Dr Ahsan Uddin Ahmed recently talked to The Business Standard’s Ashraful Haque and expressed his opinions on the possible impact of the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris agreement, as well as on Bangladesh’s climate change adaptation strategies
Dr Ahsan Uddin Ahmed is a member of the independent Technical Advisory Panel (iTAP) of the Green Climate Fund (GCF). He is also the executive director of the Centre for Global Change.
He recently talked to The Business Standard's Ashraful Haque and expressed his opinions on the possible impact of the United States' withdrawal from the Paris agreement, as well as on Bangladesh's climate change adaptation strategies.
The Business Standard (TBS): America's withdrawal from the Paris agreement is taking effect on November 4 this year. Will it hurt the climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts in the global stage in general, and Bangladesh in particular?
Ahsan Uddin Ahmed (AUA): The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has not financed any of Bangladesh's climate preparedness or disaster management projects in the last 20-25 years. So, in respect of our preparedness, the United States' withdrawal from any international or bilateral agreement will not make a difference.
Also, the US did not participate in the first replenishment of the Green Climate Fund (GCF), and withdrew fund from the first pledge.
Bangladesh has got four projects from the GCF. It helped us a bit, but the contribution is like a drop of water against an ocean of need.
For example, our Local Government Engineering Department's (LGED) development budget for this year is $2.67 billion. In contrast, after three to four years of efforts, we have managed to get a $25 million grant from the GCF, and a matching grant of $12 million from the German government.
This $40 million will be spent in six years. So, you see, this funding is too negligible compared to our own financing to be worried about the GCF, or the US withdrawal from it.
So, I do not think the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement will make any significant difference globally. If, being a least developed country, Bangladesh's fight against climate change is not affected by the US withdrawal, other countries who are financing their own struggle will not be hurt much either.
Rather, it is the moral position of the US which will be in jeopardy. Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), member states agreed through a very long negotiation that developed countries will be financing developing countries to carry on mitigation and adaptation activities.
It is not like that the GCF is the only source of such finance – that is just not possible – but it was pledged by the developed countries, including the US. It would have been nice if the US kept its promise.
TBS: The US is still the largest economy of the world and the second largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter. Without its participation in global emission cut, will it not be more difficult for the world to be able to limit temperature rise to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels?
AUA: Of course it will be harder. We have been swimming against the current and will have to continue it. Around 22% of global emission is generated in the US. More than 25% comes from China.
Brazil is razing the Amazon, and the forest – the lung of the planet – is burning. At the same time, emission in India, Mexico, Vietnam, South Korea, Malaysia, Brazil, and even Bangladesh is growing, and these countries' emission combined is greater than that of Europe.
So, neither the US participation alone would have saved the world, nor its withdrawal will ruin the world's efforts to fight back climate change. We all have to participate in the struggle.
The US is a part of all of us. So, the US should have participated as well. That was our expectation. But unfortunately, it did not work.
TBS: Bangladesh's efforts to adapt to climate change is often applauded by the world. Tell us about some areas where Bangladesh has made commendable progress.
AUA: We like being applauded. Let me put it this way: if the least laborious student of the class, who fails in math every year, suddenly passes the course, he gets patted on the back. But that does not mean he is really good.
Perhaps we are not failing now, but we will fail in 10 years. Let me explain. Bangladesh is really good at analysis. We predicted the problems we are going to face due to climate change and made recommendations accordingly. It is really appreciable that the LGED made it compulsory to consider climate change for every local project in order to get funded.
Not every government agency paid heed. The Water Development Board, for example, does not seem very serious. The embankments damaged in cyclone Aila, which were rebuilt two and a half years later, collapsed this year again during cyclone Amphan.
We could not ensure that the local communities would be able to save their livelihoods in their areas and live a decent life there. Climate change is just waking everyone up globally. Its signs will be distinctly visible at least a decade or two later, but we are getting knocked down already.
So, although we have got 33% mark in math, overall, we are failing. Being applauded will not help much.
TBS: It is said that Bangladesh already has an estimated six million climate migrants. How to stop climate-driven displacement?
AUA: There are two aspects to the answer. Firstly, I cannot tell farmer Goni Mia not to come to the city. You and I all came to the city and stayed. So, why cannot Goni Mia come as well? We need to improve our attitude towards this and that should be reflected in the policies.
Secondly, coming to your question, we have already identified the climate hotspots, and we know what climatic events will occur in which spot. We also have the timeline of the events. We know roughly how many people will be affected by 2050.
By 2050, about half of our population will be living in the urban areas in contrast to 26% now. We have 4,554 unions. These union headquarters will likely become secondary urban centres in 30 years. We will have to plan those growth centres beforehand by marking the locations for industrial areas, residential areas, how effluent treatment plants will be set up, etc.
We will have to make sure that the extreme climatic events will not reach those urban centres. Instead of constructing the world's most expensive rail line in the south that costs Tk125 crore per kilometre, we could have used this kind of money to build at least 2,000 climate resilient nucleus urban centres that would better serve our future needs.
TBS: Tell us about some climate innovations where we need to invest more.
AUA: The people of Bangladesh always try to innovate in order to make a living. Kurigram can be presented as a very good example of agricultural innovation. The district has 16 rivers, and 48% of its land is sand-laden. It has only a few crops. Nevertheless, crop intensity in this district crossed 257 two years back.
Kurigram now has the third greatest crop intensity in the country. It was made possible by researching the time of flooding in the changed circumstances and adjusting crop calendar accordingly by choosing the right paddy varieties. Instead of leaving croplands fallow due to uncertainty arising from information gap concerning new flood time, it has now been possible to yield a cash crop and vegetables during the interval between two paddy seasons.
There are many more examples across the country, including the salinity-affected southwest where innovations are being made through trial and error.
I know of road projects in char areas where the road is not paved with bitumen and thus easily gets damaged when it comes in contact with water. Eventually, the whole road is washed away. But if the herringbone pattern (covered with bare bricks) is followed to make the road, the union parishad chairman, in case of flooding, can inform the upazila nirbahi officer.
Under another project in six flood-prone districts, we are trying to determine the points on roads where floodwater hits the hardest. In those points, drainage capacity will have to be increased so that the water can easily pass from one side of the road to the other.
Another innovation in road maintenance is rain damage identification using rural women. In case of heavy rainfall, these women will inspect a certain length of the road as part of their responsibility to mark the locations where rainwater is cutting through road damaging the bitumen. Once located and reported through mobile phones, quick measures can be taken to stop the rain damage.
These simple and low-cost maintenance practices can stop large damage on one hand and can be an earning source for rural women on the other.
Instead of theoretical adaptation talks, such appropriate techniques and technologies can contribute largely to our adaptation efforts. Fortunately, these thoughts have started crossing our minds. This needs to be integrated across all the agencies and across the whole system.
TBS: Is the thoughtfulness you just spoke about reflected in the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP)?
AUA: One could say that the document predates many of the events that I mentioned here. But the BCCSAP 2009 is very abstract in nature. It does not really contain scenario-specific strategies.
A strategy should be a blend of local knowledge and science, which is capable of solving local problems. It should encompass financial and various other sectors as well, but there needs to be strategic moves in the BCCSAP, not just a list of action plans.
The BCCSAP was formulated under the then Ministry of Environment and Forest. It is being revised under what is now called the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.
In my opinion, it should have been done in coordination with other ministries and ended up in specific planning, which did not happen. As far as I know about the current update process, it is not going to happen this time either.