Natural dimensions and human emergency

Originally posted in The Financial Express on 24 April 2022

Photo taken on Jan. 3, 2021 shows solar panels installed at a factory building in Gazipur on the outskirts of capital Dhaka, Bangladesh. —Xinhua Photo

One needs to recall an interesting and thoughtful article written by climate activist, scientist and analyst Matt McGrath on April 28, 2019 highlighting the natural and human emergency the facing the world. His assessment drew attention of most climatologists who had gathered in Paris at that time to reach an agreement on humanity’s relationship with nature.

The Intergovernmental Panel for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) had been working on issuing a report in this regard. The effort was to identify past losses and future prospects for nature and humans during the growing social and ecological emergency that our world was being challenged with. An intergovernmental assessment eventually came out in May, 2019.

During that time an effort was made to explain that biodiversity was a scientific word for all the amazing variety of life that can be found on Earth, their interactions with each other and with their environments. It was pointed out that pollination is one of the key services that nature provides to humans. It encompasses everything from genes, through individual species such as orangutans, through communities of creatures and then the whole ecological complexes of which they are part.

It may be noted in this regard that a UN Convention on Biological Diversity was signed in 1992 and it clarified that this term denoted the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part of. This connoted the inclusion of diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.

It was also made clear that biodiversity helps provide and maintain our fresh water, fertile soils, our medicines and a stable climate. It was also stressed that all species are interconnected and often depend on each other. So while fungi helps maintain the soils of the forest, these healthy soils help plants to grow, insects then carry pollen from one plant to another, animals can eat the plants, and the forest as a whole provides a home for animals. However, losing one species within this chain would be detrimental as it could weaken the connections that benefit us all.

This constructive effort on the part of IPBES based on scientific evidence, indigenous and local knowledge was carefully monitored as everyone started to understand that the negatives within the framework could become a threat to humans — a social and ecological emergency — if the devastation of nature continued.

This IPBES report and the IPCC report woke up the world to the scale of the threat of climate change. This also underlined that the challenges created through climate change and variability was a problem for the whole world because of its osmotic nature.

Three years later Matt McGrath at the end of this March has returned with some other interesting observations. It has been pointed out that there is a distinct effort throughout the world to foster renewable energy and wind and solar installations have grown at a clear pace in 2021.

The demand for energy has apparently soared as the world economies have rebounded from the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021. A research carried out by Ember, a climate and energy think tank has revealed that wind and solar will generate almost 38 per cent of the world’s electricity in 2021- which is about 10 per cent of global electricity for the first time. It has also been claimed that nearly fifty countries are currently obtaining more than a tenth of their power from these sources.

The share coming from wind and sun has doubled since 2015, when the Paris climate agreement was signed. The fastest switching to wind and solar took place in the Netherlands, Australia, and Vietnam. All three have moved a tenth of their electricity demand from fossil fuels to green sources in the last two years. “The Netherlands is a great example of a more northern latitude country proving that it’s not just where the Sun shines, it’s also about having the right policy environment that makes the big difference in whether solar takes off,” said Hannah Broadbent from Ember. Such alternative growth has also taken place in Denmark and it now gets more than 50 per cent of its electricity need from wind and solar.

Vietnam also saw spectacular growth, particularly in solar which rose by over 300 per cent in just one year. “In the case of Vietnam, there was a massive step up in solar generation and it was driven by feed-in tariffs — money the government pays you for generating electricity — which made it very attractive for households and for utilities to be deploying large amounts of solar,” said Dave Jones, Ember’s global lead. “What we saw with that was a massive step up in solar generation last year, which didn’t just meet increased electricity demand, but it has also led to a fall in both coal and gas generation.”

However, there has also been a resurgence of the use of coal in 2021. A large majority of the increased demand for electricity in 2021 was met by fossil fuels with coal fired electricity rising by 9 per cent, the fastest rate since 1985. Much of the rise in coal use was in Asian countries including China and India, but the increase in coal was not matched by gas use which increased globally by only 1 per cent, indicating that rising prices for gas have made coal a more viable source of electricity. Dave Jones has remarked in this context that “The last year has seen some really super high gas prices, where coal became cheaper than gas. What we’re seeing right now is gas prices across Europe and across much of Asia being 10 times more expensive than they were this time last year, where coal is three times more expensive.” He has consequently called the price rises for both gas and coal: “a double reason for electricity systems to demand more clean electricity, because the economics have shifted so fundamentally.”

Other researchers have however observed that despite the coal resurgence in 2021, major economies including the US, UK, Germany, and Canada are aiming to shift their grids to 100 per cent electric within the next 15 years. This switch is being driven by concerns over keeping the rise in the world’s temperature under 1.5C in this century. To do that, scientists say that wind and solar energy production need to grow at around 20 per cent every year up to 2030. Many analysts say this is now “eminently possible”. The war in Ukraine could also give a push to electricity sources that don’t depend on Russian imports of oil and gas.

In Bangladesh, garment makers and those associated with the RMG industry are also trying to switch to renewable energy. The media has reported that rooftop solar panels have reduced a significant portion of the energy cost of industrial users and also enhanced their green credentials.

There is a growing interest among textile and garment entrepreneurs to install solar panels on their factory’s rooftop in order to meet a portion of their demand for electricity while also reducing carbon emissions. It has since been discovered that until now, 41 firms have installed solar panels on their factory rooftops with a combined power generation capacity of 50 megawatts (MW). Of the firms, 70 per cent are engaged in making garments.

It may also be noted that Swedish multinational clothing brand H&M is promoting the use of rooftop solar technology among its enlisted garment makers in Bangladesh. This is important because H&M sources apparel products from 46 Bangladeshi textiles and garment manufacturers. It is a good initiative.

The Infrastructure Development Company Ltd (IDCOL), a state-run non-bank financial institution has been apparently financing up to 80 per cent, or Tk 300 crore of the installation cost for the panels in a bid to reduce the cost of power and develop green factories for a sustainable environment. The rest of the expenditure is being borne by the businesses themselves.

According to IDCOL, it takes nearly Taka 60 million to establish a rooftop solar power system with the capacity to generate 1MW of power. The per unit power generation cost of rooftop solar power systems is only Tk 6.5, which is lower than gas or oil-based power plants. The cost of electricity obtained from rooftop solar power systems is now about 20 per cent lower than the grid electricity tariff. Energy experts also believe and hope that “solar photovoltaic (PV) based electricity will become cheaper than the power generated from natural gas in coming years”.

According to experts and environmentalists, installing solar panels on the roofs of garment factories will not only reduce operational costs, but also assist the government in cutting the cost of imported fuel in the future. These experts have also indicated that more than 1,000MW of rooftop solar systems can be installed on the unused roofs of garment and textile industries alone. Fatima Yasmin, Secretary of the Economic Relations Division (ERD), of the Bangladesh government has also indicated that our country has made solar power more economical through the net energy metering policy that allows industries to sell their excess solar energy production to the national grid.

These efforts undertaken in Bangladesh will reaffirm our commitment towards not only protecting biodiversity but also adopting correct measures to tackle climate variability and environmental damage.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.