Burning Coal To Survive Climate Change

Cash-strapped developing countries are burning coal to pay for the calamitous effects of climate change, exacerbating the very disasters they’re looking to evade.

Beatrice Caciotti for Noema Magazine

Stephen Robert Miller is the author of Over the Seawall: Tsunamis, Cyclones, Drought, and the Delusion of Controlling Nature, which investigates misguided environmental adaptation in the Ganges Delta.

MONGLA, Bangladesh — I’m floating down the Pasur River in southwest Bangladesh. This wide and murky channel winds its way toward the Bay of Bengal past fields of melons and vibrant green rice paddies. As our diesel-driven wooden boat putters by, barefoot farmers stand atop crumbling earthen embankments, their plaid skirt-like lungis wrapped around their waists, hands resting on their hips. They watch us indifferently while their goats munch on grass.

The land we cut through is a broad and flat muddy plain built up over eons by infinitesimally small pieces of the weathering Himalayan Mountains. It holds some pockets of tall palms and leafy deciduous trees, but these are nothing like the dark and dense coastal mangrove forest we are floating toward.

Approaching the coast, the river widens, and hulking ships fill the southern horizon. They are laden with piles of red brick, hauls of ocean fish and enormous steel globes of natural gas. I stare up at them as they slice past on their way to a port town called Mongla where they will offload their cargoes into a new, pulsating industrial reality that is quickly overtaking the country’s agrarian past.

A change is occurring on this ancient floodplain. Proof looms 902 feet above us, piercing the thick Bengali haze like a lone minaret on the Pasur’s eastern bank: the pearly white smokestack of the Maitree Super Thermal Power Project. In this part of the country, the power plant is nearly always visible. Even when I can’t see it, I can feel it.

Bangladesh is nestled like a puzzle piece between India and Myanmar on the Bay of Bengal. Here, in a space roughly the size of the state of Iowa, some 170 million live between rising seas and punishing monsoons amid the world’s largest river delta. History, climate and geography have made it one of the world’s more environmentally vulnerable nations.

How odd, I think, that Bangladesh would be revving up one of its largest coal-fired power plants today, when the world is changing in ways that will only add to the country’s troubles. The plant’s presence belies such strangeness, thrumming away beside a flood-prone tidal river just miles from a coastline progressively disappearing beneath rising seas, directly in the path of vicious cyclones.

Then again, why not continue investing in coal power plants? The cost of rebuilding again and again after climate-related disasters, while preparing for the next one, presents an immense burden for any country. It threatens to break the back of the lurching Bangladeshi economy, which already spends upwards of $1 billion U.S. dollars annually on climate adaptation. That number is expected to more than quintuple by 2050.

On Nov. 1, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrated over video conference the completion of the Maitree power plant. It is a joint effort between two countries with a history of abhorrent violence.

While not always running at full capacity, when it does, Maitree provides 1,320 megawatts of reliable energy that people in both countries will use to power shrimp-processing facilities, brick factories and manufacturing plants that make products for export to high-paying Western consumers. In Bangladesh, these industries will anchor investments, bring lucrative jobs to the impoverished region, and fund infrastructure, hospitals and storm shelters. With higher wages, locals will fix up their homes, buy more food, send their kids to better schools and, perhaps one day, leave the sinking coast.

At least, that’s how the countries’ leaders have sold Maitree and the steady industrialization of coastal Bangladesh to the rice farmers and fishermen being elbowed out to make room for economic progress. In a scene that’s playing out across the developing world, Bangladesh faces a terrible paradox: It needs money to pay for the consequences of climate-related disasters and, so far, the fastest way to get it is by continuing to develop fossil fuels, which exacerbates the very disasters they are trying to evade. 

Maitree takes this absurdity to the extreme, not only because of its size and Bangladesh’s unfortunate vulnerability, but also because it sits just eight miles upstream from the Sundarbans — the world’s largest contiguous mangrove forest, a UNESCO heritage site and the Bangladeshi peoples’ best natural defense against what’s coming.

Local Needs But Global Goals

Sitting next to me on the boat is Fatima Zannat, a 27-year-old activist outfitted in a lavender burkha, gold nose ring and leather sandals who works for a local cyclone preparedness program. When storms rear in the bay, she speeds through threatened villages on the back of a motorcycle, urging evacuations over a megaphone. People have become more aware of the danger, she says, “before, hundreds used to die, but now it’s only a few.”

“How odd, I think, that Bangladesh would be revving up one of its largest coal-fired power plants today, when the world is changing in ways that will only add to the country’s troubles.”

Also on board is a small crew and several young men, fellow activists who scroll through Facebook on their cellphones while we putter toward a rally of people on shore who are protesting the coal plant. Their leader is a former Bangladeshi politician, Noor Alam, who is dressed head to toe in denim despite the oppressive heat. He is a member of a regional entity of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit organization that protects threatened rivers all over the globe and has been fighting to protect the Pasur for years. Industrial pollution like microplastics and toxic metals and overfishing have already pushed the tidal river’s fish, crabs and endemic species of dolphin to the brink — even before any of Maitree’s concrete was poured.

“We are young, and before we die, we want to do something for our community,” Zannat tells me. “If we don’t do anything for the future, who will?”

Since winning its independence from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh has experienced a remarkable rise from the hapless, famine-plagued nation that a U.S. undersecretary of state once derided as a “basket case” of Southeast Asia. Foreign investments in high-yield crops, chemical fertilizers and export-focused industrialization have been key to its ascent, and the country’s leaders — many of whom lived through an unthinkably brutal revolution and its aftermath — are sticking with that playbook as they seek to join the developed nations by 2041.

Some younger Bangladeshis, like Zannat, however, would like to see their country do more. She’s well aware that the average Bangladeshi emits just 4% of the carbon dioxide the average American does but doesn’t think that should stop her country from doing what it can to be part of the global solution. Regardless of who deserves blame for our current predicament, if Bangladesh and other developing nations followed the West’s fossil fuel-dependent trajectory of development, the results would be catastrophic for everyone.

Our boat runs aground on a mud-slicked bank, and we disembark under the blazing sun to a riverside village where locals are rallying for a protest. Most are women wrapped in brightly colored saris that cover their heads and faces. They balance dark-haired babies on their hips and carry signs with slogans in Bangla and English: “Save the Pasur River/Save the Sundarbans,” “Cancel all coal power plants,” “Time for Nature.” 

When Alam gives the signal, they march to the middle of a parched rice field where they unfurl a long white banner calling on the government to shut down Maitree and to protect the Royal Bengal tiger and its mangrove forest habitat. I watch from the shade of a palm as they hold their signs high for a gaggle of buzzing photographers. Behind them is the Sundarbans — a thick and swampy wonder unlike anything else on Earth. It is more than a photo backdrop to these people. 

A Mother Of A Forest

In the Sundarbans, generations of Bengalis have gathered wood for fuel, hunted animals for meat, collected honey, and taken fish and crabs from its tidal rivers. Much of the delta was logged in the 18th and 19th centuries to make room for the British East India Company’s spice and jute plantations, but a small portion of mangroves was set aside for protection in 1875. Roughly a century later, 3,900 square miles of coastal forest straddling Bangladesh and India were conserved as sanctuaries and parks.

Although immense and seemingly impenetrable, the Sundarbans has suffered from overuse, and in 2022, the government restricted access to protect its fragile ecosystem. For the people in this village, that restriction is exemplary of the administration’s cognitive dissonance on environmental issues: imposing restrictions on villagers’ use of the coastal forest, while enabling the burning of vast amounts of coal just upstream.

The protest is calm and orderly until someone sees my notebook and realizes that I’m a journalist. In an instant, I’m confronted by a phalanx of women who wave their arms and barrage me with a wall of indiscernible Bangla. There’s anger in their eyes, but it’s not directed at me, my interpreter assures me. 

The women are fed up with poachers who got them banned from hunting and foraging in the forest; pissed off about crumbling roads and salty water; and insulted by the hundreds of peasants like themselves being forced off their farms to make room for industrial development. They want a major hospital closer than two hours away when roads are flooded. And they don’t want a coal plant staffed largely by more experienced foreign employees poisoning the only substantial buffer between their homes and the bay.

“We are young, and before we die, we want to do something for our community. If we don’t do anything for the future, who will?”
— Fatima Zannat

“People know the Sundarbans is saving their lives,” Alam says. Bangladeshis refer to the forest as our mother because of all it provides them with and how its trees protect them from the brunt of incoming cyclones. “They also know this development is harming the Sundarbans.”

Although the women also carry signs about warming on a global scale, their immediate concerns are closer to home. At full operation, Maitree transforms 12,000 tons of subbituminous coal into electricity daily. This alchemy will generate waste ash that risks ground contamination while spewing lead, zinc, titanium and manganese into the air that can then blow across forests and farmland.

That spells trouble for anyone living or working in the vicinity. The regular dredging of 16 miles needed to keep the river accessible for coal-laden ships is also bad news for fishermen and an ongoing, if Sisyphean, effort to rehabilitate the Pasur’s endangered river dolphins. I scribble feverishly in my notebook until the protesters are satisfied that they’ve been heard and they disband. 

The afternoon’s event might have seemed like a feeble protest in the U.S., but dissent is not so safe in Bangladesh, where police crack down hard on demonstrators. One of Alam’s closest colleagues received repeated death threats. Another had his legs broken. Democracy in the delta hangs by a thread.

For most of its short history, Bangladesh has depended on the benevolence of foreign aid organizations that operate under strict protocols, but times have changed: “We don’t need to wait for the World Bank’s money anymore,” Alam says sardonically. “There are many other loaners, and they don’t care about the environment, human rights, or democracy.”

Finding Friendship

Maitree comes from the Sanskrit word maitrī, which means benevolence or friendliness. It’s the first of the Buddha’s Four Immeasurables: virtues that — when extended to all sentient beings through mediation — cultivate universal happiness. Maitree is also a common Hindu girl’s name and the title of a popular Indian television series about two friends who struggle to stay close as they age.

The Maitree Super Thermal Power Project is the product of a partnership between two countries with deep religious differences that have long been latched to each other’s jugulars: India’s National Thermal Power Corp. and the Bangladesh Power Development Board. It is dubbed the Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Company.

Tensions between mostly Hindu India and predominantly Muslim Bangladesh still flare violently from time to time, but their bond over the plant has proven a symbolic show of cultural cooperation and mutually beneficial economic enterprise. In June, the Indian government barred companies from building new coal facilities but didn’t nix projects already in the pipeline or those being constructed elsewhere with its help.

India kicked in $1.6 billion for Maitree, which sits only a couple hours from the border, and already sells at least one million tons of low-grade coal to its neighbor annually. Now, Bangladesh gets a lucrative export commodity; and both enjoy cheap, reliable power for exploding populations.

Before joining Alam and his cohort on the boat, I had stopped for lunch at a café in Mongla. I was watching a stream of buses unloading workers destined for the port town’s factories and I had barely sunken my fingers into the spicy, red kala bhuna curry when the music stopped, the lights went dark and the overhead fan stopped spinning. No one but me appeared to notice.

Power outages are as much a part of the local landscape as squawking magpies and rain. If Bangladesh is a steam train that Prime Minister Hasina is urging toward modernity, brownouts are the red-hot brakes holding it back.

To fix this, the government announced plans in late 2022 to add 4.3 gigawatts of coal-derived electricity — a near quadrupling of its current generation. By 2030, when most Western nations hope to have consigned coal to history, the Asian Development Bank reports that Bangladesh intends to get as much as 40 percent of its energy from the stuff. This would further accelerate the growth of national greenhouse gas emissions, which is currently increasing at about 6% per year.

The unfortunate fact is that no country has attained a high standard of living with low carbon emissions. It’s simple economics. “We run power plants according to least cost generation,” a Bangladesh Power Development Board spokesman told The Financial Express.

“If Bangladesh is a steam train that Prime Minister Hasina is urging toward modernity, brownouts are the red-hot brakes holding it back.”

India is a case in point. Though only slightly older than Bangladesh and a victim of similar colonial atrocities, it’s grown into the country with the world’s fifth-largest economy while consuming more coal than all other nations except China. In August, India put a rover on the dark side of the moon while Bangladesh’s small, earthbound space program staff was monitoring its own water and agricultural resources through foreign satellite data.

But Bangladesh must also contend with a uniquely temperamental environment. Aside from a small mountainous eastern strip, the country is primarily composed of a sloping floodplain sliced into sections by hundreds of meandering rivers that ebb and flow with the tides and swell with monsoon rains. The cost of adapting to this environment through energy development and glitzy infrastructural megaprojects has caused the national debt to more than triple over the last decade.

Picking Up The Tab

Adaptation here means managing rivers and floods. Everywhere I travel along the coast, I am almost always atop a seemingly endless web of embankments built to cordon sopping land into dry islands. Most of these encircling walls are hand-packed mud and earth, and they are quickly caving against sea-level rise, upstream deluges and downstream storm surges. When they fail, as they often do, entire communities housing thousands of people are washed away.

In 2018, Bangladesh adopted a $38-billion portfolio of solutions with a century-long outlook, called Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100. It aspires to do everything from alleviate poverty and provide clean drinking water to stabilize eroding riverbanks and fortify rivers with permanent embankments.

How will it pay for this? Some of the money will come from foreign donors like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, but their support isn’t free. Foreign banks charge interest on loans, and Bangladeshis will ultimately be saddled with the immense cost of defending themselves from a catastrophe they didn’t initially create.

Over and over again, in performative climate talks dating back to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, rich countries have promised to fund sustainable adaptation in the Global South. In 2009, they agreed to mobilize $100 billion annually to help developing countries reduce emissions and adapt, but they have never hit the mark. In 2020, the world’s wealthiest nations only came up with $83 billion. And just 8% of that money — or roughly $6.7 billion — found its way to low-income countries, according to the United Nations.

During negotiations leading up to this year’s COP28, which will be held from late November to mid-December in the United Arab Emirates, nearly 24 committee members produced recommendations for how to pay for losses and damages in particularly vulnerable nations. Nearly 200 governments will vote on the recommendations at the upcoming climate conference. In the words of the UN’s secretary-general in April, the international financial system is “short-sighted, crisis-prone, and bears no relation to the economic reality of today.”

However, some wealthy entities, including China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and General Electric, have a better grasp of modern economics and the potential it brings for financial gain. They’re investing heavily in dirty fuel development in poor nations, sometimes even under the auspices of climate finance. In June, Reuters reported that Japan has loaned at least $9 billion to projects labeled as climate action that will lead to continued reliance on fossil fuels.

One of those is under construction in Cox’s Bazar, a city on Bangladesh’s eastern coast. The $4.5-billion, 1,200-megawatt, coal-powered Matabari power station will generate 6.8 million tons of CO2 every year, but the Japan International Cooperation Agency considers it a climate change project because the plant will burn coal more efficiently than conventional plants, like Maitree.

In August, the Bangladesh Power Development Board announced plans to install a $430-million, 300-megawatt solar farm on land adjacent to Maitree, with help from Saudi-based ACWA Power Company. This would be the largest project in the country’s renewable energy portfolio, which accounts for less than 2% of its power and primarily comes from one hydropower plant built in the 1960s.

The announcement to build a solar farm in the shadow of that ominous smokestack appears a capitulation to protests like the one I witnessed, but Alam and others know that true transformative adaptation to the looming harms of climate change is about more than swapping one source of electricity for another — it requires shifting social power to the people who have always lacked it.

“True transformative adaptation to the looming harms of climate change is about more than swapping one source of electricity for another — it requires shifting social power to the people who have always lacked it.”

“You have to balance the growth with distribution,” said Kimberley Thomas, a geographer at Temple University who has studied water politics and adaptation in the delta for years. “If all you have is growth, the problem is that capitalist growth is subject to capture and concentration.” History has proven that elites will horde the gains of development, whether powered by coal or sunlight. “Without this critical step of actually distributing that wealth,” Thomas told me, economic growth alone will not alleviate poverty and protect people from the impacts of climate change.

From Bangladesh to Ecuador, adaptation interventions often seek to shift people out of so-called backward agrarian livelihoods, but not everyone agrees on what constitutes a “resilient” lifestyle. And many adaptations may result in the same vulnerability that already plagues so many around the world. 

This is certainly true of Maitree and the industrialization occurring along the Pasur River. Hundreds of people have been pushed off hectares of agricultural land so that it could be filled with sand to support new factories. In this way, even as Maitree purports to be lifting people up, it robs them of their autonomy. The plant is as much a symbol of prosperity and international cooperation as it is of heavy-handed governmental control.

Old Ways Renewed

This is why I was so encouraged to meet Jahin Shams a bit farther upriver. The son of Shahidul Islam, an environmental activist who was beaten and imprisoned for opposing the government’s megaproject fetish, Shams champions a natural adaptation that gets to the heart of what plagues coastal Bangladesh without asking its people to don a new industrial identity. 

The delta was built up over eons as its rivers flooded and spread the Himalayan sediment suspended in its waters across the plain. Attempting to control the delta’s volatile rivers with permanent embankments has backfired, Shams says. It has caused the sediment to back up in the waterways so that today the land is sinking and the rivers are rising.

Drawing on indigenous practices that survived centuries of colonial rule, Shams’ tactic, called tidal river management, would allow the rivers to flood again, but this time in a more controlled fashion. The strategy directs the rivers’ nutrient-rich sediment into carefully placed catch basins where it piles up, raising and fertilizing coastal farmland. “In that way, you do not just save your river, but you save your bottom from climate change as well,” he told me.

The method was proven in the 1990s amid an outbreak of peasant revolts. In villages like the one I visited with Alam, people had lost faith in the government’s forceful mismanagement of rivers, which had inadvertently led to widespread waterlogging that destroyed crops.

Villagers recalled to me how poor farmers with nothing left to lose began cutting the earthen levees, often with their bare hands, to drain their lands. Surprisingly, the peasants didn’t perish. Quite the opposite. Over time, sediment accrued, previously eroded riverbanks rose and crops flourished in the fertile soil. But perhaps most importantly, the people regained some control of their livelihoods.

This is why the work of people like Shams and Alam so troubles the governmental elite: These young activists seek to lay the control of problems into the hands of local people, providing them with tools they already know how to use, rather than seeking salvation in a multibillion-dollar power plant like Maitree, which threatens to make matters worse.

Of course, Bangladesh needs reliable, widespread, convenient and inexpensive electricity. And wealthy countries also need to make good on their promises of economic support by funding community-run renewable energy across the delta. But what the people need even more than electricity is power — and not the kind that flickers.