Environment, Forest and Climate Change Minister Saber Hossain Chowdhury (SHC) shares some exclusive insights on the priorities and challenges with which he steps into his new role. The interview with Masudul Hoque (MH) took place in the minister’s office at the Secretariat earlier this week.

MH: What do you see as challenges facing the ministry?

SHC: I think coordinating with all the ministries to protect the environment, or to control water, air and noise pollution, is the biggest challenge. Because, the Department of Environment only sets the standards. As a ministry, we identify problems. But enforcement is not solely our responsibility. Various ministries and departments of the government need to work collaboratively on this matter.

When it comes to dealing with climate change, many other departments of the government, and a number of ministries such as food, water resources, commerce, local government, industry, are involved. So the government has to take that overall responsibility. We work on the coordination efforts.

MH: What will be your first priority?

SHC: First of all, we are emphasising on identifying how much capacity we have to work on the issues. Does the ministry and agencies under it have the requisite capacity for certain tasks? The name of our ministry is the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. Biodiversity is a big issue that needs focus, but it's not in the ministry structure. Therefore, the capacity of the ministry is important to identify.

MH: Bangladesh is one of the most affected countries due to climate change. What plans do you have in this field?

SHC: Climate change is one of the three issues of the ministry. It's global, we have no hand in it. But we are the most affected. Our strategy is to do as much as we can to reduce the effects of climate change and stand on the side of people. Although we do not have control over carbon emissions, we are not getting the amount of money we are supposed to get. Developed countries or donors do not keep the promises they made in terms of funding.

Proper use of the limited money given to them has to be ensured. We have to implement the action plans that we have in the field of climate change with transparency and cost-effectiveness.

Though Bangladesh is not responsible for climate change, it is one of the worst sufferers of the adverse impacts of climate change. We will work to build global public opinion against climate change.

True sustainable development is not possible without the development of the environment. Therefore, the policies and ideals of Bangladesh will have to be implemented to protect the environment. Despite various global economic and environmental problems, we will work under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to provide a livable environment and a better life to the people of Bangladesh.

MH: What plans do you have to protect the environment?

SHC: We're facing a lot of challenges in the environment. Every year many people die prematurely due to air pollution. Years are being lost from our lives, productivity is being destroyed. There is nothing new to say about it.

So when we talk about sustainable development, the issue of the environment comes into the mainstream. River pollution is a major challenge. Hills are being destroyed. How do we take effective action there? Everyone says it has to stop. But how? ETP plans have been installed in various places. In reality, we have seen that in many cases ETP plans are not maintained. It is launched just before the inspector's visit. And even if they find violations, the penalty is not punitive enough. It needs to be updated.

I will say though, that the environment and forests are completely under our control. We can't blame anyone else for that. If there is any pollution in these two cases, we are solely responsible for it. Deforestation occurs on a greater scale in Bangladesh than in the rest of the world. So one of the focus points is the conservation of the forest. Another is the restoration of encroached forests.

If the forested area can be expanded, that's also a big deal. The forest is not just a tree, it is also about biodiversity. The whole ecosystem is related. While doing development work, many people say that if 5,000 trees are cut, we will plant 50,000 trees. But that can never actually compensate for what is lost. Because it's not just a tree, it's biodiversity.

MH: How do you plan to ensure proper use and transparency of climate funds?

SHC: We will ensure that the allocated money actually reaches the affected people. Maximum efforts will be made to bring allocation from the International Loss and Damage Fund at the earliest, followed by its maximum utilisation, and we will ensure transparency in the use of climate fund money.

MH: Brick kilns are responsible for the majority of air pollution in the capital, which regularly features near the top of the world's most polluted cities. Do you have any specific plan to address this, as well as the damage they cause to the environment?

SHC: Effective measures will be taken against air pollution to protect public health. To this end, legal action will be taken against the air polluting brick kilns. Work will be done in coordination with the concerned ministries and agencies to control air pollution in Dhaka city. Other factors responsible for air pollution will also be controlled on a scientific basis.

'Brick Kiln Tracker' will be used to help identify environmental pollutants and illegal brick kilns and take appropriate legal actions against them. As a result, it will be easy to stop illegal activities by identifying the harmful brick kilns on priority basis. As a result, it will be possible to reduce air pollution caused by brick kilns.

The Department of Environment and National University of Singapore (NUS) have jointly developed the Brick Kiln Tracker based on IT and remote sensing technology. With the help of this latest technology using Artificial Intelligence, the monitoring and enforcement activities of the Department of Environment will be strengthened and successful.

MH: What initiatives will you take to ease the process of obtaining environmental clearance, that has become a cumbersome process for citizens?

SHC: All necessary initiatives will be taken so that people can get services in time. We plan to simplify the process of obtaining environmental clearance certificates to reduce public suffering. At the same time no irregularities will be tolerated in the issuance of clearance.

MH: What can we expect in the upcoming 100-day work plan?

SHC: The 100-day action plan will be announced next week. A 100-day work plan will be implemented incorporating various priority activities of the ministry. In particular, necessary steps will be taken to solve the problems of air pollution, noise pollution, water pollution, plastic-polythene pollution and hill cutting. Bangladesh Awami League's election manifesto and Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan will be implemented on priority basis.

The law will be properly implemented for sustainable development and prevention of forest encroachment. International funding will be attempted. We will work to take the Ministry of Environment, Forest, Climate Change to number 1 (among all the ministries) in terms of performance. Transparency and accountability will be established in the activities of the ministry. Besides, active participation of the concerned ministries and departments is needed to prevent environmental pollution, so we will work in coordination with other ministries.

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