Bangladesh: from adaptation to low carbon resilience?

Is it fair to ask Bangladesh to adapt to the impacts of climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions? How does the government view this approach?

Rickshaws on the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital city.

Bangladesh is the most climate vulnerable country in the world and has consistently been a leader in developing solutions around community-based adaptation to climate change, national adaptation planning and offering political leadership as part of the Least Developed Country (LDC) group, which represents  the least developed countries at the climate change negotiations.

While the country has been leading the way in climate change adaptation, it is more reluctant to embrace the new paradigm of low carbon resilient development, which seeks to bring limiting or reducing emissions, often referred to as climate mitigation, and climate adaptation together in one agenda.

This is because the government and some groups argue that Bangladesh has played only a very small role in contributing to climate change and has very small greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per person compared to larger developing countries, like India or China, and most western countries. Bangladesh is not highly industrialised or urbanised, and these are two of the main sectors that emit greenhouse gases. As such, they feel it is unfair to expect a developing country like Bangladesh to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions at the same time as adapting to climate change.

Planning for the future

Over the last 35 years Bangladesh has invested over $10 billion in addressing the consequences of natural disasters. It’s built flood management schemes, coastal defences, cyclone and flood shelters, raised roads and highways so they are less likely to be washed away, and developed early warning systems to warn people as storms approach to move to safer areas.

Cyclone Sidr, which struck in 2007, and Cyclone Mahasen, which hit it again six years later in 2013, both show the devastating consequences of climate change and natural disasters on this low-lying coastal country.

Bangladesh has formulated national plans and strategies to respond to the impacts caused by climate change. Partly in response to Cyclone Sidr, Bangladesh formulated the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP) in 2008, which laid out a comprehensive strategy for adapting to the effects of climate change, including the institutional structures needed to manage climate risks and the climate funds they needed to raise to support adaptation across the country. This built on their earlier National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA).

While most of the BCCSAP focuses on adaptation, a small part of it looks at reducing Bangladesh’s greenhouse gas emissions and promoting low-carbon development.

Equity and an unfair burden

Civil society groups and political parties have mobilised around the inequity of the country having to reduce emissions, despite the problems being created mostly by rich, western countries thousands of miles away. Bangladesh has two large political parties and both have a focus on adaptation but believe that low carbon development is not a national priority at this stage. There are also concerns that a low carbon agenda will act to slow the country’s economic growth and development.

These views directly contrast with the approach taken by Rwanda and Ethiopia, where low carbon development has been embraced as an opportunity rather than seen as a potential obstacle to growth. While different groups obviously have different views in these countries, they generally do not see equity as a barrier to national action on climate change as long as it is appropriately supported.

Reducing greenhouse gases 

Given its reluctance to prioritise low-carbon development, it’s perhaps surprising that the government of Bangladesh has plans to introduce measures to reduce greenhouse gases, such as introducing solar powered irrigation systems and adopting new energy efficient technologies.

There are several potential reasons why they included the measures. Some argue it was a fund-raising strategy, giving the message to development partners and potential funders that Bangladesh was prepared to reduce their emissions, adding incentives to support the country’s development.

A more civic-minded reason cited is that issues of energy security and energy access are also important to Bangladesh, and a low carbon agenda ties in with these national concerns.

There is a greater likelihood of private sector involvement – a key area of interest outside Bangladesh – through this approach, as international energy groups are also keen to use and promote greener technologies.  

Equity in low carbon resilience

In Bangladesh, increasing access to energy – if carried out through low-carbon renewable technologies – could support a low-carbon agenda. As this meets important national priorities and builds local resilience, this could make a low-carbon approach more politically acceptable. Seen in this way, any emission reductions are then a happy by-product of national development rather than being carried out at the cost of national development.

Equity is a key concern for national governments, as well as within the international negotiations. It’s vital that a low-carbon resilient agenda does not bypass issues of equity and put an unfair burden on developing countries.

National priorities and sentiment must guide the direction of any low-carbon resilient agenda to make the policy approach nationally and internationally equitable, as well as supporting local resilience and national development goals.

This work is part of an IIED research project on theories of change for low carbon resilient development undertaken with research partners in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Rwanda.

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