Even as the U.S. pledges to cut its emissions, it is helping to finance new coal-powered plants overseas.
A herd of Chital deer in the Sundarbans mangrove forest in Bangladesh. (Video: BBC/Getty Images)
Sundarbans. The word means “beautiful forest” in Bengali, and it’s an accurate description of the 540 square miles of lush jungle, meandering waterways, and abundant wildlife straddling the southern end of the Bangladesh-India border. The world’s largest mangrove forest, a swath of dense verdant green bifurcated by thousands of rivers and streams, occupies the mouth of the river system that supports more people than any other on Earth, giving life to millions who inhabit the fertile alluvial lands surrounding it.
Intense population pressure—Bangladesh’s 160 million people make their home in an area slightly smaller than Iowa—has caused the forests to shrink, but they are still vital in feeding this huge population: The Sundarbans Reserve Forest and India’s Sundarbans National Park protect the land that provides three annual harvests of rice from the severe cyclonic storms that strike the region an average of three times a year. An enigmatic sentry, the Bengal tiger, patrols the barrier. The national animal of both Bangladesh and neighboring India can navigate the waterways and disappear amid the otherworldly vegetation; it’s one of the reasons the Sundarbans region was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. But despite nominal protections, it is—like the forests—endangered.
One reason is that Bangladesh and India plan to build the 1,320-megawatt Rampal coal power plant about 10 miles from the Sundarbans Reserve Forest; activists say part of the project falls within an exclusion zone that bars nearby development.
The plant’s emissions will include 7.9 million tons of carbon dioxide per year and large amounts of mercury. Coal ash from the plant has a “high risk of containing various toxic metals…all of which may cause serious damage to humans and the environment,” according to a report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Report on the Mission to the Sundarbans World Heritage Site, Bangladesh, from 22 to 28 March 2016, released last week. “Mercury contamination is of particular concern,” the report states, as “current projected control mechanisms and technology are not sufficient to prevent contamination” of surrounding areas.
The IUCN report is only the latest in a catalog of serious concerns that scientists have brought about the project. All have been summarily dismissed by Bangladesh’s government, which conducted the environmental impact assessment on its own project. The IUCN report notes that the EIA “was conducted with limited stakeholder consultation, uses a process that is inconsistent with globally accepted EIA practices, does not address effects of the plant on the [outstanding universal value] of the [UNESCO World Heritage–listed portions of the forest] and does not seem to reflect key concerns raised by national and international experts and scientists.” The report continues: “Air and water pollution have a high likelihood to irreversibly damage the OUV of the world heritage property. The possible threats arising from the power plant on the OUV of the property are not addressed adequately …and the plant itself is not applying the best available technology or the highest international standards for preventing damage commensurate with its location.” As a result, the IUCN scientists recommend “that the Rampal power plant project is cancelled and relocated to a more suitable location, where it would not impact negatively on the Sundarbans Reserve Forest.”
Rampal, however, is not a purely South Asian investment. About 70 percent of the money required to build the plant will be borrowed, and that means a lot of money will come from banks overseas: UBS, Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays, Prudential Financial, HSBC, BlackRock, and Société Générale have all bought bonds that India sold to finance infrastructure essential to the plant’s operation, according to analysis of Bloomberg and ThomsonReuters data by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, an independent research group. It isn’t the developing world’s only such planned or recently built coal plant to rely on financing or advice from wealthy nations: In India, a coal plant was financed in part by loans from the U.S. government. Germany’s development bank provided funding for another coal plant in India. Japan’s development agency, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, practically wrote Bangladesh’s plan to boost its power-generating capacity using coal—even as the government has helped expand the reach of distributed solar power to at least 18 million people in the country, according to The New York Times. These wealthy nations’ attempts to ease construction of heavily polluting coal plants occurs while the cost of new onshore wind farms has fallen 30 percent between 2010 and 2015, according to International Energy Agency data released Tuesday, and the cost of large solar panels fell by two-thirds over the same period.
Air and water pollution have a high likelihood to irreversibly damage…the world heritage property. The possible threats arising from the power plant…are not addressed adequately.
IUCN REPORT ON A MARCH 2016 MISSION TO THE SUNDARBANS WORLD HERITAGE SITE IN BANGLADESH
Yet a report released this week by Overseas Development Institute, a British research organization, and the Vasdudha Foundation, based in New Delhi, says off-grid renewable electricity is “the cheapest and quickest way of reaching over two-thirds of those without electricity.” Building just one-third of the coal plants now planned, the report found, will bring about climate change that will plunge millions into poverty.
Though scientists pegged the amount of warming since preindustrial times that civilization can withstand at 2 degrees Celsius, and despite Paris’ declaration of a goal to keep warming below a 2-degree increase, ODI researchers the calculated that “planned coal development, mostly in the developing world, will singlehandedly max out the world’s two-degree carbon budget.” The World Bank seems to agree: Its president, Jim Yong Kim, noted in September that “if all the new coal plants on the books earlier this year were constructed, especially in Asia, it would be impossible to stay below two degrees.”
This image shows the storm tracks of cyclones occurring in the Bay of Bengal between 1970 and 2005. Bangladesh is one of the most flood- and storm-prone countries on Earth, and such storms are predicted to increase in frequency with global warming. (Storm tracks: Jdorje/Tracks; background image: Courtesy NASA)
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