What Coal Doesn’t Remind Me Of – Asif Hassan

If I have to convince you that we don’t need coal power plants, I probably have to debunk the myth surrounding their importance and critically analyze why we apparently feel the need to burn finite resources.

Bangladesh, on paper, has lower energy consumption and, consequently, contributes to Global Warming less than her neighbors – equivalent to 160 kilograms per capita as opposed to the Asian average of 640, and the staggering 530 kilogram per capita of India. On top of that, a limited supply of electricity places a heavy blow. Roughly 60% of the whole Bangladeshi population receives power from the national grid. Others have to rely on different sources, ranging from government to non-government solar power initiatives, innovative experiments with water turbines in some ultra-rural areas, to the ever-so-handy kerosene to pump the lamp so that the patriarch can see his food every night when he sits out on the porch for dinner.

On the other hand, the inefficient ministry structures which deserve some accolade in impeccably designing a “planning disaster”, has been forecasting growth in electricity demand as low as half of what the actual growth is in Bangladesh – a predicted 7% as opposed to the actual 14% – culminating in an investment bonanza that incessantly failed to solve the problem. What does all of this mean? Simple – less electricity for a rapidly developing country, one where social and financial status in rural areas is measured by the number of bulbs you can afford to light every night, one where the oblivious sleep with the aircon on because that’s what they deserve after a hard day’s work, and the one that’s myopic, failing to look beyond the one yardstick of development and think long-term.

Bangladesh’s race to the middle income class of 2017 seems to be based on improving GDP per capita in whatever way possible. This has given rise to the age old Economic Development vs Environment Preservation debate, one that many Bangladeshis may not be aware of. The impacts of global warming are already hitting like salty realizations as floods in the coastal areas are becoming commonplace during monsoon. The melting Himalayas usher her beauty through the Ganges for what is shaping up to be an uncontrollable Himalayan wrath. Farmers are increasingly getting concerned about crops being covered with layers of salt, damaging the potential harvest and calling for greater innovation to tackle Climate Change effects on food security. Bangladesh has been at the forefront of agribusiness for quite a while, and I am not even talking about our household staple – rice, of course. At this rate, Climate Change scientists predict that production will be lower than predicted demand by 2050, creating a nationwide food shortage which will probably have no immediate solution. All of these are consequences Bangladesh is, and will be, bearing because the Orange gun in a seemingly empty white house still believes in the power of coal.

However, The Government of Bangladesh turned out to be a firm believer of coal themselves when they decided to build two coal-driven power plants just 15kms away from the Sundarbans and achieve the middle-income status. The proposed Rampal and Orion projects, which will generate 1,320MW and 565MW of energy respectively, seem to be well-underway despite mass protests by environmental activists, but this also means that coal will have to be shipped to the Sundarbans every day. An ecosystem that’s fragile enough to be defeated by a 75,000 gallon oil spill last year will have to pray on its knees just so it can live to see another year. What’s worse is the administrations’ acknowledgement of the impacts on the Sundarbans but an oblivious attitude towards combating possible climate degradation – while innocent men and women fought the oil spills day and night with household pots and pans can now rejoice at their promised modern technology savior which is yet to see the light of day. This comes as an addition to the Boropukuriya coal mine in Dinajpur, which is already responsible for destroying agriculturally fertile soil and fresh river water. A significant proportion of Bangladeshi agricultural production comes from Dinajpur and the surrounding regions, which is constantly under threat as fertile land is running out. Fresh water is being destroyed with waste and in many cases, extreme usage of water to wash out the mines are resulting in lower reservoir levels underground and in the rivers, making it extremely difficult for farmers to keep up with the game and solve the food insecurity that 1/4th of the population is plagued by right now.

What’s the most important takeaway from all of this? Unplanned chaos. Simultaneous economic and environmental development requires years of observation, oversight and planning. Bangladesh was left to fend for itself through one natural disaster after another. As soon as the floods subside and the rainbow welcomes the sun, everyone rushes to earn a living. A country that is authoritatively dictated by the red, blue and green banknotes got busy trying to be rich and show the jewels off to the world – “We can do it too!” Colonials paved the way of our development, and though we refused to let them stay, we embraced their path to economic freedom with open arms. And in this pursuit of an unnamed and intangible happiness, we were fooled into believing that protecting our environment is not a collective responsibility.

Somewhere down the line, protecting mother nature became the next guys’ responsibility while I am allowed to chomp on the fish I earned for myself and get myself stuck in traffic every morning because I am in the cool kids club with my newly bought status-symbol of a car. The problem is simple – we were made to believe that if Europe and the Americas achieved economic stability first, that is exactly what we need to do. Ergo, we got stuck in a modified Maslow’s hierarchy where moving up the social ladder by earning a lot of money became the primary need for us in the materialistic world we have imagined for themselves – protecting climate comes later, or not at all.

It is a never-ending cycle of development, which seeks more energy consumption to employ more people, while more people want more energy, greater electricity coverage from the national grid, etc. The biggest reason for energy shortage in Bangladesh is her high dependency on natural gas that’s running out real fast, which is also the reason why focus has been shifted to coal power plants (even though both resources are finite). Bangladesh is fiscally finding itself in a very tight spot with almost zero room to maneuver around and make some solid changes for the better. Public demand for energy is stronger than most other countervailing forces, to a point where even overall local politics has taken a stance against Climate Change awareness. The myopic reasoning of the general public has forced the Government to take a step back on all the intended environmental development and green funds, ultimately hurting itself in the process.

What Bangladesh needs now is good economics – power trade with India will not do much to further economic incentives. If Mamta Banerjee has to open the Farakka dam gates and let the floods in, she will do that. But investing in hydropower trade with Bhutan is a much better option for building a sustainable framework which generates power and affects Climate the least, taking care of Bangladesh’s concerning comparative disadvantage within South Asia. There should be a greater emphasis on using biofuels in ultra-rural areas. This calls for effective campaigns with NGOs and INGOs who work specifically to improve the health, sanitation and lifestyle of rural Bangladeshis. Moreover, the way forward should involve aggressive policies encouraging solar power and a pledge against using finite, polluting resources.

However, the biggest and most necessary change involves altering perceptions. It is never easy for a 50 year old man to learn that he needs much more than just money. But if we are to leave a better world for our kids, we better start teaching them the meaning of life, Mother Nature, and the integrity that they need to protect as soon as possible. We need to alter their Maslow’s hierarchy and tap really deep into their psyches so as to imprint the need to protect the environment and cut back on the effects of Climate Change through productive initiatives of adaptation, and leave a better world for their kids. It’s not easy changing school curricula and teaching kids the right things from scratch, but it’s a change we have to believe in, and have to see it with our own eyes before we leave the Earth in their firm hands.

Asif Hassan

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