Bangladesh may have delivered its climate action plan well before the 2015 COP21 climate talks in Paris, but the country’s leaders are sending mixed messages with their determination to build a $1.7 billion coal-fired power plant. The problem with the 1.3-gigawatt project, however, goes beyond worsening the country’s struggles with air pollution — which, according to the World Bank, contributes to 230 million cases of respiratory disease annually.
The Rampal project would be located near the world’s largest mangrove forest, which is home to endangered species such as the Bengal tiger and Indian python. And as a result, some of the world’s most influential environmental NGOs are fuming.
And a new campaign aiming to pressure international financial lenders such as JPMorgan and Crédit Agricole to turn their backs on the project has so far attracted more than 1 million signatures.
The Sundarbans, which cover over 540 square miles (140,000 hectares), has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site for almost 20 years. The sprawling coastal forest is renowned for its rich collection of wildlife, including at least 260 species of birds that thrive amongst the meandering waterways and mudflats.
But these mangroves cratered in size by at least 50 percent over the past 150 years. And along with its decline came the extinction of many species.
Due to the Sundarbans’ fragile ecosystem, UNESCO has called for Bangladeshi authorities to relocate the power plant to avoid threats ranging from acid rain to a further reduction in freshwater flows. UNESCO also insisted that the plant’s backers have not completed any assessment on how its operations could impact on the Sundarbans, its wildlife or the citizens living within the mangroves.
Other critics pointed out that the economics of the Rampal plant do not make sense. The NGO Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), which advocates for more sustainable development worldwide, described the project as little more than a financial boondoggle.
In a report issued last summer, IEEFA analysts described the plant as overly subsidized to the tune of at least $3 billion. Yet despite the government’s financial support, IEEFA claims that electricity rates in Bangladesh could spike as high as 32 percent. The lack of any plan on how the coal will be sourced, whether it is imported from India or as far as Australia, further puts the project at risk.
Finally, even if the plant operated at near or full capacity, Rampal would be situated in a notorious “wind risk zone” that would subject it to sudden storm surges – in a country that is constantly beset by flooding.
In a more recent IEEFA study, an analyst described the project as so over-leveraged that it could put its creditors at “significant” risk.
In sum, for a low-lying country threatened by sea-level rise and volatile weather, IEEFA described a project that will only increase costs to Bangladesh’s electricity customers. And considering the falling costs of solar and wind power, rooftop and utility-scale solar would make far more sense than a project that would drive capital out of the country and increase its dependence on energy imports.
If there were any case for making Bangladesh the recipient of a massive aid package in order to transition the country to a low-carbon carbon economy, the Rampal project heightens the sense of urgency. In the meantime, UNESCO is reportedly considering adding the Sundarbans to its list of world heritage sites in “danger.” Such a designation would focus even more global attention on the controversy – and could convince Rampal’s backers to scrap the project.
Image credit: Mmkhan.mmk/Wiki Commons