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Is coal really worth it?

  • Published at 12:01 pm July 31st, 2017
  • Last updated at 12:35 pm July 31st, 2017
Is coal really worth it?

Compared to her neighbours, Bangladesh, on paper, consumes less energy and, consequently, contributes less to global warming -- 160 kg oil equivalent as opposed to the Asian average of 640 kg oil equivalent, and a staggering 530 kg oil equivalent energy consumption per capita of India.

Our domestic supply of electricity is so limited that only around 60% of the whole population receives power from the national grid. Others have to rely on different sources ranging from government to non-government initiatives of solar power, innovative experimentation of water turbines in some ultra-rural areas the government does not even have a clue about, or the ever-so-handy kerosene to pump the lamp.

On the other hand, the inefficient ministry structures which deserve some accolade in impeccably designing a “planning disaster” has been forecasting the growth and demand for electricity to be less than half the actual growth and demand for electricity is in Bangladesh -- 7% predicted and 14% real growth, culminating to an investment bonanza that failed to solve the problem.

What does all of this mean?

Simple: An extraordinary shortage of electricity in a rapidly developing country with rapidly growing energy needs.

Bangladesh’s race to the middle income class of 2017 seems to be based on improving GDP per capita in whatever way possible, even at the expense of our environment.

Global warming is already taking a toll as floods in the coastal areas are becoming commonplace during monsoon season. 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 impact on food security.

Although Bangladesh has been at the forefront of the agribusiness for quite a while, climate change scientists predict that production, and consequently supply, will be lower than the predicted demand by 2050, creating nationwide food shortage which will probably have no immediate solution.

All of these are consequences Bangladesh is, and will be, facing because the orange clown in the White House still believes in the power of coal.

The Bangladeshi government itself turned out to be a fan of coal when it decided to build two coal-driven power plants just 15km away from the Sundarbans and achieve middle-income status.

Coal-induced chaos

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.

How will an ecosystem that’s fragile enough to be devastated by a 75,000 gallon oil spill withstand the damaging effects of these coal power plants?

What’s worse is the administration’s indifference towards combating climate degradation despite its acknowledgement of the adverse effects on the Sundarbans.

This comes as an addition to Boropukuriya coal mine in Dinajpur, which is already responsible for destroying agriculturally fertile soil and fresh river waters.

The biggest and most necessary change involves altering perceptions

The significant contribution of Bangladeshi agriculture comes from Dinajpur and the regions surrounding the district, which is constantly under threat as fertile lands are running out. Fresh water is being destroyed with waste and, in many cases, excessive usage of water to wash out the mines are resulting in lower reservoir levels of water underground and in the rivers, causing severe problems for farmers.

The most important takeaway from all of this: Unplanned chaos.

Simultaneous economic and environmental development requires years of observation, oversight, and planning.

Getting our priorities straight

Colonials paved the way for our development; we refused to let them stay but we embraced their way of achieving economic prosperity with open arms. And in this pursuit of an ill-defined and intangible happiness, we were fooled to believe that protecting our environment is not a collective responsibility.

Somewhere down the line, protecting Mother Nature became the next guy’s responsibility.

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 upping on the social status by earning a lot of money became a primary need for individuals in a materialistic world they imagined for themselves -- protecting climate comes later, or it usually doesn’t.

It is a never-ending cycle of development, which seeks more energy consumption to employ a greater number of people while more people want greater energy consumption, greater electricity coverage from the national grid, etc.

The biggest reason for energy shortage in Bangladesh is our high dependency on a rapidly dwindling supply of natural gas, which is also the reason why focus has been shifted to coal power plants even though both the resources are finite.

Bangladesh is fiscally finding itself in a very tight spot with almost zero room to manoeuvre around and make some solid changes for the better.

Public demand for energy is so high, and supply so limited, that government authorities buckled under pressure and put climate change concerns on the back burner.

The myopic 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.

Going forward

What Bangladesh needs now is a good economic strategy -- power trade with India will not do much to further economic incentives.

If Mamata 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 has a minimal effect on climate, taking care of Bangladesh’s concerning comparative disadvantage within South Asia.

There should be greater emphasis on the usage of bio-fuels in the ultra-rural areas. This calls for effective campaigns with NGOs and INGOs who work specifically to improve health, sanitation, and lifestyle of rural Bangladeshis. Moreover, the way forward should involve aggressive policies towards solar power and a pledge against usage of finite, pollutant resources.

However, the biggest and most necessary change involves altering perceptions.

If we are to leave a better world for our children, we better start teaching them the importance of Mother Nature.

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 hands.

Asif Hasan is a Senior Content Strategist at MediaMuse.

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