Bangladesh's carbon dilemma

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: August 16, 2018 21:36:44

The previous 'Businesses in Flux' piece (August 13, 2018) elaborated the 'carbon triangle' underpinning of the US economy. With a different cast of characters (companies), a similar troika may be brewing across Bangladesh with similarly open arms.

One leg of the triangle was hailed this last week in Dhaka (by the Bangladesh Investment Development Authority, no less), as "the biggest-ever foreign direct investment in the private sector." To wit, it was Japan Tobacco's (JT's) purchase of Dhaka Tobacco Company from Akij Group, valued at $1.47 billion. Another is the string of coal-fired power plants the country has invested in to feed the explosive energy needs by 2050: one-third of our energy needs in 2030 will be met by coal since the stock of gas we have left is set to expire within a decade, which means today's 1.0 million tons of consumption will multiply to 30 million by then (Badrul Imam, "The burden of imported energy,"). Finally, the third carbon boom-area will be in metropolitan pollution, from all types of vehicles, regulated or otherwise, based on some spiralling numbers.

The irony of it all is that, as much of the rest of the world, particularly its developed countries (DCs), shift towards renewable energy, health consciousness, and emission-controlled vehicles, less developed countries (LDCs), such as Bangladesh, have emerged as big-time carbon consumers. This is not to chastise every LDC, nor praise all DCs, since there are exceptions in them all: India, one of our major suppliers of dirty coal, is also making strides in boosting renewable energy sources. Yet, driven by the imperatives of shedding our lowly-born poverty tags, Bangladesh is set to do whatever it needs to push its growth-rate to a level as to make a middle-income climb irreversible. That means looking no farther than the trees to gauge the shape and size of the forest they belong to: smoking has had an intimate relationship with growth since it evokes the same 'machismo' instinct as growth; no one cares about coal-infested neighborhoods as long as the ready-made garment (RMG) export-income keeps rolling in; and it may be the looks of the SUV rather than what it spews out or the volume of fuel it consumes that matters the most for the nouveau riche. Whichever way, we have the cash to spare, and many DC exporters badly need that income, so why must our thoughts get 'carbonated'?

Japan, for example, is finding its cigarette market drying up, with shrinking JT business to show for it. Yet, even as over 1,50,000 Bangladeshis die of smoking annually, we have the stomach for the JT-sized investment: the money apart (which is not peanuts, since the value-added tax on cigarettes is the largest public revenue source), we evoke a better global picture of foreign-friendly investment. It is no wonder that the only tobacco corporation in Bangladesh larger than Dhaka Tobacco Company is also foreign: British American Tobacco (it actually disbanded its previous name, Bangladesh Tobacco Company, kept from 1972 to 1998), whose roots can be traced back to the British Empire days, to 1910 specifically). Commanding 60 per cent of the domestic market, with over 50,000 employees directly or indirectly involved, it is well set to expect better results here in Bangladesh than it would in its parent countries.

For as long as we had gas deposits and supplies, we did not pay much attention to diversifying energy sources, although the industrialisation outburst from the 1990s also pushed us towards coal consumption. The net effect is that, when today's 12,000 MW of electricity demand triples by 2030, as it is projected to, we will be caught so flat-footed that we will plunge even deeper into coal consumption without erecting any controls or modifiers. We have recognised the urgency of this so well that some of our mega-projects today involve coal-fired power-plant construction on an emergency basis, from the 1,350 MW $1.5 billion Rampal Coal Power Plant alongside the Sundarbans to the 1,200 MW $500 million Moheskhali/Matarbari Coal-fired Coal Power Plant off the Cox's Bazaar coast, and the $1.5 billion Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant. Some have been allocated to India (Rampal), others to Japan (Matarbari), or Russia (Rooppur), yet others to China (the $1.9 billion Payra power plant under the Bangladesh-China Power Company Limited). We also diversified our coal import-sources, with India, Indonesia, and Japan leading the list. We hit the million-ton import mark at the turn of the century, but by now we import almost twice as much.

On top of all these is a thriving automobile industry. We are now selling 63 cars each and every day, the highest in our history (Shohel Mamun, "Car sales triple in five years,"), with imports tripling over the past 8-odd years to match the market demand (of reconditioned cars, this could be up to 20 per cent). While that is good business for banks, where loans have spiralled, the road-side consequences could be devastating if more pollution controls are not put into place. Constructing new highways and lanes address part of the problem, but without emission rules and regulations, we could be suffocating our population unnecessarily and unbearably (not to mention expensively).

What we have not done, and urgently should before it is too late, is to exploit non-renewable energy sources. Enormous potential has been pointed out in wind-power, for example, we can already get up to 12 per cent of our total energy needs from wind (A.Z.A. Saifullah, and others, "Wind energy potential in Bangladesh," American Journal of Engineering Research, vol. 5, issue 7, 2016, 85-94), and solar power (Mahmud Anik Dev, "Prospects of solar energy in Bangladesh," Journal of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, vol. 4, 2013, 46-57): with enough hills and a tumultuous Monsoon season for at least one-third of the year,  properly harnessed, we should be able to reap a lot of energy from just wind; then if we expand solar panels, as experimented within several countryside locations, we should be able to garner a lot more energy from sources not even brought into our typical calculations.

Conquering our own carbon triangle is not just a viable business proposition, but also works wonders on many other fronts. Not only do we get the energy we need and at lower costs than from coal or oil, but we also receive clean energy, leaving less of a mess for us to hand down to our grandchildren than we are accustomed to handling ourselves. Each one of our 165 million people would carry fewer pollutants inside our body, some with freer blood circulation, and thereby fewer health problems. That is without counting future beneficiaries. All added up, the collective dividends are far too attractive for us to let our own material gains always dominate.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.


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