and its spectacular variety of flora and fauna—Sundarban has been a breathtakingly beautiful sight to behold. The Bangla word for beautiful is sundar. So, from this source, the derivation of the name Sundarban—Beautiful Forest—would seem quite logical and natural.

With yet more explanations, the naming of Sundarban remains shrouded in historical curiosity, enquiry, competing explanations, multiple source-possibilities and, no less, a mystery. To be noted, in an Anglicized spelling, Sundarban is also called Sundarbans, or the Sundarbans.

Located on the delta of three great rivers, the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna, bordering the Bay of Bengal, The Sundarbans covers approximately 10,000 sq.km of land and water. Two-thirds of it is located in the southern section of Bangladesh and the rest in India. It is the largest cluster of mangrove forests in the world and a sanctuary to a spectacular variety of animals, fish, birds, plants, flowers, reptiles and insects. It is the habitat for about 50 species of mammals including Javan rhinoceros, water buffalos, dolphins, spotted deer, barking deer, gaurs, wild boars, jungle cats, leopard cats, Indian porcupines, otters, and Rhesus monkeys. And, of course, it is the home of the Royal Bengal Tiger! The Sundarbans has over 50 species of reptiles and 8 species of amphibians including crocodiles, lizards, pythons, turtles, King Cobras, Russell’s Vipers, Banded Kraits and several species of sea snakes. About 320 species of inland and migratory birds include the white-bellied sea-eagles, gulls, terns, herons, kingfishers, egrets, sandpipers, curlews, storks, raptors, waterfowls, finfoots, woodpeckers, barbets, bulbuls, doayls, shrikes, drongos, mynahs, minivets and babblers.  There are more than 400 species of fishes. There are plenty of shrimps, prawns, lobsters and crabs. Inhabiting the water are also Tiger sharks, Bull sharks, Sandbar sharks, Hammerheads and stingrays. The evergreen Sundarban bursts into a seasonal display of colors with the flaming red leaves of the Gewa trees, the crab-like red flowers of the Kankara, and the yellow blossoms of Khalsi. Meandering creeks and canals are lined with different species of wildflowers. A variety of insects are busy at work in the Sundarbans. Among them are honeybees making honey that provide the livelihood for the Mawalis, the honey collectors of Sundarban, who enter deep into the forest for about three to four months during the flowering season, with permission from the Forest Department, but risking their lives as well.

The Sundarbans provides a livelihood for honey collectors, fishermen, woodcutters, roof thatchers using golpatas, and mat weavers using grass.  They live mostly in the surrounding villages. There’s also a small population of gypsies, living in their boats. Human settlements, which have shrunk the Sundarbans over time, are no longer considered a part of the Sundarbans. Today’s the Sundarbans, for the most part, is uninhabited by humans and much of the forest is still unexplored. There is some spotty archeological evidence of human settlements in some parts of today’s Sundarbans but, evidently, they didn’t last.  The forest grew over and around them. Through the ages, therefore, Sundarban has survived as Sundarban—an enchanting land of awesome beauty, wonders, thrills, dangers, inspiration and mystery!

Because of its thriving greenery absorbing huge quantities of pollution, while releasing oxygen to the entire region, the Sundarbans has been called “The lung of South Asia.” Furthermore, throughout centuries the Sundarbans has served as an effective protection barrier against sea storms and cyclones. With the growing threat of global warming and rising sea levels—to which Bangladesh is especially vulnerable—the need to conserve the Sundarbans is more critical than ever.

Emphasizing the critical significance of protecting the Sundarbans, on July 16, 1972, in his Tree Plantation Week inaugural speech at Suhrawardy Udyan in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s first President and later the Prime Minister Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman said:

“আমরা গাছ লাগাইয়া সুন্দরবন পয়দা করি নাই। স্বাভাবিক অবস্থায় প্রকৃতি এটাকে করে দিয়েছে বাংলাদেশকে রক্ষা করার জন্য। বঙ্গোপসাগরের পাশে দিয়ে যে সুন্দরবনটা রয়েছে এইটা হলো বেরিয়ার। এটা যদি রক্ষা করা না হয় তাহলে একদিন খুলনা, বরিশাল, পটুয়াখালী, কুমিল্লার কিছু অংশ, ঢাকার কিছু অংশ এ পর্যন্ত সমস্ত এরিয়া সমুদ্রের মধ্যে চলে যাবে এবং এগুলো হাতিয়া, সন্দ্বীপের মতো আইল্যান্ড হয়ে যাবে। একবার যদি সুন্দরবন শেষ হয়ে যায়—তো সমুদ্র যে ভাঙন সৃষ্টি করবে সেই ভাঙন থেকে রক্ষা করার কোনও উপায় আর নাই।…” 

 (“We did not create Sundarban by planting trees. Nature has done this on its own to protect Bangladesh. The Sundarban which exists along the Bay of Bengal is a barrier. Unless it can be protected, then one day some parts of Khulna, Barisal, Patuakhali, Comilla, some parts of Dhaka—all these areas will go under the ocean and will turn into islands like Hatia and Sandip. If Sundarban disappears, the havoc of erosion that the ocean will unleash, there’ll be no way to survive it.” Translated from Bangla by Sajed Kamal, https://soundcloud.com/nirzhar-noishabdya/16-july-1972

Biodiversity loss, too, is a part of the Sundarbans’ history, and it’s a growing threat. The International Union for Conservation of Nature reported that 1,619 animal species, including the Asian rhinoceros and marsh crocodile, have become extinct from the Sundarbans (IUCN 2015). The Sundarbans and its adjacent areas are one of the major sanctuaries of two globally endangered river dolphins, Ganges River Dolphin and Irrawaddy Dolphin which will be affected by the coal plant. The study, titled “Combined effects of climate change and sea-level rise project dramatic habitat loss of the globally endangered Bengal tiger in the Bangladesh Sundarbans” has predicted that the Sundarbans’ iconic ‘Royal Bengal Tigers’ could become an extinct species within 50 years, especially from the Bangladesh part due to climate change  (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969719304310). 

The Sundarban was officially declared a Reserve Forest in 1875. Since then several wildlife preservation acts both in Bangladesh and India have declared the forests sanctuaries. Subsequently, human activities like hunting, fishing, logging, grass cutting, golpata collection, harvesting of honey, and touring were either completely prohibited by law or required permission from the authorities. Both the Indian and Bangladeshi portions of the Sundarban have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV), in 1985 and 1997, respectively. 

“There are only two kinds of people in the world: one, who have been to Sundarban, and the other, who want to go to Sundarban!” Bengali proverb

            Now Let me return to the questions. On the first question, based on multiple in-depth analyses, reports, expert reviews and projections, there has been a massive opposition to the coal plant from scientists, environmentalists, expatriates around the word, and the civil society—led by the National Committee for Saving the Sundarbans (a coalition of more than 50 civil society and non-governmental organizations, www.ncssbd.org). But the construction of the coal plant continues. Meticulously complied and documented in the reports by the NCSSBD, concerns have been raised over the fallout of mercury, toxic particulates, acid rain, harmful smog directly entering into the Sundarbans, increased ship traffic, oil spills, cooling water intake, coal ash disposal and hot water disposal which could have a devastating impact on the fishery, dolphins, whales and other underwater species of the Sundarbans and Bay of Bengal. Concerns have also been raised over the government’s approval of the construction of hundreds of additional industries around Mongla Port, just north of the Sundarbans. These include gas bottling, a cement plant, a bulk storage facility and others. All these riverfront industrial plants—heavily reliant on ships, boats and barges to transport raw material and finished goods—will require massive river dredging that will harm Sundarbans species.

            It must be noted that all these projects have proceeded with complete disregard of, and without completion of a comprehensive Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) for the region in advance of starting any industrial work in Rampal, as requested by the World Heritage Committee decision 41COM 7B.25 (2017).

On scientific, environmental and economic grounds, inarguably, the Sundarbans is in danger. As such, both the NCSS and IUCN have recommended UNESCO-World Heritage Committee to place the Sundarbans in the ‘Danger’ list. The decision is to be voted on by the World Heritage Committee’s 43rd session, to be held during the first week of July in Baku, Azerbaijan.  

            Now question two. One of the main rationalizations the Bangladesh government offers is that coal is necessary for “Development,” and that the “Developed” countries—meaning the industrialized countries of the West—are fueling their economies with coal (along with other fossil fuels—oil and natural gas) and nuclear; therefore, to develop, Bangladesh, too, must follow the same path. It blatantly ignores—whether by choice or ignorance—the paradigm-shifting transition the developed countries are undergoing from the fossil fuel-nuclear energy path toward a 100% renewable energy path. For this reason, I will proceed first by providing a global perspective on this transitional trend.

            Yes, the decision to build a coal plant would have been applauded—50 years ago. At the height of an unbridled drive for industrialization, coal, along with oil, natural gas and nuclear, were considered panaceas. There were reasons for that. These fuel sources were like genies in bottles—trap them, then release them—as light and heat—whenever and of whatever quantities, and for whatever tasks, the masters wished them to perform. They also seemed unlimited and highly profitable—for the masters/owners who mined them—capitalizing the gifts/endowments of Nature. From the condition of needing to rely on Nature’s whims for light and heat, the advantage of being able to store, convert and use these fuels on human command was indeed a revolutionary transition.

            But much has been learned over the past 50 years about the consequences of relying on these fossil fuels and nuclear as energy sources. They are not unlimited, and the genie is exhausted: deposited over millions of years, the global reserves of oil, natural gas and uranium are estimated to be depleted within 30-50 years and coal within 100-200 years. One can always argue about the exact number of years, but there’s no valid scientific disagreement about the limited availability of these resources. Moreover, the rate of their extraction far exceeding their rate of deposition, these resources are also nonrenewable. 

            And that’s only a part of the predictable and critical consequences of relying on nonrenewables: cyclones, tornadoes, hurricanes, rising sea levels, floods, droughts, freakish weather patterns, and the Arctic melting expedited by climate change; oil spills; nuclear disasters associated with mining, production, waste storage, out of control costs, accidents, weapons proliferation; pollution; toxic contamination of water, air and soil; adverse health effects; ever-costlier and ruthless exploitation of rapidly depleting fuel reserves; more frequent earthquakes due to fracking; safety and security risks; and energy wars.

            So, is there a solution? 

            The answer is: Yes! 

Look at the Sun—and the amazing set of technologies which are fueled by it! Only one hour of sunlight falling on the Earth’s surface contains energy equivalent to what we use globally for an entire year. Freely, the energy from the Sun is received through the renewable subsystems of light, heat, wind, water movement and photosynthesis. In addition to direct uses, there are also an extraordinary variety of technologies to convert, store and distribute energy through a wide range of designs and scales. Photovoltaics, wind turbines, hydroelectric generators, solar water heaters, solar greenhouses, biogas plants and solar cookers are being implemented for a wide range of domestic, industrial and consumer products and purposes. Innovations in designs and applications march on: PV-integrated buildings; micro wind turbines-integrated high-rise buildings; backyard (or frontyard) tree-shaped micro wind power plants and solar trees; microgrids; community solar;  combined wind turbines-agricultural farms; utility scale PV field-agricultural farms; PV-wind hybrid energy farms; floating solar plants; solar-powered floating farms; the Passive House designs with highly efficient solar heating and cooling systems; the list goes on. Integrated designs are dramatically augmenting land use and conservation by producing energy and food simultaneously—a critical advantage especially where land is scarce. Furthermore, thanks to Tesla, Sonnen, Enphase and other battery systems, the recent advancements in storage technologies are removing one of the major bottlenecks by supplying ever larger volumes of energy reliably and consistently from intermittent renewable energy sources—sunlight and wind—for both household and utility purposes. Large volumes of energy storage in compact batteries are dramatically enhancing stand-alone and distributed generation options. Repeated scientific studies, field-tested, confirm the revolutionary prospect of renewable energy. The Energy Report: 100% Renewable Energy by 2050, released in 2011 by the World Wildlife Fund, puts it this way: “By 2050, we could get all the energy we need from renewable sources. This report shows that such a transition is not only possible but also cost-effective, providing energy that is affordable for all and producing it in ways that can be sustained by the global economy and the planet.” And, “Nuclear power and fossil fuels are the choices of the past. Renewable energy is the choice of the future that is here today,” said Hermann Scheer,Chairman of EUROSOLAR, General Chairman of the World Council of Renewable Energy (WCRE), President of the International Parliamentary Forum on Renewable Energies, Member of the German Bundestag, and author of A Solar Manifesto and Energy Autonomy: The Economic, Social and Technological Case for Renewable Energy. 

A global awareness of the urgent need to transition to the renewable path is fueling a growing social movement engaging individuals, communities, educational and faith-based institutions, businesses, industries, cities, states and national governments to launch renewable energy programs, policies and practices. The global energy scenario is undergoing a rapid transition toward renewables with growing opportunities and advantages: plummeting costs; innovation in manufacturing, efficiency, durability, designs, storage and applications; job creation; affordable financing; and global accessibility of renewable energy technologies that are fueling a revolutionary movement and march toward a 100% renewable energy future of innovation, economic prosperity, environmental stewardship and peace. 

2016 marked a record-breaking year for renewable energy, accounting for almost two-thirds of net new power capacity around the world in 2016, with almost 165 gigawatts (GW) coming online. With the rising trend, by 2022 renewable electricity generation is expected to grow by more than a third, to a total of 8,000 terawatt hours. “Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment Report 2018,” jointly published by Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate & Sustainable Energy Finance and Bloomberg New Energy Finance, announced that 2017 was the eighth consecutive year in which global investment in renewables exceeded $200 billion—and since 2004 the global investment in renewable energy amounted to $2.9 trillion. A UN report further confirms that the global investment in renewables far outstripped investment in fossil fuels. In Renewable Energy and Jobs—Annual Review 2018, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) reports that 10.3 million people were employed in the renewable energy sector worldwide in 2017, up from 9.8 million in 2016, outpacing the job growth in fossil-fuel technologies. “Renewable energy has become a pillar of low-carbon economic growth for governments all over the world, a fact reflected by the growing number of jobs created in the sector,” said Adnan Z. Amin, Director-General of the International Renewable Energy Agency.” In “U.S. Energy and Employment Report,” released in January 2017, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced, “Proportionally, solar employment accounts for the largest share of workers in the Electric Power Generation sector. This is largely due to the construction related to the significant buildout of new solar generation capacity. Solar technologies, both photovoltaic and solar concentrators, employ almost 374,000 workers, or 43 percent of the Electric Power Generation workforce. This is followed by fossil fuel generation employment, which accounts for 22 percent of total Electric Power Generation employment and supports 187,117 workers across coal, oil, and natural gas generation technologies.”

On September 25, 2015, at a summit held in New York, the UN announced a set of  “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all, a set of 17 specific goals to be achieved over the next 15 years, engaging governments, the private sector, and civil society across the world. A common element through the SDGs is a critical reassessment of “Development” in which both economic growth and environmental conservation are mutually enhancing, in contrast to the conventional definition in which the former has been aggressively promoted—resulting in policies and practices by development agencies around the world, the World Bank at the helm—even when linked to severe environmental destruction. 

Among the SDGs are “Affordable and Clean Energy” and “Climate Action,” fundamentally based on renewable energy. The UN or other summits or conferences are not new, and all too often they result in producing more conferences, rather than successful action toward their touted goals. All too often the resolutions are nonbinding and unaccountable. All too often the policies are crafted by people who have little or negligible experience in the practical world. But there’s a promising change in the air. Annual conferences, engaging all stakeholders, to review achievements and reassert the SDGs are already taking place for the goals to remain action oriented. There’s an emphasis on bridging goals and action, in contrast to conventional development programs and promises where the two are often unrealistic, if not dichotomies. Also, the SDGs are set from a global perspective, for global applications, and proposing global accountability, as opposed to many development goals that only target developing nations—while practically offering immunity to the industrially developed nations where some of the main sources of the problems lie. Climate change, for example. A key element of SDGs is to address both the cause and the effect, from a global perspective. Whether it is climate change or poverty, their causes and the effects do not necessarily lie in the same place, even in the same country. The SDGs put them into a holistic, global perspective, global accountability, and call into question—and propose solutions to—the issue of global inequity. 

The SDGs are a refreshingly ecological, holistic, comprehensive, inclusive, equitable and “think globally, act locally” step—most needed and commendable. The challenge now is for the world to keep a constructively critical eye on this historic initiative, and for all the stakeholders to support, participate and demand—if necessary—their effective implementation.

Several countries have already set their goals to become 100% renewable energy powered nations by 2050: Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway and Austria. Other countries are significantly increasing their investments in renewable energy toward the same goal: China, UK, Ireland, India, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, South Korea, France, Japan, Mongolia. In the USA—despite President Trump’s deceptive promise for, and an oxymoron, “clean coal,” on February 7, 2019, “Green New Deal,” a Congressional resolution to make a 100% transition to renewables within 10 years was jointly announced by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey. Sixty members of the House and nine senators have co-sponsored the resolution, backed by rapidly growing support from voters across the country. Support for such a transition is further fueled by “School Strike 4 Climate Change,” a growing global movement led by under-voting age students who “are striking from school to tell our politicians to take our futures seriously and treat climate change for what it is—a crisis.” 

Here’s a further glimpse into the global trend toward a 100% renewable energy future:

On April 21, 2017, the UK became coal-free for an entire day for the first time since 1882 when the first coal fire plant launched the Industrial Revolution. Welcoming this milestone, Hannah Martin, head of energy at Greenpeace UK, said: “The first day without coal in Britain since the Industrial Revolution marks a watershed in the energy transition. A decade ago, a day without coal would have been unimaginable, and in 10 years’ time our energy system will have radically transformed again…The direction of travel is that both in the UK and globally we are already moving towards a low carbon economy. It is a clear message to any new government that they should prioritise making the UK a world leader in clean, green, technology.” Celebrating this historic moment, Duncan Burt, head of real-time operations at the National Grid, which manages the public utility system, said, “The Industrial Revolution started with coal and it’s been the absolute backbone of our power for most of the time since…It’s a very proud moment for us to be there on the first day when we weren’t burning coal.”

Divesting in nonrenewables is happening concurrently with major utilization and investment in renewables in the UK. In June 2017 renewable energy generation, led by wind and solar, reached a record high, supplying more than half of the UK’s electricity demand. Biomass and hydropower, too, contribute significantly, while marine and wave technologies that are in their early stages are undergoing rapid development through innovation and investment. A new Industrial Revolution is unfolding in the UK, fueled by renewables!

Even Saudi Arabia, the land of oil, alarmed by the finding that it may run out of oil by 2030, has committed more than $100 billion to generate 41 gigawatts of solar energy—enough to power one-third of the country, by 2030. Saudi Prince Turki Al Faisal (at the age of 68) announced at the World Economic Forum, held in October 2012 in Brazil that he would like to see his country powered 100% by renewables within his lifetime. 

            China, heavily dependent on nonrenewables, nevertheless, has set renewable energy targets of such impressive magnitudes that they could make the need to rely on nonrenewables obsolete. China is already the world’s leading producer, user and supplier of renewable energy technologies.  Inside the country, solar installations are multiplying. According to China’s National Energy Administration, by mid-2014 China generated 23 gigawatts of energy from solar, toward the goal of generating 150 gigawatts by the end of 2020. The country’s intention to wean itself out of fossil fuel consumption is commendable. At the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris, President of China Xi Jinping pledged that China will reduce carbon emissions by 60% by 2030. He further urged the world leaders attending the conference to be mindful that “the Paris conference is not the finishing line, but a new starting point” for global efforts to combat rising carbon emissions. 

            India—also heavily dependent on nonrenewables, though not without opposition—has launched one of the most ambitious and comprehensive renewable energy programs in the world. Through the country’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and its implementing agencies, such as IREDA (Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency), India’s renewable energy program integrates PV, wind turbines, micro hydros, solar thermal systems for hot water, biogas plants, biomass cogenerators and gasifiers, and “Improved (or Unnata) Chulhas.” It also offers an attractive package of financing and other incentives. It’s a good example of Public-Private Partnership (PPP). In 2015, with a 12 MW PV system, the Cochin International Airport in Kerala became the world’s first airport to be completely powered by solar. India now has a plan to convert all its airports to solar power. India also demonstrates the incredible range of scalability of PV. From five or fewer-watt solar lamps replacing kerosene-powered lamps and candles to megawatts solar farms. India has two of the world’s five largest utility-scale PV plants: the 900 MW Kurnool Ultra Mega-Solar Park in Kurnool District in Andhra Pradesh (to be increased to 1000 MW) and the 648 MW Kumuthi Solar Power Project in the state of Tamil Nadu, inaugurated in 2016. The Kurnool plant took only two years and the Kumuthi plant just eight months to progress from announcement to operation. These projects are inspiring examples of public awareness, political will, public-private partnership and expediency. To expedite the transition, India has announced a $100 billion investment push into the renewable energy sector, with 100 GW of solar capacity by 2022. Additionally, there are NGOs, other PPP initiatives, communities, corporations and social businesses installing rapidly growing numbers of renewable energy systems of all different types, designs and scales every day. 

            France, the world’s most nuclear-power dependent country, is turning toward renewables. To avoid OPEC-controlled oil dependency, France turned to nuclear, resulting in its currently 77% electricity generation from 58 reactors. The rest of its electricity generation comes from renewables (15%) and fossil fuels (8%). But growing concerns over security, accidents, long-term waste disposal, decommissioning costs, high costs of refurbishing aging reactors or building new reactors, etc., are not only compelling France to phase out nuclear power, but—according to a report commissioned by ADEME (France’s Agency for Environment and Energy Management)—also to aim for 100% renewable electricity by 2050, which the agency deems possible. Toward that direction, France has launched a “Positive Energy” initiative, to convert or construct “Net Zero” and “Energy Surplus” buildings, powered by renewables. Speaking at a seminar, “Will Renewables Renew Democracy?”, held at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School on February 10, 2016, Gerard Araud, French Ambassador to the United States, applauded that globally a renewable revolution was already unfolding. Then he enthusiastically announced: “France wants to be part of the revolution.”

            Several other countries—Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the Philippines, South Korea, Sweden and Switzerland—have decided to phase out nuclear power and move toward renewables. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011 and the Chernobyl Disaster in the Ukraine in 1986, at an incalculable human and environmental cost and irreparable damages, sent a chilling warning around the world. Simultaneously anti-nuclear and pro-renewables movements are stronger than ever in both the countries. 

            The industrially developing countries all over the world are waking up to the revolutionary potential of renewables in their own practically “untapped energy mines” of abundant renewable energy resources. Mostly located in tropical and semi-tropical regions, which are also far less entrenched into the nonrenewable energy path than their industrially developed counterparts, these countries are in an especially advantageous position to transition to the renewable energy path. It’s an “opportunity cost advantage” they cannot afford to pass up. It is also an opportunity to avoid—at least, minimize—the “entrenchment cost” which the developed countries are already burdened with—and burdening the world with—because of their deep entrenchment into the nonrenewable path—a long term total cost that will far outweigh the short term economic benefits derived from the entrenchment. However, they do face myriad challenges: politics behind closed doors; a lack of transparency in the national decision making process; poor and dictatorial governance; cancerous corruption; a misguided and nearsighted notion of “Development”—which turns economic development against the environment, ruining both, and a notion—consequently a trap—that “Developed” countries themselves are desperately trying to free themselves from; the vested interest of the industrial elites in nonrenewables; inadequate public and scientific knowledge and infrastructures to critically evaluate energy options; and lacking adequate education about the nature, prospect and innovation in renewable energy options. The inadequacies make the developing countries especially susceptible to becoming dumping grounds for building fossil fuel and nuclear power plants—rationalized through foreign experts and consultants who are there to basically peddle the technologies—especially when these are under strong scrutiny or losing markets by being phased out in “developed” countries, or simply going bankrupt. And in many cases, the benefits of such energy projects—donor-driven and debt-trapping—are skewed more in favor of the project funders, while subjecting the developing countries to long-term debt-traps. 

So, why is the Bangladesh government insisting on its decision to move ahead with the coal plant? Not only the fate of the Sundarbans, but also the fate of the entire nation is under threat. Furthermore—in our interconnected and interdependent global ecological system—the negative impact of this near-sighted anti-sustainable development decision is not merely regional or national, but also global—as a contributory factor. Climate change—one of the proven consequences of burning fossil fuels, anywhere in the world—knows no boundaries. The TIME magazine cover of June 24, 2019, portrays U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, dressed in his formal dark suit, standing knee deep in the water off the coast of Tuvalu, one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change. The purpose of the cover article by Justin Worland is to alert the world about the threatened futures of island nations around the world and the habitants’ fight for survival due to the rise in global sea levels. Well, with one-third of land and two-third of water, the Earth itself is an island, under threat by the global impact of climate change. And every contributing factor accelerating climate change—fossil fuels taking the lead—anywhere in the world—is a global threat.

 Also, on an issue which is of the utmost national interest (also of global interest), why is it that those who speak up as part of the voice of the people—despite repeated requests to sit face to face and engage in transparent dialogue with the government—are ignored, shunned, even threatened and face backlash from the government itself? 

People have even been killed as a result. One example: In August 2006, in Phulbari in Dinajpur district, three people were killed and many more were wounded when the governmental paramilitary forces BDR (Bangladesh Rifles) open fired on local people—who vowed to “die in order to protect our homeland”—when they were returning from a 70,000-people peaceful protest march against Asia Energy, a London-based multinational corporation, there to do coal mining.  The protest continued, in collaboration with the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources and Ports (www.ncbd.org), a people’s organization, under the leadership of the economist, Prof. Anu Muhammad. The profit-driven, export-oriented, open-pit coal mining project with a 30-year life, would displace an estimated 130,000 people, disrupt 500,000 people, and destroy 650-square kilometers of highly fertile multi-crop land. It would also deplete groundwater—expediting desertification, pollute the soil, water and air, and ruin the rich biodiversity evolved over centuries. This is only a partial list of predictable and multifaceted negative impacts from the Phulbari coal mining project, if it succeeded. The donor behind the coal project was Asian Development Bank (ADB). However, in the face of growing protests against the project, ADB decided not to fund the project. Said Prof. Anu Muhammad, “The proposed ‘development’ project is merely a scheme to loot natural resources from a poor country for the rich. We will not allow GCM Resources (the new name of Asia Energy) to turn the land of food for the people into a black hole for corporate profit.” 

Along with opposing the fossil-nuclear power-based energy path, in 2017 the NCBD also has drafted and released to the public, both in Bengali and English, a meticulously researched and substantiated “The Alternative Power and Energy Plan for Bangladesh,” proposing a transition to a 100% renewable energy path by 2050 for Bangladesh (Introduction: (ncbd.org). Quoting a paragraph:

“We demand the government to listen to the clean energy movement and protect people’s interest rather than corporate interest. As renewable energy is cheaper and eco-friendly, we demand policy shift emphasizing renewable energy production rather than dirty coal generation. Renewable energy will protect ecology, life and livelihood of the people. The government must take appropriate steps to phase out coal and replace it with renewable energy sources. As a coal-based power plant, the Rampal Plant will irreversibly damage the Sundarbans. It will disrupt the link between humans and the environment by destroying ecology and species. This conference unequivocally demands the immediate halt to the plant. We urge everyone to raise their voice to save our Sundarbans, and to save our future.” 

The NCBD continues its campaign, which has grown into a nation-wide movement. At the same time, it continues to be ignored and shunned by the government.

On this issue, I quote a brief paragraph from a position paper of the National Committee to Save the Sundarbans (NCSS, Bangladesh):

“In July 2018, John Knox, the United Nations Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, urged Bangladesh to halt industrialization around the Sundarbans and ensure public participation in decision making. ‘To have truly sustainable development,’ he warned, ‘it is critical to protect the environment. And to ensure that environmental concerns are taken into account, government must listen to the voices of those who are most affected by proposed industrial projects. Too often, the people who raise questions about development projects are ignored or even treated as enemies of the state. But really, they should be treated as the champions of sustainable development.’”

I have already speculated some answers to the question of the government’s insistence.

While the opposition movement against the Rampal plant mainly focuses on protecting the Sundarbans from its harmful impact—a reason enough—the point is, a coal-fired power plant is absolutely unnecessary for Bangladesh, especially for a country so richly endowed with renewable energy sources. Sunlight is abundant year-round in this semi-tropical region. Even during the monsoon season the solar radiation is as good as the annual average. In addition to ample light and heat, the hundred-plus-mile long coastal areas, hilly sections, and islands provide plenty of wind for wind turbines; waterways of varied forms and speed provide sufficient wave and gravity driven water flow for ecologically balanced hydro-electric generators; and the lush vegetation provides rich photosynthesis and biomass for fuel for a variety of purposes. Compared to Germany—an inspiring example of a country set on a 100% transition to the renewable energy path—Bangladesh receives twice the amount of solar radiation than Germany. Bangladesh is truly an exceptional, naturally endowed and integrated, renewable “energy mine”—practically untapped! Judiciously harnessed, this energy mine has an inexhaustible capacity far beyond meeting the country’s energy needs, now and in the future. 

Multiple scientific, economic and environmental research and analysis reports—combined with the field results of renewable energy applications in Bangladesh since the early 1990s—confirm this potential. Among these are the joint report of the Renewable & Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California—Berkeley (RAEL) and the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD, Bangladesh)1,2; the report of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA, USA)3; and the joint report of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL, USA), Harness Energy and National Centre for Atmospheric Research on the wind energy potential in Bangladesh.4 These are some examples of a growing number of credible research reports, conducted by both national and international researchers and institutions, which provide a glimpse of the potential. Brimming with innovation in technological development and applications—combined with cost-advantages of appropriate renewable energy technologies—the potential is ready to be tapped with the utmost urgency. 

            I am well-aware of the unfolding renewable energy scenario in Bangladesh since the late 1980s. A glimpse: Over 8 million solar photovoltaic systems, generating over 300 megawatts of electricity, have been installed across the country. The majority of these are stand-alone Solar Home Systems (SHS), ranging between 40 and 120 watts. There are some larger systems, such as the 21-KW system at the Prime Minister’s Office in Dhaka; a 20-KW system at Bangladesh Bank Headquarters in Dhaka; Bangladesh’s first solar-powered silo in Santahar, Bogra; the 650 KW Salla Project in the remote hoar area of Sunamganj (Rahimafrooz Renewables); and the 3 MW capacity grid connected Engreen Sharishabari Solar Plant in Jamalpur. In addition, there are over 71 thousand biogas plants of domestic and commercial scales. The economic, technological and environmental advantages of photovoltaics, biogas and solar cookers have been well proven in Bangladesh. Also, there are a few wind turbines, solar hot water systems and microhydros in their early stages of expansion. The government has a policy commitment to produce 10% of the total electricity from renewable sources by 2020 (though, as of 2019, both the investments and actual production remain far from the target). 

There’s also the 230MW capacity Kaptai Hydroelectric Power Station on Karnafuli river in Chittagong, constructed between 1957-1962. However, the negative impact of the project on wildlife and wildlife habitats, along with the forced displacement of 40,000 Chakmas, which continues to be a main source of continuing  political conflicts in the region, should be an urgent warning that the construction of any power plants—renewable or nonrenewable energy based—to be justified, must undergo stringent environmental, economic, topological, social, cultural, political and moral scrutiny. 

Multiple players—NGOs, commercial companies, schools, colleges, universities, business owners, community and social service organizations, environmental organizations, donor agencies, activists, home owners,  journalists, educators, the media, semi-governmental organizations, governmental agencies and others—through installations or advocacy—have made the current renewable energy scenario possible. 

Bangladesh has received global recognition for its role in advancing the use of renewable energy technologies. Grameen Shakti, Rahimafrooz Battery and Shidhulai Swarnivar Sangstha have been awarded the prestigious Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy.  Grameen Shakti and Rahimafrooz Battery received the award in 2006 for “the central roles which they have played in delivering the world’s most successful solar power programme bringing light and power to rural people.”  Grameen Shakti also received the “Eurosolar Prize” in 2003 and the “Right Livelihood Award” (Alternative Nobel Prize) in 2007. Shidhulai received the Ashden Award in 2007 for its innovative solar powered school-library boats in the remote Chalanbeel region in Rajshahi.  

Another major step, on April 30, 2010, the country’s first solar panel assembly plant was inaugurated in Savar. Set up by Electro Solar Power Ltd, the plant with an annual production capacity of 10-megawatt electricity, also assembles charge controllers, batteries and other components for solar systems. Rahimafrooz Renewable Energy Ltd, too, has set up a solar panel assembly plant with multiple products and installations, including the 400KW Salla Project. Some of the Bangladeshi products have attained qualities that are among the best, at the same time the cheapest, in the world.

Indeed, it is a promising scenario. I cherish the opportunity to have been able to contribute to it and observe it’s unfolding from the very beginning. However, it is also a trifle, at best marginal, compared to the revolutionary prospects of renewable energy in Bangladesh—practically untapped. That prospect must be urgently exploited. Energy is a lifeline of the economy and fuel for development. In that step lies true solutions both to protect and conserve the Sundarbans, as well as accelerate Bangladesh’s development as a prosperous and sustainable economy. “Development”, in the true sense, and to be sustainable, is a holistic process of going forward, not backward; it’s progress, not regress—what resorting to the fossil-nuclear path implies. Especially in Bangladesh—one of the countries which is most vulnerable to climate change and one of the most densely populated countries in the world—the fossil-nuclear path is not only an antithesis to sustainable development, or survival, it’s suicidal. Fortunately, because of Bangladesh’s huge potential for energy independence through renewables, that path is eminently avoidable. It’s time to “Think globally, act locally.” It’s time to make an all-out effort to embark on a 100% renewable energy path. Every effort to progress along that path must be applauded and supported, so that the movement—simultaneously to oppose further entrenchment into the suicidal path, and to educate, conscientize, empower and activate people of all walks of life on the sustainable path, can be strengthened. 

And I earnestly request and hope that in such efforts—which are in conformity with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, in support of a comprehensive Strategic Environmental Assessment for the region to be done in advance of any industrial work in Rampal—as requested by the World Heritage Committee decision 41COM 7B.25 (2017)–and efforts to protect the Sundarbans—a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV)—at the same time, expedite a 100% renewable energy transition in Bangladesh, UNESCO and the World Heritage Centre become committed and active partners more than ever before. I also hope that through such efforts, eventually, the good sense of the Bangladesh government will prevail, and it’ll take pride in its responsibility, accountability and legitimacy as the people’s choice. Thereby, together, we’ll also be able to rise above conflicts and confrontations, and engage instead in a transparent, authentic and reciprocal dialogue, and—for the common good—act! The entire nation and its future depend on it. Time is of the essence. 

References:

  1. “Identifying High Priority Clean Energy Investment Opportunities for Bangladesh”,

Kenji Shiraishi, Rebekah Shirley, Daniel M. Kammen, Saleemul Huq, and Feisal Rahman, February 13, 2018

https://drive.google.com/file/d/16UP5MvCaWfnsiO7TPUFiqKE6GyYchmcT/view
  • “Clean Energy in Bangladesh: Innovating for a Clean Energy Economy in Bangladesh”, 

Daniel Kammen Director of Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL); Professor in the Energy and Resources Group (ERG); and Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Spring 2019

https://chowdhurycenter.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/shared/docs/Kammen_SARN.pdf
  • “Bangladesh Electricity Transition: A Diverse, Secure and Deflationary Way Forward”,

Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, IEEFA.org, November 2016

http://ieefa.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Bangladesh-Electricity-Transition_-NOVEMBER-2016.pdf
  • “Assessing the Wind Energy Potential in Bangladesh: Enabling Wind Energy Development with Data Products”, Mark Jacobson, Caroline Draxl, Tony Jimenez, and Barbara O’Neill, National Renewable Energy Laboratory; Taj Capozzola Harness Energy; and Jared A. Lee, Francois Vandenberghe, and Sue Ellen Haupt, National Center for Atmospheric Research, September 2018
https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy18osti/71077.pdf

Sajed Kamal, EdD, is a Renewable Energy & Sustainable Development educator who has been involved in the field internationally for more than thirty years, setting up projects in the USA, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Armenia, El Salvador and Zimbabwe. He has also taught at Boston University, Northeastern University, Antioch New England Graduate School and Brandeis University (at Brandeis in the Sustainable International Development Program for twenty years). Born in West Bengal, India, he grew up in what is now Bangladesh until coming to The Loomis School in Connecticut in 1963. Following his graduation in 1965, he received his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Economics and Education, respectively, from Northeastern University and his doctorate in Humanistic Studies from Boston University. In 2019, invited by the USA-based nonprofit environmental law organization Earthjustice, representing Bangladesh’s civil society and BAPA, he was at the UNESCO World Heritage Committee headquarters in Paris and the 43rd Session of the World Heritage Committee in Azerbaijan to advocate renewable energy technologies as more cost effective and environmentally advantageous alternatives to the government’s plan to construct coal plants with a potentially devastating impact on the economy and ecology of the Sundarbans. He is the author of many articles and more than a dozen books on a wide range of subjects, including The Renewable Revolution: How We Can Fight Climate Change, Prevent Energy Wars, Revitalize the Economy and Transition to a Sustainable Future, The Untapped Energy Mine: The Revolutionary Scope of Renewable Energy to Fight Climate Change, Revitalize the Economy and Gain Energy Independence for Bangladesh, and Sundarban: Poetry & Photographs of an Enchanting Journey (with an intensively researched introduction to the ecology of the Sundarbans). His forthcoming books include The Unstoppable Revolution: Climate Action Toward a Renewable Energy Future. Among the many awards he received are Boston “Mayor’s First Annual Green Award for Community Leadership in Energy and Climate Protection” (2007), a Lifetime Achievement Award from the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (2008), and the “Rachel Carson Award” from Massachusetts Interfaith Power & Light (2012). “The Greener Issue” of The Boston Sunday Globe Magazine on September 28, 2008, featured him as one of the “Six local heroes whose work is having rippling effects—at home and far away—in making the world a better place.” www.sajedkamal.com 

Selected endorsements for The Renewable Revolution:

“Sajed Kamal reminds us what we intuitively know—that we must make the transition toward renewable energy as soon as is humanly possible, that continuing to rely on fossil fuel poisons our world with every hour that passes. Even more powerfully, though, he reminds us how possible that transition is. Equally competent with a spreadsheet and a bank of batteries, Kamal is the navigator we need to sail with confidence into this new century.”  Bill McKibben, Author of The End of Nature, Founder, 350.org

“Sajed Kamal’s book The Renewable Revolution makes an extremely compelling and accessible case for making a transition to a sustainable future in which we derive all of our energy from renewable sources. We are not only called to action, but we are provided with many paths that guide us toward a more healthy and just future. The book contains many inspiring photographs and examples of successful existing projects ranging from solar water heating at Fenway Park to solar “breeders” that use solar energy to manufacture solar panels.  One cannot read the book without being driven to action.” Mara Prentiss, Professor of Physics, Harvard University, Author, Energy Revolution: The Physics and the Promise of Efficient Technology

Endorsement for Sundarban: Poems & Photographs of an Enchanting Journey

“In these poems & pictures, Sajed Kamal sees into the simple heart of the magical Sundarban, and indeed of any place still haunted by the real original magic.” Bill McKibben, Author of The End of Nature, Founder, 350.org

*Prepared as a position paper for meeting with the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, UNESCO Headquarters, in Paris, April 2019, and the 43rd Session of the World Heritage Committee, UNESCO, in Azerbaijan, June 30-July 10, 2019.  


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