The UN-led process for global engagement to tackle the adverse effects of climate change - the Conference of the Parties, gearing up for its 26th iteration in Glasgow, Scotland or COP26 - has never failed to disappoint anyone putting far too much store by them. From Copenhagen (2009) to Paris (2015), two of the more serious attempts in a generation to try and hammer out some sort of agreement in which nearly 200 countries can appear to be on the same page, we have seen how ambition in the build up to a conference has sadly fizzled out by the time world leaders actually gather around a negotiating table.
From there, what actually commences is a treacherous game of leaks and briefings by anonymous sources that ultimately share one common objective: the shifting of blame towards others, at least just enough to satisfy domestic audiences who actually can have a say in the political fortunes of an incumbent government.
Most electorates around the world don't have the damage being wrought on the environment very high on their list of priorities - unless and until you are on the frontlines, the danger is too remote, the solution too intangible, the reward too distant. Success on the other hand demands statesmanship on the part of the leaders, on a scale and magnitude that even they may not claim credit for. Host governments, who proceed to take over the chairing of the process for one year, share an obvious inclination towards making a good fist of it, if only for the associative benefits that are expected to flow from a successful conference. And so it is understandable that the UK has been taking the lead all-year round really, and in fact for almost two years now, since COP26 was originally scheduled to be held at the end of 2020 remember, but had to be postponed due to the small matter of a global pandemic. Which, by the way, is far from being declared as behind us even today. But unquestionably we are far better placed today in relation to beating COVID-19 than we were 12 months ago.
A common refrain during the pandemic on social media possibly, and maybe even some op-ed pages, has been that this pandemic has shown us "conclusively", in case there remained any doubt, that the world - meaning we, as a species - must change its way now, and not just discuss it but also now execute the course correction that is needed to move towards a more sustainable way of living, and that at the personal level, calls for a more considerate and sensitive relationship with the environment that we inhabit. As Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican diplomat who spearheaded the process that led to the Paris Agreement as Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2010-15, once said: "Doing all we can means taking action not tomorrow but today, because when it comes to climate change, thought without action is not only empty. It is profoundly irresponsible."
As COP26 plays out over the next two weeks starting Sunday (Oct. 31), it may be wiser not to stake everything in an all-or-nothing outcome, but instead to temper our expectations for the world to arrive at the same page once the deliberations are over. While that effort is ongoing, we can focus on more manageable units - the nation, in communities, the individual. Where nothing less than the future of the planet is at stake, there can be no scope for anyone to shirk their responsibility. And so it is wasteful to wait for anyone else, at any level.
As Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has previously indicated, Bangladesh, despite its miniscule carbon footprint, is no longer willing to wait around to take its cue from countries that have been expected to take the lead in steering the response since at least Copenhagen. Last week again, writing in the Financial Times with a view to COP26, she reiterated this position on the part of her government, even as she came down hard on the rich, industrialised countries for their perpetual dithering and delaying.
"[W]ith COP26 in view, we developed the world's first national 'climate prosperity plan' -- a vision under which we will enhance resilience, grow our economy, create jobs and expand opportunities for our citizens, using action on climate change as the catalyst."
Under the plan, she said, they will obtain 30 percent of energy from renewables by the end of the decade. The plan is expected to simultaneously prevent up to 6.8 percent of the economic damage that would otherwise come not only from climate change but also increasingly uneconomic fossil fuel infrastructure.
"I believe more developing nations will adopt such plans in the coming months and years, led by members of the Climate Vulnerable Forum," Hasina wrote. "This year's COP26 summit in Glasgow is the best opportunity we will ever have to make one."
Although recent net-zero pledges from the European Union, the United States and others are welcome, she said that the 100 billion U.S. dollars per year finance pledge made 12 years ago remains unfulfilled.
"Nor is their repeated refusal to take seriously the needs of those nations most immediately affected. Agreement to support the poorest in dealing with the losses and damages caused by climate change is far removed from implementation," she continued.
"If developed nations wish to help they must address this. Cutting the cost of capital will substantially accelerate decarbonisation across the global south, yielding worldwide benefits. If western leaders cannot see the logic of this, perhaps recent events in their own backyards will help - for what were the extreme forest fires seen in North America and Australia or Germany's recent lethal floods, if not alarm bells clanging in regions of the world most responsible for climate change?" she wrote.
The pledge on renewables is from Bangladesh's updated Nationally Determined Contribution document, that was revised in August to reflect the country's realignment of priorities, in line with today's new reality. As part of one of the first concrete actions the government has taken to signal this shift, State Minister for Energy and Power Nasrul Hamid earlier announced the cancellation of plans for 10 coal-fired power plants that were a cornerstone of the government's previous Masterplan for the power sector.
An "ambitious NDC" was named by British High Commissioner Robert Chatterton Dickson during an appearance at DCAB this week (see story), as one of the three things that the host government would be looking forward to receiving from Bangladesh during the deliberations in Glasgow. In the next section we turn to a discussion on some of the salient parts of the revised NDC.
What's in the new NDC
In August 2021, Bangladesh updated its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). The NDC sets a 22% cut of all heat-trapping emissions by 2030 compared with 2012. This is to be achieved through a wide range of mitigation measures in the energy, land use and waste sectors.
The pledge outlines a series of mitigation strategies for the power sector in particular, such as increasing the share of renewable sources in the energy mix, which is currently negligible; reducing coal; and installing prepaid meters. It also looks to reduce traffic congestion, promoting non-motorised vehicles, shifting from road to rail and more. Crucially, it wants to invest in natural gas, as part of a strategy to offset more polluting fuels.
"Taking the business and economic activities in 2012 as yardsticks," explained Mirza Shawkat Ali, the director in charge of the climate change department at the Environment Ministry, to environmentalist outlet The Third Pole. "We have calculated that [without interventions] Bangladesh would gradually generate nearly 410 million tons of GHGs in 2030."
"Out of this projected total, we have proposed to cut 27.56 million tons, or 6.73% of emissions in 2030," Ali said. "We have also proposed a further 61.9 million tonnes, or 15.21%, of emission cuts, provided we get financial and technological support," he added. "Bangladesh contributes less than 0.5% to the global emissions budget. As a Least Developed Country we have offered our highest."
According to Bangladesh's NDC, the energy sector accounts for about 55% of the country's emissions, followed by agriculture, forest and land use, waste and industrial processes. By 2030, the UN expects the energy sector to make up more than 76% of Bangladesh's carbon emissions.
In 2009, the government estimated Bangladesh's per capita income to be USD 690 per year, while electricity coverage stood at 45%. This is the moment in the country's history when fossil fuels took centre stage, with heavy investments in coal, oil and gas.
The strategy paid off. In 2015, Bangladesh became a lower-middle-income country and poverty declined from 44% in 1991 to 15% in 2016, based on the international poverty line of USD 1.90 a day. Boosting electricity generation helped Bangladesh achieve over 7% economic growth in 2019, and the country's GDP rose by 5.47% between July 2020 and June 2021, when the rest of the world's economy collapsed during the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2020, per capita income rose to USD 2,227. Bangladesh's official plan for 2041 seeks to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030 and acquire high-income country status around 2041. The government has set a target to increase installed electricity generation capacity to 40 GW by 2030 and 60 GW by 2041, of which 40% would come from renewable sources.
While Bangladesh achieved remarkable success in key development indicators such as energy access, connecting nearly 100% of its population to the grid, up from 20% in 2000, its economy remains reliant on fossil fuels, notably on natural gas. According to the International Energy Agency, gas makes up over 60% of the total energy supply, complemented by oil, biofuels and waste, and coal.
The fuel, which is less polluting than oil and coal, is also known as a 'bridge fuel', a way of reducing a country's emissions while allowing its economy to develop. As part of its NDC, Bangladesh is trying to replace as much coal and oil as possible with gas, to progressively reduce its emissions.
The coming transition
The country's obsolete power transmission and distribution network is a roadblock to energy transition. The distribution network is decades old, and would not accommodate more than 10% of renewable energy, according to M Tamim, the BUET professor who has served as consultant to a variety of different projects in the power sector over the years. What he is getting at is that Bangladesh's electricity distribution network is not equipped to automatically regulate power flows, which means that an electricity overload due to additional renewable energy at certain times of the day would burn transformers and power lines. Currently, Tamim explained, power officials resort to creating outages to control the power load, while a more advanced grid system could independently regulate the flow of electricity, making room for more renewable power.
Upgrading the grid to deal with climate change, Tamim said, would cost a whopping $20 billion - at least. That is why even as Bangladesh enters this year's COP26 negotiations with a clear pitch for sustainable growth, making the case for a certain amount of fossil fuels in the energy mix to sustain the country's economy in the coming decades, and getting it ready for a deeper energy transition, it must not relent in hounding the rich nations for the $100 billion pledge they made 12 years ago, but have yet failed to produce. The prime minister bears this responsibility even more as the current chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, for which over 40 member countries will be looking to her to provide the kind of leadership that brings results for them all, and not just her own country or government.
Richer countries agreed in 2009 to establish a $100bn a year fund to help transfer technologies and minimise climate risks in the developing world, but progress has been slow. Alok Sharma, president of the Cop26 conference, said this week he hoped the fund would be made available in 2023, three years later than planned, and many developing nations are reluctant to commit to accelerating their emissions reductions until rich ones meet their pledges.
A Chinese environment official said this week that this was "the biggest obstacle" to progress in the climate talks. A leaked draft of the communique from a meeting of the G20 nations, taking place in Rome over the weekend before countries head over to the UK, calls in brackets for "additional climate financing". That suggests there is plenty of negotiating and wrangling and back-and-forth still to come on this issue.
Redemption for BoJo?
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is part of a new generation of Conservative politicians in the UK who do put climate on the agenda, and locate a sense of environmental stewardship as part of a commitment to (small 'c') conservatism. And he is not even the first lead his country with that outlook. The rebranding of the Tories as a party that actually embraces more liberal positions on some social issues really started under David Cameron, the man who led the party back to government in 2010, after three successive election defeats at the hands of the Labour party.
With the important role that host governments inevitably play in the success or failure of any conference, all eyes will be on Johnson in the coming days, to see if he can steer the difficult negotiations through to a worthy outcome. The man who is destined to be remembered as the man who led Britain out of the EU (he was one of the leaders of the Brexit campaign) has for that same reason lost some of his lustre on the international stage, that had accrued through two spells as mayor of cosmopolitan London.
He can point to bona fides from his time as mayor for a track record of caring for the environment, and the woman he married after getting to 10, Downing Street, Carrie Symonds, is a committed environmentalist with what is rumoured to be outsize influence in decisionmaking, according to a disgruntled ex-aide. Johnson though, is nothing if not a creature of Westminster, and his actions in the coming days will most likely be dictated by politics that is local.
Writing in The Spectator, a bastion of the British right in the more traditional sense (on climate change, they remain sceptical), the journalist Katy Balls this week noted how just a few months ago, the view inside Downing Street was that the COP26 summit would be 'a national morale booster'. But now, according to Balls, "The headlines are about rail strikes, bin men running away from rats on rubbish-strewn streets in Glasgow and the Prime Minister declaring that recycling doesn't work."
People are already associating it with failure, Balls reports, although names are not forthcoming. Starting Sunday, we will begin to find out if her sources are quite so immaculate.
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