The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) led 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow ended more than a month ago. Escaping the devastating impacts of climate change the world is currently facing was central to the negotiations. And the world leaders gave us hope, by raising their climate action ambitions, setting new targets, and revising their emissions reduction plans.
Bangladesh joined the climate action race with an updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 15% by 2030 from the 2015 level. Bangladesh also raised strong claims against the leaders of the developed world and presented its ambitious “Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan” with a Climate Emergency Pact.
However, as a Bangladeshi climate researcher based in Karlstad University, Sweden, I believe that Bangladesh can do way more. As an Assistant Professor and the Research Director of Centre for Sustainable Societal Transformation at Karlstad University, leading the research activities of Exponential Roadmap Initiative, my research explores how we can transform policies and global societies for rapid implementation of climate solutions.
Journey as a climate researcher
Climate change situation in Bangladesh was quite the drive for starting my career as a climate researcher. In 2010, after graduating from Bangladesh University of Technology (BUET), I came to Europe with Erasmus Mundus scholarship to study for a Master's in Geospatial Technologies. Back then, Bangladesh often failed to negotiate for climate compensations at international platforms, because of the scarcity of local climate research and data. This motivated me to conduct research about developing methods for filling this data gap for Bangladesh as my master’s thesis and also to understand climate change patterns and impacts in Bangladesh. I continued with this track through my PhD research, where my focus was on understanding the large-scale climate change impacts on ecosystems and societies.
What do climate change impacts in Bangladesh look like?
Several studies, including mine, have shown that as a result of global warming, dry regions are getting drier and wet regions are getting wetter in Bangladesh. This implies prolonged and frequent drought and flood seasons, including increasing flash flood incidences in urban areas. My research has also discovered a regime shift for summer temperature in Bangladesh as a result of the local warming at the coastal southern regions, which may have adverse consequences for the mangroves and shrimp farms. The most devastating consequence of climate change is likely the predicted sea level rise by 50cm by 2050 along the Bangladeshi coastline claiming 11% of Bangladesh’s land area and livelihood of 15 million people. We are seeing an increasing number of climate refugees fleeing to cities and even abroad to save their lives and nearest ones.
Interest in climate action
As I started evidencing the shocking impacts of climate change, I wanted to delve into finding solutions to mitigate it. Since I started my postdoctoral research in 2016 in Stockholm Resilience Centre, I started focusing on climate solutions. I had the opportunity of working with world leading climate scientists like Johan Rockström, who mentored me into finding solutions. The situation with climate change got more and more severe while the urgency of climate action got higher and higher, and I got interested in identifying incentives and interventions that can drive rapid implementation of climate solutions. In 2018, I got involved with the Exponential Roadmap initiative which is assisting industries, corporates, municipalities and communities around the world in developing rapid implementation strategies for climate solutions. We are working with great industry partners like IKEA, Microsoft and Nestle and deeply involved with UN Climate Action Summits and COP processes. I was also involved as a research fellow between 2019 and 2020 with Project Drawdown, which now provides the largest inventory of climate solutions globally.
What is the key to rapid climate action?
Well, I would argue it is community involvement. I led a research paper published in 2020 asking what the sweet spot for climate action is, where we can achieve the maximum benefit of it with minimum intervention. The result may surprise you but it is the communities comprising 10,000 people. We realized that the formal climate action led by UNFCCC failed to recognize the community level climate action so far. The focus is on top-down climate action projects taken by national governments and NDCs are the only metric we have to track the progress of climate action. While these national scale projects haven’t been very successful, we saw immense success in community led activities such as “Fridays for Future” and “Fossil Divestment” movements. Recognizing, prioritizing, and supporting these community led projects and integrating them under national climate projects can accelerate progress of climate action exponentially. Through my research, I have found out that focusing on the community scale climate action can alone achieve almost half of the emissions reduction targeted in the Paris Agreement.
Evaluating climate action in Bangladesh
The situation has drastically improved since I left the country in 2010. We have a considerable amount of scientific research that is showing how climate change will and is disproportionately impacting Bangladesh. Beside my research, Dr Shamsuddin Shahid, Dr Saleemul Huq, and Dr A K M Saiful Islam have substantially contributed in advancing climate research about Bangladesh to my knowledge. Bangladesh is now playing an important role in international climate negotiations and getting involved in international climate activism like with Fridays for Future movement. Bangladesh has created an ambitious NDC and is now chairing Climate Vulnerable Forum. Overall, Bangladesh made a positive and forward looking progress in the climate action arena. But it can do way more.
What more can Bangladesh do?
Bangladesh’s climate action plan is still pretty much centered around adaptation, which we also expect from one of the most climate vulnerable countries. But Bangladesh can be a leading example of climate mitigation as well. Self-willed communities in the coastal vulnerable areas of Bangladesh are organizing themselves and initiating, managing and sustaining climate resilience projects with little financial and infrastructure support.
These communities have developed their own adaptation strategies like storing food and water, shifting cultivation to climate resilience crops, constructing platforms to shelter livestock during extreme weather events and designing evacuation routes. They are now interacting directly with local governments (Union Parishads) to secure funding and infrastructure for developing more projects that best suit them.
This is a tremendous opportunity -- Bangladesh can harness the potential of these communities to leapfrog the climate mitigation barriers. For example, the country has achieved only 3% of its total renewable energy potential while the target was to achieve 10%. The total solar energy production potential in Bangladesh is 40 gigawatts by 2041 while the wind energy potential is 30 gigawatts. Bangladesh can rapidly achieve this potential by adopting a “community led distributed renewable energy production” model. With these achieved, only solar energy can meet 50% of the country’s electricity demand by 2041.
Community-led distributed energy production
Think about a rice farm situated in a remote village of Bangladesh. This rice farm doesn’t need a connection to the national grid for the electricity to run its mills and machineries. Besides the incurred infrastructure cost, a connection to the national grid will also increase demand on the conventional fossil fuel based electricity production plants and encourage fossil fuel industries to run their pilot projects in the village.
Instead, the rice farm can produce its own electricity through the installation of solar panels and windmills, for which it can be supported by for example the microcredit programs. In spite of conventional monthly kilowatt-hour pricing, the farm can pay back its credits and eventually own its energy production system. Doing this for all rice farms in the remote villages will not only accelerate the clean energy transition but will also connect the ones with access to electricity who currently don’t have it.
Hope for Bangladesh
Bangladesh has a great history of overcoming environmental challenges, which often we don’t recognize. Bangladesh is the first country in the world that legislatively banned plastic bags in stores and shopping malls in early 2000 to protect its environment. Around the same time, Bangladesh made a substantial transition to cleaner energy in the transport sector by replacing two-stroke engine vehicles by four-stroke engine vehicles and by converting petrol engines to gas engines.
United Nations launched girls and child education programs were the most successful in Bangladesh among all Asia. Building upon all these great examples, I believe Bangladesh has tremendous potential on the climate action front, to trigger and implement, among many other solutions, community fueled fossil divestments, urban greening and environment friendly mobility plans, regional food production and healthy dietary adoption, and climate education programs.
Dr Avit Bhowmik is a Bangladeshi climate researcher based in Karlstad University, Sweden. He is an Assistant Professor and the Research Director of Centre for Sustainable Societal Transformation at Karlstad University and is leading the research activities of Exponential Roadmap Initiative.
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