Sundarbans. The word means “beautiful forest” in Bengali, and it’s an accurate description of the 540 square miles of lush jungle, meandering waterways, and abundant wildlife straddling the southern end of the Bangladesh-India border. The world’s largest mangrove forest, a swath of dense verdant green bifurcated by thousands of rivers and streams, occupies the mouth of the river system that supports more people than any other on Earth, giving life to millions who inhabit the fertile alluvial lands surrounding it.
Intense population pressure—Bangladesh’s 160 million people make their home in an area slightly smaller than Iowa—has caused the forests to shrink, but they are still vital in feeding this huge population: The Sundarbans Reserve Forest and India’s Sundarbans National Park protect the land that provides three annual harvests of rice from the severe cyclonic storms that strike the region an average of three times a year. An enigmatic sentry, the Bengal tiger, patrols the barrier. The national animal of both Bangladesh and neighboring India can navigate the waterways and disappear amid the otherworldly vegetation; it’s one of the reasons the Sundarbans region was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. But despite nominal protections, it is—like the forests—endangered.
One reason is that Bangladesh and India plan to build the 1,320-megawatt Rampal coal power plant about 10 miles from the Sundarbans Reserve Forest; activists say part of the project falls within an exclusion zone that bars nearby development.
The plant’s emissions will include 7.9 million tons of carbon dioxide per year and large amounts of mercury. Coal ash from the plant has a “high risk of containing various toxic metals…all of which may cause serious damage to humans and the environment,” according to a report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Report on the Mission to the Sundarbans World Heritage Site, Bangladesh, from 22 to 28 March 2016, released last week. “Mercury contamination is of particular concern,” the report states, as “current projected control mechanisms and technology are not sufficient to prevent contamination” of surrounding areas.
The IUCN report is only the latest in a catalog of serious concerns that scientists have brought about the project. All have been summarily dismissed by Bangladesh’s government, which conducted the environmental impact assessment on its own project. The IUCN report notes that the EIA “was conducted with limited stakeholder consultation, uses a process that is inconsistent with globally accepted EIA practices, does not address effects of the plant on the [outstanding universal value] of the [UNESCO World Heritage–listed portions of the forest] and does not seem to reflect key concerns raised by national and international experts and scientists.” The report continues: “Air and water pollution have a high likelihood to irreversibly damage the OUV of the world heritage property. The possible threats arising from the power plant on the OUV of the property are not addressed adequately …and the plant itself is not applying the best available technology or the highest international standards for preventing damage commensurate with its location.” As a result, the IUCN scientists recommend “that the Rampal power plant project is cancelled and relocated to a more suitable location, where it would not impact negatively on the Sundarbans Reserve Forest.”
Rampal, however, is not a purely South Asian investment. About 70 percent of the money required to build the plant will be borrowed, and that means a lot of money will come from banks overseas: UBS, Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays, Prudential Financial, HSBC, BlackRock, and Société Générale have all bought bonds that India sold to finance infrastructure essential to the plant’s operation, according to analysis of Bloomberg and ThomsonReuters data by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, an independent research group. It isn’t the developing world’s only such planned or recently built coal plant to rely on financing or advice from wealthy nations: In India, a coal plant was financed in part by loans from the U.S. government. Germany’s development bank provided funding for another coal plant in India. Japan’s development agency, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, practically wrote Bangladesh’s plan to boost its power-generating capacity using coal—even as the government has helped expand the reach of distributed solar power to at least 18 million people in the country, according to The New York Times. These wealthy nations' attempts to ease construction of heavily polluting coal plants occurs while the cost of new onshore wind farms has fallen 30 percent between 2010 and 2015, according to International Energy Agency data released Tuesday, and the cost of large solar panels fell by two-thirds over the same period.
Air and water pollution have a high likelihood to irreversibly damage…the world heritage property. The possible threats arising from the power plant…are not addressed adequately.
IUCN report on a March 2016 mission to the Sundarbans World Heritage site in Bangladesh
While much of the developed world is breaking the coal habit, with the U.S. seeing the share of electricity so derived fall from nearly half to less than a third in under a decade, and Canada and the United Kingdom planning to phase it out entirely, wealthy nations are selling expertise and helping to pay for poor countries like Bangladesh to adopt the dirty fuel, locking them in to emissions that poison their populations for decades and threaten the stability of the earth’s climate. Governments, taxpayers, and investors thousands of miles away will therefore assist in paying for plants like Rampal—often couched as development aid or even financed with green bonds—and their subsequent pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. A lending unit of the World Bank has provided banks that invest significantly in coal projects in developing nations with hundreds of millions of dollars—even as another arm of the Bank loans Bangladesh $2 billion to fight climate change. Countries including the U.S., and companies headquartered in them, are ratifying the Paris agreement with one hand while pushing coal in Bangladesh and elsewhere with the other.
Yet a report released this week by Overseas Development Institute, a British research organization, and the Vasdudha Foundation, based in New Delhi, says off-grid renewable electricity is "the cheapest and quickest way of reaching over two-thirds of those without electricity." Building just one-third of the coal plants now planned, the report found, will bring about climate change that will plunge millions into poverty.
Though scientists pegged the amount of warming since preindustrial times that civilization can withstand at 2 degrees Celsius, and despite Paris’ declaration of a goal to keep warming below a 2-degree increase, ODI researchers the calculated that “planned coal development, mostly in the developing world, will singlehandedly max out the world’s two-degree carbon budget.” The World Bank seems to agree: Its president, Jim Yong Kim, noted in September that “if all the new coal plants on the books earlier this year were constructed, especially in Asia, it would be impossible to stay below two degrees.”
Rampal is the most controversial element of a highly coal-reliant plan to quadruple power-generating capacity in Bangladesh—a country regularly found to be one of the “most at risk from climate change,” facing displacement of 18 million people by 2050 and the loss of more than 17 percent of its land mass. Rampal will burn around 4.72 million tons of coal annually. This cargo will most likely come by boat through the supposedly protected forests, via a river that will require dredging at a price of $26 million a year, bringing the cost to Bangladeshi taxpayers to about $1.87 billion over the course of the plant’s life, according to IEEFA. The IUCN investigators found that dredged material will likely be deposited into a Marine Protected Area within the habitat of the endangered Irawaddy dolphin. As Yadvendradev V. Jhala, a wildlife biologist at the Wildlife Institute of India and the Smithsonian Institution, told TakePart, the boats “carrying coal will fragment the population” of tigers by preventing the hydrophilic cats from crossing key rivers. “There are only around five viable wild tiger habitats left in the world for long-term hope” of the species’ survival, he said. “This is one of them. If you break these up into smaller parts, you lose that, not ecologically but biologically,” by reducing genetic diversity. Boats that capsize in cyclones or run aground and leak fuel or cargo are also a concern of environmental groups; the IUCN report noted a lack of any plan for “a concerted and coordinated maritime traffic management and response.”
As Bangladesh’s economy grows and the government seeks to provide electricity to the 40 percent of the population who in 2012 did not have it, Bangladesh’s energy shift will see it transform, from producing around 2 percent of electricity from coal—the “single greatest threat to our climate,” according to Greenpeace—to 50 percent by 2030.
The national power companies have said they will each cover 15 percent of the plant’s initial costs; the remaining 70 percent, about $1.6 billion, will be borrowed. The national power companies have a problem, though—what’s known in the world of finance as reputational risk. Many banks don’t want to be seen enabling construction of a project posing risks to a UNESCO World Heritage site and the planet.
As a result, much of the burden for funding the plant and its associated infrastructure, such as rail lines, will fall on India’s Exim Bank. The government-owned bank’s primary purpose is to assist India’s exporters and Indian companies operating abroad. Its chairman and managing director, Yaduvendra Mathur, admits that the project poses a “reputation risk.”
Carrying coal will fragment the population. There are only around five viable wild tiger habitats left in the world. This is one of them. If you break these up into smaller parts, you lose that.
Yadvendradev V. Jhala, wildlife biologist, Wildlife Institute of India and the Smithsonian Institution
Many nations have similar institutions. Known as export credit agencies, they are a means of encouraging companies to sell products or services abroad by insuring their risks and helping pay for their activities up front, before they are able to collect from the overseas client. So while India stumps up money for Indian companies’ costs in Bangladesh, the United States’ own EXIM Bank has done the same for the 3,960-megawatt Sasan plant in Madhya Pradesh, India. With $650 million in loan guarantees from the U.S. EXIM Bank, American companies’ bids to sell equipment to the project could beat foreign competition. ECAs spent about $73 billion globally subsidizing the coal industry between 2007 and 2014, according to a 2015 report from the World Wildlife Fund, Oil Change International, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
India’s ECA has been selling bonds to finance Rampal, describing some of them as green. According to Catalina von Hildebrand of the watchdog group BankTrack, “international shareholders have already divested from [India’s national power company] on account of Rampal, and this could happen again [to Exim Bank].” Big French lenders BNP Paribas, Crédit Agricole, and Société Générale have all said they will not advise or lend to the project, The Guardian reported last year.
But Exim Bank began marketing green bonds for Rampal in March 2015, with an initial tranche of $500 million. Green bonds are usually sold to finance projects such as mass transit; in this instance major banks and private equity firms from New York to Zurich are riding this investment vehicle to provide funds for rail lines essential to the Rampal plant’s operation. BNP bought $3.67 million worth of Exim Bank bonds in February, adding credence to the Bangladesh Power Division’s statement, first reported by the Daily Sun in Dhaka, that “the news of rejection by the French banks to finance Rampal Project is irrelevant.”
Other countries hard at work bolstering their companies’ prospects to build and supply fossil fuel projects overseas include Germany and Japan. Japan funded about $20 billion worth of coal generation internationally between 2007 and 2014, tops worldwide, according to the WWF report. Tokyo Electric Power Company, owner of the Fukushima nuclear power plant that leaked radioactive material after the 2011 tsunami, helped the Japanese government devise a plan to power Bangladesh with around 13 new coal-fired plants in coastal areas of one of the most flood- and storm-prone countries on Earth. Japan loaned Bangladesh $3.6 billion to build a plant that will provide less electricity than the Rampal project despite being twice as costly. Taku Yamabe, senior representative for the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which is behind the huge ramp-up of coal in Bangladesh, said in an email exchange with TakePart that the bids would be “mostly” open. (The project has stalled because of security fears after six Japanese contractors were killed in a terrorist attack in Dhaka on July 1.) The principal contractor on the Matarbari coal project in southeast Bangladesh is a group comprising the Tokyo Electric Power Company, Nippon Koei, and Fichtner GmbH & Co. of Germany, according to Yamabe. Bangladeshi officials have shortlisted two prominent Japanese companies to construct the plant, local media reported in February. One of them pleaded guilty in 2014 to bribing Indonesian officials to build a coal plant and paid an $88 million fine.
Despite Germany’s vaunted Energiewende, or energy transition, which has seen enormous investments in renewable energy at home, the country spent almost $1.5 billion subsidizing coal-fired power abroad in 2013 and 2014, according to ODI. It also subsidizes coal mining in other countries, most notably Serbia. Germany’s official development bank, the KfW, which is tasked with lending money to poor countries to alleviate poverty, has helped fund the construction of the Krishnapatnam coal plant project in India, due to come online in 2017. Climate change in India is believed to be responsible for a drought that this year alone affected more than 330 million people.
At Rampal the engineering consultant is Fichtner GmbH. The decision to allow its participation “came from on top,” says a former official of German’s embassy in Dhaka, speaking on condition of anonymity. Fichtner GmbH is also involved in Krishnapatnam and dozens of other coal power projects across India. The coal lobby in Germany is “very, very powerful,” said Claudia Kemfert of the German Institute for Economic Research. “There is no other explanation why there is no coal phaseout in Germany.”
As environmental groups increase pressure on the government, tensions in Dhaka are mounting. Anu Muhammad, professor of economics at Jahangirnagar University and a vocal critic of the project, reportedly started receiving death threats in the early hours of Oct. 13. “Say ‘yes’ to Rampal,” one text message read, “otherwise you must will be hacked to death incredibly by us!”