A little boy takes his mother to the doctor. The doctor says: “I have bad news. Your mother is in the early stages of paralysis. She will slowly get worse and ultimately be unable to function if this continues.” The little boy says: “So how much income are we going to lose now?”
It sounds ridiculous, yet we are just like that little boy when it comes to climate change. For decades, scientists have been telling us, cautioning us, warning us of the slow paralysis of the Earth’s oceans, rainforests, and other vital organs that sustain not only her, but us too. They have written us the prescription, largely pro bono, assuring insignificant side effects, but we argued that our present income loss is not that great. But like soil in drought, this argument simply does not hold much water anymore.
A 2012 report estimated that the world has already lost more than $1.2tn annually, roughly 1.6% of global GDP, from climate change-caused damages. But the scarier and still surprisingly unrecognised economic threat is the looming collapse of the “carbon bubble.” The Carbon Tracker Initiative reported that humans can burn another 565 gigatons of carbon, and still have a reasonable chance of keeping global warming within the internationally agreed limit of 2˚C.
However, known fossil fuel reserves exceeded 2,795 gigatons, and fossil fuel companies have continued spending billions of dollars annually drilling for more.
The Carbon Tracker Initiative warned investors of the risks of “wasted capital” and “stranded assets” that arise from the fact that 60-80% of known reserves have to remain underground to check global warming to (hopefully) non-catastrophic levels. But, these trillions of dollars worth of assets are already factored into stock values of companies, credit ratings, etc. When the market realises that they are indeed unburnable, the invisible hand will smite them worthless, and slice off an oily chunk of global GDP with it.
On the flip side, however, economic potential for key renewables such as solar and wind is rising fast, projected to become more favourable than fossil fuels by as early as the end of this decade. And this is without much in the way of handouts. A tax on carbon dioxide emissions – a policy now widely advocated for, will make renewable sources cheaper in many places right now.
China added 3.3 gigawatts of solar power in just the first six months of this year. These changes do not bode very well for coal – the most polluting fossil fuel. Coal plants are barely making a profit in Australia. China plans to ban coal use in Beijing by 2020, and the Obama administration proposed cutting coal emissions 30% by 2030, making the fate of already struggling power plants even more uncertain.
Yet, our domestic energy policy has seen a new unprecedented focus on coal, with a projected sharp rise in coal-powered electricity to 50% by 2030, up from 2% presently. The most controversial among the current projects is of course the Rampal Plant. Disregarding the grim findings of the only independent Environmental Impact Assessment and the widespread protests, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recently requested the Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj to speed up construction on the plant!
The government has also failed to respond timely to the concerns of the World Heritage Committee, charging forward on construction brazenly. All of this to slowly poison the lifeblood of the Sundarbans, killing our best defense against fast-rising seas and more intense cyclones funneling in from the Bay of Bengal.
But even without considering Rampal, such a coal-intensive energy strategy is disastrous on multiple fronts. The enormous impact of coal pollution on public health is well documented. In Northern China alone, a pro-coal policy cost its 500 million people 5.52 years of reduced average life expectancy – an unfathomable 2.5 billion human life years in total – from elevated rates of cardiorespiratory diseases. In addition, rigid coal infrastructure will become outdated and expensive very fast as renewables become cheaper and carbon pollution gets increasingly regulated globally as efforts to combat climate change strengthen.
And there is no reason they will not. Climate change politics is now a very fast moving sphere, and gaining momentum in the run-up to the all-important UNFCCC conference in Paris at the end of 2015, where a treaty will be signed to replace the Kyoto protocol. It is a climacteric time for human civilisation as a whole, as scientists have said we are at the very last stages of being able to prevent irreversible and catastrophic climate change.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is hosting the UN Climate Summit on September 23 in New York to highlight this urgency to world leaders. Thousands of activist and advocacy organisations are taking this opportunity to jointly organise the People’s Climate March on September 21, demanding “Action, Not Words” in the largest global mobilisation on climate change to date.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will attend the summit, and like these organisations, she will likely be an impassioned voice calling for much-needed justice in international negotiations. The world listens to Bangladesh because we represent so many people whose lives are increasingly affected by a fast-changing climate.
But, if we are not responsible in our domestic energy policy and if we do not make judicious and transparent use of adaptation funding, it will be very hypocritical, and thereby ineffective, for us to demand stronger action and greater funding. We ourselves have failed to include climate change funding in our most recent national budget. Then, how can we make the case to the world that this is a priority for our national development?
Sheikh Hasina and her Minister of Forestry and Environment Anwar Hossain Manju have a momentous responsibility on their shoulders at this incredibly critical time to set the direction for the ultimate fate of our country. However, this can and should be seen as a great opportunity – an opportunity to grow our economy in a way that does not harm public health or condemn our treasured Sundarbans to trample under special interests – but rather protects the interests of our people and environment, as the fates of the two have always been and will continue to be deeply interconnected.