Massive coal-based power expansion in Bangladesh is set to propel the country into the ranks of the world’s worst polluters, says a major new report released on Wednesday in Dhaka. The expansion not only threatens global climate targets but promises to further aggravate catastrophic environmental insecurity within a country where floods, cyclones, droughts and pollution have already taken thousands of lives.
Choked by Coal: the Carbon Catastrophe in Bangladesh, published by Market Forces and 350.org, and co-published by Bangladesh Poribesh Andolan, Transparency International Bangladesh and Waterkeepers Bangladesh, explained how foreign-led finance was the driving force behind plans for 29 coal-fired power stations. This expansion that has seen Bangladesh leap within just three years, from 12th to 6th in terms of global coal power under development.
The South Asian nation of 180 million has entered into a faster lane of development and has been betting on this dirty fuel to support its fast-growing economy, even as other countries in Asia try to shift away from coal amid an intensifying pollution crisis.
According to the website of the Sustainable & Renewable Energy Development Authority , over half of Bangladesh’s electricity is currently generated from natural gas (54%) – but its gas reserves are declining. This is one of the reasons that coal is being considered. At present, renewable energy constitutes only 2.7% of the country’s energy mix, while coal power plants account for a paltry 1.6%. But if the country’s plans for using coal power come through, the fuel will account for more than half of Bangladesh’s electricity generation supply by 2022.
In the new report, Market Forces has identified 10,200 MW of coal power capacity in Bangladesh’s pipeline in addition to the Global Energy Monitor’s capacity in “active development” (23,000 MW). The additional capacity represents coal power plants that Market Forces considers at significant risk of being pursued in future.
A dirty future
An analysis by Market Forces finds that Bangladesh has at least 29 coal-fired power projects with a total capacity of 33,200 MW in the pipeline (pre-construction and under construction) as of July. If all the pipeline projects are built, Bangladesh would increase its coal power capacity by 63 times.
Chinese banks and companies are leading the dirty energy drive, funding over half the projects. UK- and Japan-based companies are involved in three proposed coal projects each, despite transitioning to cleaner energy within their own borders. The UK, for instance, plans to phase out coal power by 2025.
At the moment, the only operational coal-fired plant is the 525 MW Barapukuria subcritical plant in Dinajpur district. Most of Bangladesh’s 33,200 MW of proposed coal power projects are located in three “power hubs” on the south coast of Bangladesh in Payra, Matarbari and Maheshkhali.
The new report noted that 25 of the 29 proposed coal projects plan to use imported coal for power generation. Deep sea ports planned at Payra in Patuakhali district and Matarbari in Cox’s Bazar district would be required to import coal from Australia, India, Indonesia, and South Africa.
Twenty million metric tonnes of coal is planned to be imported through Payra every year once all the pipeline coal plants are commissioned (the year by which this will occur is unspecified). The proposed Matarbari port’s coal terminal plans to import up to 41 million tonnes of coal. The ports therefore play a pivotal role in the massive build out of pipeline coal power plants. These plans represent a 4000% increase in Bangladesh’s current imports of just 1.5 million tonnes per annum of thermal coal.
The report said at September 2019 prices, the estimated cost of importing 61 mtpa of thermal coal as Bangladesh plans to do by 2041, would be $2 billion annually. During fiscal years 2018 and 2019, the country experienced the largest trade deficits in its history: $18 billion and $16 billion respectively.
The pipeline plants would lock Bangladesh into a huge volume of coal imports for decades. Unless exports increase significantly, billions worth of coal purchased from abroad would add on to trade deficits. Experts warn that if this trend continues, it would be challenging to manage the negative balance of trade.
Environmentalists oppose plan
Environmentalists and the environment activist groups have been vehemently protesting the Bangladesh’s plan for turning towards coal. They say a carbon-free future is still possible.
“Building polluting and out-dated coal-fired power stations when the rest of the world is switching to renewables is a colossal act of self-sabotage,” said Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon, an activist group which has been working to protect the environment in Bangladesh for the past two decades.
“UNICEF has already linked climate change to devastating floods, cyclones and other environmental disasters threatening the lives and futures of more than 19 million children in Bangladesh,” said Dr Abdul Matin, General Secretary of BAPA. “The proposed coal expansion will see this country being led further down a devastating path.”
Tonny Nowshin of 350.org, an international environmental organisation addressing the climate crisis, said, “While many nations across the globe increasingly realise the importance of phasing out from fossil fuels, coal companies supported by major financial institutions want to lock Bangladesh into dirty, dangerous and expensive fossil fuel infrastructure.”
She said Bangladesh is already one of the countries most affected by climate change, and cannot become the dumping ground for coal due to vested corporate and political interests.
“The long-term costs of this obsolete technology to the local communities will pile up for decades,” she said. “A strong people’s movement has already proposed an alternative plan to generate 55% of electricity from renewable energy sources by 2041, which is a crucial tool to a transition towards a sustainable, fair and accessible new energy system.”
Waterkeepers Bangladesh, a Dhaka based environmentalist group, said, “Bangladesh is a fast-growing country which needs power, but that does not have to come at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of millions.”
The group added: “Across the border and in many countries around the world, renewable energy is already cheaper than coal. Bangladesh has already demonstrated commendable use of solar energy for domestic and other small-scale consumption, and has the opportunity at this critical juncture to follow the same path, but to do so, it’s imperative for foreign investors to clean up their dirty money.”
Echoing Waterkeeper’s observation, the new report said, “A clean and sustainable energy future is still possible for Bangladesh. Only 10% of the proposed coal plants have progressed to the construction phase, while the remaining projects have merely been announced or are in preliminary, pre-construction stages. Potential for up to 53 gigawatts (GW) of solar power capacity exists in Bangladesh, which could replace planned coal power projects as a lower cost alternative for electricity generation, said the report.”
Faisal Mahmud is a Dhaka based journalist.