Fifty years ago, Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan amid devastating climate disaster. The year before, in 1970, the Bhola cyclone had killed up to half a million people. The human toll of the disaster—one of the deadliest cyclones in recorded history—was amplified by a woefully insufficient response by Pakistan’s government. Faced with renewed demands for independence in what was then East Pakistan, the military waged a brutal crackdown and genocide. In the War of Independence, hundreds of thousands of people were killed, an estimated 200,000 women were raped, and 6 million homes were destroyed.
From these beginnings, Bangladesh has remained, in the imagination of much of the developed world, a poster child for poverty and looming climate catastrophe—a warning for what will befall the global poor if climate change is not addressed.
The country’s low elevation and high population density do make it distinctly vulnerable to rising sea levels and natural hazards such as cyclones. But the narrative of Bangladesh as a climate victim in waiting is almost entirely misinformed. From the fight for independence to now, as I recently wrote for Breakthrough Journal, Bangladesh in fact represents a success story, showing the power of self-determination when it comes to development and climate policy.
An accurate telling of Bangladesh’s recent development should start with natural gas. The country’s rich domestic endowment of the resource was the driving force of its modernization.
In 1974, the government nationalized Bangladesh’s energy resources, but rather than selling its gas abroad, the country opted to keep much of it. And rather than use the gas for consumption in people’s homes, the authorities channeled it into activities such as power generation for industrial growth, the development of the fertilizer sector, water supply for irrigation, and cement production.
That, in turn, fueled spectacular expansion in agricultural production, and by 2019, Bangladesh was self-sufficient in food, and had also become a significant exporter of textiles, apparel, and leather products. Its economy is now the fastest growing in South Asia, but because natural gas constitutes more than 60 percent of its primary energy use, the country is greener than many of its neighbors, such as India, which depends more on coal. Alongside this economic progress, Bangladesh cut both extreme poverty and infant mortality by some 70 percent from 1990 to 2016. Life expectancy is only seven years shy of the United States’. In 2015, Bangladesh’s progress was recognized by the World Bank, which upgraded it to a “lower-middle income” country.
Bangladesh has also adapted to climate change with improved forecasting, public community-wide training and education campaigns, and infrastructure investments. As a result, death tolls from cyclones since Bhola have ticked down to the double or triple digits in recent years. These casualty numbers are still tragic, but a long way off from the shocking human cost of a half century ago. Certainly, these adaptive efforts have their limits, particularly as the effects of climate change worsen, but Bangladesh has bought itself time to make an energy transition while not compromising on the needs of its people.
Much of Bangladesh’s growth model has flown in the face of recommendations from international-development institutions, well-meaning NGOs, and global environmental groups.
The International Monetary Fund, for example, has long criticized subsidies such as the ones Bangladesh uses in the energy sector, downplaying the benefits that the combination of those and domestic use of gas has brought to Bangladesh’s economy. Others have urged the diversification of countries’ economies and energy sectors to reduce carbon emissions, typically touting investments in “greener” energy sectors and the phasing out of fossil fuels, including natural gas. Still more argue that, for low-lying countries to survive global warming, large cuts to energy consumption are needed now.
But generic recommendations haven’t made much sense for Bangladesh in the past. And in the future, they may be even more off base.
For one, although the nation has opportunities for hydroelectric power, harnessing it will not be possible without the large-scale displacement of communities. Potential for wind and solar energy is also limited: Most of Bangladesh’s land is fertile and required for food production, whereas unused nonagricultural land is scarce.
In addition, to lift millions more people out of poverty and raise living standards across the country, Bangladesh needs to produce and consume much more energy, which means that some imagined cut to energy consumption is off the table.
In short, Bangladesh illustrates why priorities at the international level aren’t always appropriate at the local one. For countries such as Bangladesh, the question should not be how to phase out fossil fuels the fastest, but how to make the best and cleanest use of them—and the infrastructure around them.
Doing so will mean continuing to prioritize productive domestic use of the country’s remaining natural-gas reserves and finding ways to use that sector’s infrastructure, resources, and knowledge to tap cleaner energy sources that make sense for local circumstances, such as geothermal and hydrogen.
Geothermal energy has been used in many countries for heat and power generation, but it does not make up a very large share of total global energy generation, mainly because of the high cost of infrastructure required. However, using oil and gas exploration wells and depleted wells for geothermal heat and power generation is becoming possible, as a recent study from me and my colleagues showed. Hydrogen, meanwhile, first became an important part of the energy industry in the mid-20th century, but has recently received renewed focus as a potential replacement for oil and gas. As with geothermal, Bangladesh’s existing infrastructure might be repurposed in a number of ways to support a hydrogen economy: Already, half of the world’s hydrogen is produced with natural gas.
To be sure, all of this would require huge levels of investment, but Bangladesh, with its well-developed gas sector, has opportunities to move to geothermal and hydrogen over time—and in ways that are consistent with both its climate and development goals. But to get there, both imperatives need to be taken equally seriously, and the actors best placed to balance them are local.
The vision of Bangladesh as a place on the brink of being overwhelmed by rising seas is outdated, just as the notion that it might rapidly transition to renewable energy is unrealistic. In the 50 years since the Bhola cyclone, the nation has carved out a path to development thanks to natural gas. Turning away from that path precipitously would strand the nation’s fossil-fuel assets and undermine its hard-won sovereignty and development gains.
For countries such as Bangladesh, fossil fuels cannot be abandoned overnight, at least not within any global framework for mitigating climate change that could be characterized as sustainable or just. The transition to a low-carbon economy in less developed nations should go as fast as it can and no faster—meaning that affordable, abundant energy services, and all the associated human development and economic benefits those bring, cannot be given up in pursuit of climate-change-mitigation objectives.
There will be multiple transition models, all deeply entangled with development imperatives, local histories, governance, and resource endowments. Choices must be made democratically. They must respect sovereignty. And they must allow developing nations to build the technology, infrastructure, and institutions they need to chart their own path.