Updated: Mar 19, 2022
Image courtesy No Coal Japan
This poster conveys the opposition to the massive new coal plants in Bangladesh.
By Alfred Robert Hogan
Climate activists from Fridays For Future and other nonprofits in Bangladesh, Japan, Australia, and the USA are leading opposition to new coal-fired power plants, to be situated on a low-lying Bangladeshi island on its southeastern coast, in the vast Bay of Bengal. Matarbari Phase 1, now more than three-fifths finished, seems unstoppable. But faced with robust environmental opposition, and increased coal costs, a major Japanese corporation announced on Monday 28 February it was formally ending its plans to help finance and build Phase 2, known as Matarbari 2.
In May 2021, that Sumitomo Corp. had announced it would not partake in new coal-fired power plant projects—except for Matarbari 1, which is under construction in Bangladesh. Since the 2015 UN Paris Climate Agreement, the Japanese government and firms have rushed to finance nine coal plants outside Japan, mostly in Asia, such as the Indramayu coal plant in Indonesia. The activists urge clean-energy alternatives be substituted.
As FFF Bangladesh organizer Sohanur Rahman explained, “Talking against the Matarbari Coal Power Plant Project has been very sensitive and risky. And sometimes we feel it's a life threat to us to talk against this project…But we are not against Japan or the Government of Bangladesh. We are simply fighting for our planet, nature, and people. Bangladesh is waiting for investment. So, if the government can get investment in coal, they will go for coal. If they can get investment in renewable energy, then they will go with renewable energy.”
In June 2021, the Bangladesh government did scotch 10 of the country’s 18 planned coal-fired power plants. But recently, Bangladesh energy ministry official Mohammad Hossain adamantly told the Reuters wire service, “We have already canceled power plants with an intention to cut down emissions, but this is an ongoing project and there is no question to cancel it.”
In mid-March 2022, noted US linguist, progressive philosopher, and multi-book author Noam Chomsky (professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), commented that in view of the latest UN IPCC report, issued two weeks earlier--"the most severe and dire warning yet"--"...[I]mmediately, with no delay, we must begin to sharply reduce our use of fossil fuels, particularly coal, the most dangerous of them. Failure to do so will bring about indescribable catastrophe. In these circumstances, it is criminal to even consider funding new coal plants. I hope and trust the plans to fund new coal plants in Bangladesh will be quickly withdrawn."
And indeed, the remaining eight planned Bangladesh power plants would become one of the world’s largest coal-fired power plant clusters, concentrated within 10 square kilometers, according to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), an independent science nonprofit based in Finland. Those plants are to be built on Matarbari Island, located within sight of the famous beautiful sandy beaches at Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh—the world’s longest unbroken sandy beach, stretching for 155 kilometers. In partnership with the Bangladesh national government, the Japanese government’s Japan International Cooperation Agency is now substantially funding (via low-interest 30-to-40-year loans), and Japan’s Sumitomo Corporation trading house and its main co-contractors (Toshiba and IHI Corporation) are already building the huge 1200-megawatt (MW), coal-fired Matarbari 1 power plant complex. Proposed back in September 2011, with environmental approval granted in October 2013, the US $4.8 billion plant began construction in January 2018. Its two units, situated on the 607-hectare site, are now due to open between January 2024 and July 2024. (If all eight plants are built, they would generate produce 8,720 megawatts, MWs, of power.)
In all, some US $20 billion has been aligned and channeled to a mega collection of 68 related projects in the region, overseen by the state-owned Coal Power Generation Company Bangladesh (CPGCBL). Those include potentially as many as eight coal-fired power plants, including the two Matarbari 1 and 2 units, which would each operate for three decades or longer.
Photo credit Market Forces
This Bangladeshi salt farmer’s livelihood is threatened by
the huge coal power plant being built behind him.
Even during the Matarbari 1 coal plant construction, much disruption of longstanding ways of life has occurred. More than 2,000 river fishers have been put out of work, nearby shrimp farms have been polluted, river boat trade has been halted, and salt farming has been ruined. Mangrove forests have also been destroyed.
If the two power plants go into operation in 2024, each year they would use 3.73 million metric tons of coal. That massive amount of coal would be imported via ships bound from Indonesia, Australia, and South Africa, docking at the deep-sea Matarbari Port, which is being expanded.
In an open letter to Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, 44 organizations from Bangladesh and almost 20 other nations asked him to halt Phase 2. As the signatories noted, the Matarbari coal units in Bangladesh are being built to poorer pollution standards than a new plant would have to meet in Japan. The new Bangladesh coal plant complex would cause the region to exceed UN World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for air quality and would shorten the lives of thousands of Bangladeshis during the plant’s 30-year operation. Nonetheless, the Japanese government still pushes ahead.
As Hasan Mehedi, an activist with the Bangladesh Working Group on External Debt, which opposes the project, told The Financial Times: "Japan has no right to invest in coal in other countries—they have a responsibility to ensure zero emissions…[Japan is] making money…transferring pollution to other countries so that they can phase themselves clean.”
Kentaro Yamamoto, an activist with FFF Japan, explained: "International support for such energy infrastructure has been offered to Asian countries as 'development assistance,' but actually is destroying the environment." Japan has been investing in various Bangladesh projects—such as coal plants—since just after the densely populated, low-lying South Asian country’s 1971 independence, from what was then West Pakistan.
As FFF Bangladesh’s Farzana Furuk Jhumu noted, “We have the capacity to transition to renewable energy and [we] need the support of Japan to make this transition, but not for a coal power plant that is aimed at profit.”
Instead, the Japanese government and Japanese companies could use their advanced technological expertise to help Bangladesh upgrade to a clean, green, renewable energy future. One independent analysis found that for Bangladesh, solar power would not only be cleaner, but also much cheaper: Even now, the “levelized electricity cost” of solar photovoltaic power is an estimated 48 percent cheaper per kilowatt-hour than the electricity to be generated by Matarbari 1. Hydropower from the Himalayan watershed (often dubbed the world’s “third pole”) from Nepal and Bhutan via Bangladesh’s many rivers could also reliably provide alternative clean power.
Nevertheless, at the UN COP 26 in Glasgow, Scotland, UK in November 2021, Bangladesh’s huge coal-centric neighbor India successfully diluted a resolution to “phase out” coal to read merely to “phase down” coal. Yet, also at that COP 26, both Japan and Bangladesh meanwhile re-agreed to cut their emissions in accord with capping the Industrial Age global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, as Rahman pointedly noted, “Our demand to the Japanese government is to stop right now the Matarbari Coal Power Plant Phase 2 Project. How will we fight for 1.5 degrees with this type of business as usual? Because it will kill the local people’s livelihoods, endanger the public health, and devastate nature.”
Situated about 150 km south of the main Bangladesh seaport, and second-largest city, Chittagong, the coal plants are being built on Maheshkhali Island, Bangladesh’s only hilly island. Its modest hills reach 90-some meters, and the island covers 286 square kilometers (roughly one-sixth the geographic size of London, and slightly more than triple the size of NYC’s Manhattan Island). The wider region is beloved by Bangladeshis and international visitors alike, replete as it is with a marine reserve, wildlife sanctuaries (such as Hazarikhil, Chunati, Fasiakhali, Dudpuhkuria-Dhopachari, and Sangu), and forests (such as Himchhari, Inani, Medhakochchhoopia, and Bangabandu Safari Park).
Image courtesy FFF Bangladesh
This long sandy beach would suffer from pollution emissions from the new coal plants.
Even officials from the Bangladesh government’s Coal Power Generation Company conceded to Dhaka’s The Daily Star newspaper that the Matarbari Environmental Impact Assessment was faulty and limited. Ms, Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers' Association (BELA), told Dhaka’s The Daily Star in November 2021 that the EIA lacks basic information on pollution modelling. "The Environmental Impact Assessment did not have the year-round air quality data and seasonal assessment of the air pollution in Cox's Bazar,” she said. “It is a big question as to how the Department of Environment approved the impact assessment. They should have revoked it immediately or asked the authorities to correct it." But Nasrul Hamid, state minister for Power, Energy, and Mineral Resources, scoffed that the government was unconcerned about the coal plant criticisms.
However, in fact, once operating, the eight plants collectively would release 1,600 kilograms of mercury and 6,000 metric tons of fly ash annually, according to a December 2019 estimate by CREA. Up to 40 percent of those emissions would wind up on land and freshwater, and another 35 percent on forestland across Chattogram. Fly ash contains toxins that endanger human health and ecosystems, and mercury is another dangerous heavy metal emission. According to CREA, the Matarbari EIA—contrary to international guidelines, though meeting Bangladesh’s considerably looser standards—lacked adequate modeling data. The EIA was done by TEPSCO (Tokyo Electric Power Service Co Ltd), supervised by the Japan International Cooperation Agency Study Team.
And the independent 2019 State of Global Air report, which used satellite data from Earth orbit, even then found on average in and around Cox's Bazar 63 micrograms of “PM 2.5” particulate matter (essentially, dirty soot of 2.5 micro-millimeter in size) per cubic meter. Though invisible to the naked eye, the tiny particles can trigger asthma attacks; wheezing and coughing; throat, nose, and eye irritation; shortness of breath; impaired lung function; and heart attacks. The maximum supposedly safe permissible level of PM 2.5 in the air is set at 15 micrograms per cubic meter. In addition, The projected emission of fly ash and sulfur dioxide will heighten the risks of strokes, heart diseases, lung cancers, and childhood respiratory infections, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and strokes, which will likely also contribute to perhaps an additional 10,000 deaths during the three decades the plants would operate.
Illustration shows more negative impacts of the planned new coal plants in Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, a February 2022 report said that Bangladesh's power system master plan should focus on grid investment and renewable energy, and not on switching from imported coal to imported liquified “natural gas” (LNG). The nonprofit Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) of Lakewood, Ohio, USA released the report, "Growing Independent Power Plant Costs Threaten to Overwhelm Power System.”
Climate activists planned to submit the signatures they had gathered as of the FFF Global Climate Strike of Friday 25 March. But signature gathering was also to continue afterward.
Image from FFF Bangladesh
·For email updates sign up at: https://fossilfreejapan.org/take-action/
·Mighty Earth (based in Washington DC) https://www.mightyearth.org
·Bangladesh Working Group on External Debt (BWGED) (based in Bangladesh) www.facebook.com/bwged/
·Japan Center for a Sustainable Environment and Society (JACSES) (based in Tokyo, Japan) jacses.org
·Market Forces (based in Australia)www.marketforces.org.au/stop-matarbari-coal-power-projects/
· Short video summary www.marketforces.org.au/matabari
Related articles for more background:
·“Sumitomo to withdraw from Matarbari plant expansion in Bangladesh,” Argus Media, Friday 4 March 2022 https://ieefa.org/sumitomo-to-withdraw-from-matarbari-plant-expansion-in-bangladesh/
·“IEEFA: New power and energy master plan must be designed in Bangladesh’s best interests, not Japan’s,” IEEFA, Monday 24 May 2021 https://ieefa.org/ieefa-new-power-and-energy-master-plan-must-be-designed-in-bangladeshs-best-interests-not-japans/
·“Master plan emphasizes investment in power grid, renewables,” Financial Times/Financial Express (London, England, UK), Friday 11 February 2022 https://t.co/uwyxn6iLXT