PM Hasina’s earnest call for action at COP26
In the lead up to COP26, the BBC published an article highlighting five people who would be key to successful outcomes in Glasgow. The list included veteran Chinese climate negotiator Xia Zhenhua and COP26 President Alok Sharma, amongst others, and included the Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina, who the BBC termed the "voice of the vulnerable". As the current President of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) and the V20 Group of Ministers, much is expected of Bangladesh's delegation to be a strong moral voice and advocate.
These expectations are not without justification. Bangladesh, along with other small developing states, often have outsized voices at forums like COP, punching well above their economic weight, and with good track records of pushing through valuable decisions through the UN mechanism. An appeal by the PM on behalf of the CVF countries for the submission of ambitious new NDCs went out last year and acted as a call to action for many ahead of Glasgow. Most recently, Bangladesh and the Marshall Islands were commended for their efforts in the UN Human Rights Council to push through a resolution for the creation of a new mandate holder, in the form of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Climate Change. In climate diplomacy circles, Bangladesh remains a respected and motivated actor fighting for climate action on the global stage.
As a result, PM Hasina's speech at the Leaders Summit on the first two days at COP26 was eagerly awaited. The series of speeches by world leaders is more theatre than actual policy action—the real work often begins after the leaders have left their negotiators to work overtime to iron out a deal—and the opportunity was taken by many to announce significant new climate pledges, including a spate of net zero commitments and action. Others used the opportunity to remind their fellow heads of states of the urgency and moral imperative of successful outcomes at Glasgow.
PM Hasina began with the oft recited yet highly effective reminder that Bangladesh contributes less than 0.5 percent of global emissions, yet is a country that is among the most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. The moral imperative of climate action is not on developing states like Bangladesh, but rather on rich, industrialised nations. But the climate reality is that we are already facing the effects, and without effective climate finance, technology transfer and focus on adaptation, many lives and livelihoods will be lost in Bangladesh and elsewhere in the Global South.
Bangladesh is already planning and taking actions to deal with this climate reality, as outlined in the number of policy initiatives the PM talked about. She mentioned the establishment of the GoB's Climate Change Trust Fund, for which she announced spending would be increasing yearly, as well as the Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan, the first of its kind in the world and a blueprint on building resilience, promoting development and spurring economic growth centring around climate action. It is widely expected that this will be a blueprint for other developing nations to develop their own climate prosperity plans. She also announced that work is underway on a National Adaptation Plan that should be unveiled next year. Bangladesh's new NDC were deemed "ambitious" by her, and she briefly mentioned the extensive domestic solar programme, as well as plans to have 40 percent of power generation from renewable sources by 2041. The main body of her speech ended with her reiterating her responsibility to speak not only for the people of Bangladesh, but also the 40 plus members of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, and spoke of the efforts of the CVF countries to pursue a "Climate Emergency Pact".
She closed her speech with four demands, summarising the long-standing demands of many in the developing world. The first of these was that the major emitters and industrialised countries must submit ambitious new NDCs for upgraded climate action as well as, importantly, guarantee their implementation. The second was to highlight a major talking point at COP26, which is the promise of the mobilisation of USD 100 billion annually in climate finance to developing countries, which has yet to be kept. The climate finance that has been mobilised (usually well short of the USD 100 billion target) has often been skewed for mitigation purposes, and the PM reiterated the CVF's demands that the finance should be split 50:50 between mitigation and adaptation. In addition, she also demanded affordable and accessible technology transfer for developing nations. Finally, she called for the addressing of the elephant in the room: Loss and Damage, including calling for enshrinement of shared responsibility for climate migrants/refugees and displaced peoples due to adverse climatic effects such as sea level rises, increasing salinity, erosion, droughts, etc.
While her speech covered many points deserving of their own careful analysis and writing, and bravely put forward a series of demands for major emitters and industrialised nations to take responsibility and appropriate action to fight the climate crisis, there were some significant issues missing, especially in relation to Bangladesh's environmental actions at home. There was no mention of coal, a major talking point at this COP, as repeated calls from the COP Presidency have urged for coal to be binned at Glasgow. Bangladesh has persisted with planned future reliance on coal—a policy that contradicts the moral high ground of its climate diplomatic position and makes less and less economic sense as the price of renewables plummet worldwide. While in a separate speech she mentioned the 10 coal power plant plans that were binned earlier this year by the government, there remains extensive coal generation plants, many in fragile ecosystems, with questions surrounding ecological impacts and human rights violations.
In addition, with international pressure on coal funders, whether these cancellations came about from climate considerations or economic necessities is a matter of speculation. Without an updated Power Sector Master Plan, it remains unclear as to what direction the government's energy policies will take and remains a somewhat uncertain field. Deforestation and the conservation of carbon sinks were also noticeably missing from the PM's speech, especially with continuous reports of land-grabbing and tree-felling in reserve forests in Bangladesh—such as the decision to use 700 acres for the establishment of a civil service academy in Cox's Bazaar, which includes areas that are categorised as Ecologically Critical. Bangladesh initially abstained from signing on to a major political commitment on protection of forests at COP, but has since signed on.
PM Hasina's speech in Glasgow made a lot of good points and stressed on important demands, something one must hope her negotiators and the delegates of other CVF countries will push hard for in whatever outcomes emerge from Glasgow. However, these cannot just remain demands, they must become realities as the climate crisis worsens. Near term action is extremely important. While no government is perfect, Bangladesh's moral position internationally must also be backed up with action domestically, something which, at the domestic level, has sometimes been found lacking. The pipeline of policies and strategic documents will create an important framework, but we have to wait until they are published to scrutinise what they do well and what they lack. Words are important, but action even more so. Whatever emerges when the dust settles in Glasgow, we hope the government of Bangladesh will apply the same urgency to dealing with environmental degradation at home.
Bareesh Hasan Chowdhury is a Research Lawyer at the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA).