In the second half of 2017, the government did something unprecedented in response to an unprecedented situation—it sheltered about 750,000 Rohingyas fleeing from a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” by the Myanmar army. Our response to this humanitarian crisis had serious environmental and ecological consequences. We, however, could see three stages of development to make the situation better.
First, the government and its humanitarian partners made saving people’s lives their first priority by giving them shelter, food and health services, and protecting them from violence, human trafficking and disasters. Conserving the forests or biodiversity was not on their priority list. As a result, we saw the world’s largest refugee camp being built in the biodiversity-rich Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf peninsula, the temporary address of a million refugees.
A government assessment estimated that by the middle of 2019, the ecological and biodiversity damage of the Rohingya crisis was about USD 285 million. In addition to the destruction of about 2,500 hectares of forest land to build the camps, another 750 hectares of forests were destroyed as Rohingyas collected firewood to meet their daily energy needs.
Second, when the initial rush of humanitarian response settled down a bit, the government, UN agencies and their partners started exploring alternative sources of fuel so that the remaining forests could be saved from the cooking stoves of the camps. After trying out a few options, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), provided in cylinders to be used with a stove, was identified as the best option available.
After a successful piloting with 6,000 families in August 2018, the LPG support was gradually scaled up in the refugee camps. By early 2020, all of about 200,000 Rohingya refugee families were brought under the LPG distribution and refill coverage.
In late 2019, UNHCR, IUCN and the East West University in Dhaka assessed the impact of LPG distribution among Rohingyas and the host community in Cox’s Bazar on forest resources. Their assessment showed that the firewood consumption by refugee families reduced by almost 80 percent—instead of about 5 kilogrammes, a family was using 1 kilogramme of firewood a day. These fascinating findings prompted LPG distribution becoming an integral part of 2020 and 2021’s Joint Response Plans—the billion-dollar annual plans prepared by the UN agencies and endorsed by the government of Bangladesh to address the ongoing Rohingya humanitarian crisis.
Third, maintaining 100 percent LPG coverage in the camps is very expensive. Efforts, therefore, continued to make this system efficient. In late 2020, about 400 Rohingya families were given pressure cookers on a pilot basis. Daily monitoring data showed improved energy efficiency by 30 to 50 percent. If scaled up, this could drastically change the energy consumption levels in the camps.
I see Bangladesh similarly following three stages as it fights climate change by reducing carbon emissions.
In addition to the Rohingya crisis, Bangladesh is also facing the climate crisis, an unprecedented global challenge of our time. Reducing carbon emission by stopping the use of fossil fuels like coal and oil, and practising innovative zero-carbon solutions, are the only way out from this situation. As per the Paris Agreement of 2015, we expect the big greenhouse gas emitting countries and regions, such as China, the USA, European Union, India, and Russia, aggressively reducing their emissions.
Bangladesh may take this drastic zero-carbon path but this might hamper its development vision: becoming a middle-income country in the next couple of years and a high-income country by 2041. Since Bangladesh has made economic graduation its first choice, abandoning carbon-rich fossil fuels altogether cannot be on its top-priority list.
As we have seen in the ongoing Rohingya crisis, we must not wait to completely tackle the humanitarian emergency to perform our environmental responsibility. Similarly, Bangladesh’s transition from a carbon-based energy system to a renewable one should also continue along with its economic growth, not after becoming a developed country in 20 years’ time.
Bangladesh has recently shown its positive attitude in the draft National Solar Energy Roadmap 2021-2041. Although the country now produces 546 MW energy from solar energy systems, this roadmap envisages producing 6,000 MW by 2041 in a business-as-usual or low-case scenario, assuming that the anticipated policy, finance, cooperation, and technological conditions will be met and maintained. Such an increase can reduce 6.3 million MtCO2 equivalent greenhouse gas annually, which is around 7 percent of the greenhouse gas all Bangladeshis are now producing every year. This amount may increase by five times if Bangladesh could produce 30,000 MW solar energy, in a high-case scenario, over the next 20 years.
In the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) document of Bangladesh, submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2015, the country promised to reduce carbon emission in transport, industry and power sectors by 5 percent by 2030, with its own initiative. If international funding and technological support are available, this reduction could go up to 15 percent. This NDC is now being revised with updated sector-wise mitigation targets, where renewable energy is expected to have an important role to play.
The highly-anticipated Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan is expected to guide us through the current decade towards resilience and prosperity by creating employment, increasing per capita income, and ensuring high annual GDP growth. The plan, it is hoped, will also ensure energy savings and efficiency in line with Bangladesh’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Master Plan up to 2030, which envisages 20 percent more energy efficiency by 2030, compared with 2013.
Like Bangladesh’s experience of ensuring environmental and energy security in the Rohingya crisis, we need to monitor and evaluate the implementation and effectiveness of the above plans as well. Based on such assessments, we may need to update our plans and targets, explore innovations, and revisit our priorities.
Such re-prioritisation will guide our future energy strategies—whether we should extract oil and gas from the bottom of the Bay of Bengal, or explore on-shore and off-shore renewable energy sources like solar, wind, ocean wave or marine algae (to produce biofuel), or work with our upstream neighbours to generate hydroelectricity.
Any such re-prioritisation should be openly discussed and debated among the concerned stakeholders before making a final decision—the plan should harness available advanced technologies through international cooperation, be in line with Bangladesh’s development trajectory, and match the country’s climate leadership.
While developed countries are historically responsible for climate change, Bangladesh cannot overlook its present climate mitigation responsibilities to build a resilient future. Ensuring economic growth and transitioning to greener energy is a balancing act that we have to play.
Dr Haseeb Md. Irfanullah is an independent consultant working on environment, climate change, and research systems.
His Twitter handle is @hmirfanullah