2023 marks a key milestone as the halfway point of the United Nation’s (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At this juncture, it’s important we address one of the biggest debates in sustainable development today: the compatibility of economic growth with environmental sustainability.

Earlier this year, the Center For Global Development published a commentary on the World Bank’s mandate for poverty alleviation and economic growth in developing countries.

The U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen was criticised for underplaying the trade-offs that exist between climate and development. Her stance, and by extension, the stance of climate think tank E3G is that these tensions dwarf the actions and dialogues that provide solutions for how a country develops in the face of climate change.

Claire Healy, Senior Associate at E3G said “We’ve got to make sure that we don’t let this window of opportunity close without getting some real wins, because the wins mean real practical improvements to countries and in people’s lives”.

The problem

In Bangladesh however – where climate campaigners have heavily resisted the construction of coal-fired power plants from Cox’s Bazar to the Sundarbans – these wins have materialised at the expense of the natural environment.

Climate activist Kentaro Yamamoto said “This project is hurting the people of Bangladesh and this planet. About 20,000 people would have lost land, homes and jobs, flooding will get worse and about 14,000 people could lose their lives due to the toxic waste.”

By 2022, the Bangladeshi government had already axed 10 out of 18 coal-fired plants it had planned to set up amid growing pressures from activists to source more of the nation’s power from renewable energy sources.

About 8 per cent of Bangladesh’s power supply comes from coal, and this share is expected to reach 12.6 per cent in 2032.

Unable to meet rising energy demand, the country’s garment industry – which accounts for more than 80 per cent of total exports – has faced major disruption.

Factory owners say the crisis has damaged relations with buyers as major power cuts force manufacturers to bring production to a halt.

The situation has made Bangladesh’s garment industry less competitive, and a static exchange has further compounded challenges for exporters.

As 30 per cent of the country’s garment capacity remains idle, almost 1 million workers have lost opportunities for employment. For those who remain employed, frequent blackouts come as a significant health-risk as the country faces extreme climate events and soaring temperatures of 38 C to 41 C. 

To be clear however, the closure of Bangladesh’s coal power plants is not exclusively motivated by concern for the environment.

The country spends on average $2.6 billion on import fuels for power generation, annually. Energy imports were compromised by the Russia-Ukraine war which sparked a global surge in fuel prices and significantly hindered Bangladesh’s ability to import the required fuel.

Bangladesh’s gross domestic product has always rendered it one of the fastest growing economies in South Asia, even in times of global uncertainty.

But in a country often described as the “ground zero of climate vulnerability”, the commitment to economic growth will require putting environmental sustainability among the very top priorities.

Policies, plans and strategies  

Since Bangladesh is not yet a big user of coal or oil comparatively, the green transition looks closer to strengthening the resilience and adaptive capacity of climate-vulnerable communities and ensuring support for the livelihoods of displaced people.

In its initial Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) presented in 2015, Bangladesh made an unconditional commitment to reduce emissions by 5 per cent from the business-as-usual (BAU) scenario by 2030, with 2012 as the base year.

Additionally, contingent upon international support, the country pledged to further reduce emissions by an additional 10 per cent.

This NDC encompassed three key sectors: Power, Industry, and Transport. If no action was taken, the BAU scenario projected a more than doubling of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, rising from 169 Mt CO2e in 2012 to 409 Mt CO2e by 2030.

Taxes can be used for internalising the externality costs of highly polluting activities, but Bangladesh has historically struggled to raise the revenues needed to fund its development.

Despite this, the government plans to impose an environmental and carbon tax by 2025 on a limited scale. This is expected to be a game changer for the country, which will support the government’s ambitions plans for greener growth and institutional reforms.

Natural climate solutions

Dare partners with the Bangladesh Environment and Development Society (BEDS) to reforest 5,000 mangroves trees in the Sundarbans. Located strategically at the confluence of land and sea, mangroves are among the most productive wetland ecosystems on the planet.

The Sundarbans mangrove forest – which is the largest coastal wetland with an area of 10,000km2 spanning across the territories of both Bangladesh and India – plays several important roles including:

  • Provisioning services: providing timber, fuel wood, fish, shellfish, honey etc.
  • Cultural services: typically, this refers to eco-tourism, but religious value may also be included.
  • Regulatory services: carbon sequestration – mangroves can store up to four times the amount of carbon as terrestrial trees.
  • Supporting services: providing breeding and nursery habitats for fish species.

Until 1980, commercial harvesting of timbers was the main economic activity in the Sundarbans Forest. The government was forced to impose a sweeping moratorium due to overexploitation, but there are still ways for local people to benefit from the ecosystem services that mangroves provide, sustainably.

BEDS advocate for an integrated farming approach where farmers are provided with the knowledge to maximise benefits while utilising the least resources.

This has seen a blooming of honey apiaries and sustainable shrimp ponds which provide organic produce for sale and create job opportunities in the region, while allowing mangroves to be preserved.

Working alongside the local people, the organisation leads communication, education, participation, and awareness raising (CEPA) programs to help achieve the UN’s sustainable development goals.

Together, our mission is to promote ecological balance and improve livelihoods for one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable communities.

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