While Australia, the United States and Canada are among the top per capita carbon dioxide producers in the world, the small South Asian country of Bangladesh, with its miniscule per-person emissions, is the most affected by global warming among nations with large populations.
Considered the ground zero of climate change and the most vulnerable country to extreme weather, Bangladesh is literally sinking due to rapidly increasing sea levels. With 162 million people packed into an area the size of Iowa, Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world and one of the poorest. According to a report released in October 2014 by global risk analytics company Maplecroft, on climate change and environmental risk Bangladesh tops the list of 32 countries identified as being at “extreme risk.” Maplecroft’s report was based on surveys conducted in 198 countries.
Even without global warming, 20% of Bangladesh is flooded yearly due to its location in the centre of Asia’s biggest river delta, which also makes the country prone to deadly cyclones. The three largest rivers in the world flow through Bangladesh. Add to this rising sea levels caused by global warming and the Bangladeshi people are in grave danger. With a two degree Celsius rise in average global temperatures, half the country will be flooded, displacing an estimated 50 million people.
The luxurious lifestyle of the West is commonly blamed by Bangladeshis for the disaster facing their country due to global warming. Per capita carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. are 16.8 tonnes and in Canada they are 14.1 tonnes, while those of Bangladesh are a miniscule 0.4 tonnes, according to UN stats.
Professor Anu Muhammad is one of Bangladesh’s leading social and environmental activists. He teaches economics at Jahangirnagar University in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. Muhammad is renowned for leading the protest movement against the corporate plundering of Bangladesh’s mineral resources in which U.S. and British mining companies play prominent roles. He spearheaded the successful campaign to stop the opening of the Phulbari coal mine, which, as a result, has not been able to operate for the last 10 years.
“Bangladesh is very vulnerable to the greedy activities of rich Western countries, which, rather than improving their environmental record, are doing the opposite,” Muhammad tells me. “The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), backed by the U.S., are still financing projects harmful to Bangladesh’s ecology. The neoliberal development model has been showing high GDP growth at the cost of rivers, forests and peoples’ livelihoods. Western countries and their financial institutions should stop financing projects of mass destruction, especially coal-fired power plants, nuclear power plants, highly polluting industries and open-pit coal mining. Moreover, they should compensate my country so we can build an environmentally friendly economy.”
The United Nations climate change conference, held in Paris last December, saw 196 countries agree to limit carbon dioxide emissions so that global temperatures do not rise above two degrees Celsius, with an aspiration that this could be limited to 1.5 degrees. Funds were promised to poor nations to help them reduce emissions and deal with the impacts of extreme weather. Countries facing climate disasters are to get urgent aid, with Canada committing to $2.65 billion over the next five years.
However, as Fiona Harvey cautioned in her column for The Guardian (U.K.), “the caps on emissions are still too loose, likely to lead to warming of 2.7 to 3C above pre-industrial levels, breaching the 2C threshold that scientists say is the limit of safety, beyond which the effects—droughts, floods, heatwaves and sea level rises—are likely to become catastrophic and irreversible. Poor countries are also concerned that the money provided to them will not be nearly enough to protect them. Not all of the agreement is legally binding, so future governments of the signatory countries could yet renege on their commitments.”
As protesters outside the U.N. conference called for “system change,” Muhammad points out the capitalist and corporate development model got an easy ride in Paris. Without changing this paradigm, “these expensive conferences, goals and agreements will only result in failure.”
Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) in Dhaka, essentially agrees with Muhammad. An expert on climate change and sustainable development, Huq was the lead author of the chapter on adaptation and sustainable development in the third assessment report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
“Unfortunately, the Paris agreement is totally inadequate in terms of what needs to be done to deal with global warming,” Huq tells me. “This is also the view of the strong climate justice movement in Bangladesh. All countries made pledges—they are called INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) of how much they can reduce their emissions, but if you add up all these pledges, it only reduces the temperature down to 2.7 degrees centigrade.
“The countries that need to do the most to reduce emissions are the U.S., Canada and Australia because theirs are the highest,” he continues. “Bangladesh is in danger of drowning precisely because of this kind of attitude from rich countries.” In contrast, Huq says, “Europe and Japan have high standards of living, but they don’t have such a polluting lifestyle. They have a lot of public transport and smaller houses. Americans, Canadians and Australians need transport policies that emphasize public transportation and discourage car usage because they must get off fossil fuels. In Canada, there is the particularly abysmal investment in tar sands oil.”
In spite of its very low carbon emissions, Bangladesh is making efforts to do even more on climate change. Professor Ainun Nishat of the Centre for Climate Change and Environmental Research at BRAC University in Dhaka says the government has come up with both a national adaptation plan for climate change and a mitigation plan that should reduce its carbon footprint further. Among the adaptation policies implemented so far are foundational platforms for houses in flood-prone areas, raising land height by channelling sediment from rivers to fields, investing in solar irrigation, developing rice and wheat varieties resistant to salinity, drought, submergence and heat, and practising a new irrigation method that requires less water.
“Bangladesh is doing a lot by itself and it needs more support to do that,” says Huq. “We should not think of Bangladesh as a victim who cannot do anything unless someone gives it money. The country has put $500 million of its own funds into its adaptation plans. In terms of mitigation, Bangladesh has the fastest growing solar home systems in the world. We have more than four million solar homes all over the country.”
The Paris agreement stipulates that rich nations will provide $100 billion a year for climate adaptation and mitigation starting in 2020. Some money is already flowing to Bangladesh, but it is not enough for the immediate term, according to Huq and Nishat, amounting to a few hundred million dollars.
“The rich countries first offered grants and then switched this to World Bank-type loans with new conditionalities, which are difficult for developing countries to fulfill,” explains Nishat. “The financial mechanism initially proposed by wealthy countries was simple: preference would be given to least developed countries [such as Bangladesh]. But this is not happening. The rich countries were supposed to give $30 billion between 2011 and 2013, but did not do so. The funds are not moving as fast as needed.”
The Canadian government currently has no climate-related projects in Bangladesh, but this might change with the new money announced after Paris. Alauddin Vuian, first secretary for political affairs at Bangladesh’s embassy in Ottawa, has some ideas for what more targeted aid could look like.
“Canada definitely can support Bangladesh for capacity building and development of adaptive technologies,” he tells me. “Adaptation and dealing with loss and damage are crucial for sustainable development and may include life-saving technologies, sufficient investment in research on resistant varieties for different crops, climate-proof cropping patterns, and insurance for agriculture and livestock to help climate vulnerable people.”
Vuian adds that infrastructure development is “critically important” for Bangladesh in order to fight climate change. He says Canada could support his country’s efforts to dredge rivers, and construct, maintain and repair embankments, dykes, barrages, flood and cyclone shelters, and flood-proof housing.
Barbara Harvey, spokesperson for Canada’s Department of Environment and Climate Change, told me “Canada recognizes the vulnerability of Least Developed Countries like Bangladesh” citing the federal government’s $2.65 billion contribution for countering climate change. This package includes $300 million for the Green Climate Fund which has approved $40 million to help climate-proofing infrastructure, $50 million to support Climate Risk Insurance in developing countries and $30 million to finance adaptation through the Least Developed Countries Fund. Responding to Vuian’s comments, Harvey invited the Bangladeshi government to “initiate a dialogue with Canada to discuss how and where both countries could work together.”
The consequences of not doing more now to fight climate change are well known, but perhaps distant for many people living in Canada. For Bangladeshis the crisis has already begun.
“Climate change is not a linear matter but a curvilinear one [a steepening curve],” says Nishat. “We are now at the flat part of the curve. Soon it is going to change and the temperature will increase very fast from now on. It will go up to more than three degrees centigrade, which will create havoc. There will be food shortages, large-scale migrations, new diseases, spreading of old ones, increasing floods, droughts, cyclones and conflicts between countries over water. This will happen all over the world and Bangladesh will be the worst victim of the policies of rich countries.”
Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, March-April 2016
Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent and has written extensively on Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.