Sustainable Development

Planet or prosperity: How Bangladesh is navigating a just transition to clean energy

Bangladeshi experts fix a solar panel as part of efforts to maintain bio-diversity in the area and develop eco-tourism on Saint Martin Island November 29, 2004. With an area of eight square km, Saint Martin is 550 km (344 miles) from [Dhaka] and 12 km (7.5 miles) from the mainland. Bangladesh's only coral island, it is now one of the main tourist destinations.

Under the Paris accord, close to 200 countries agreed to slash emissions to keep global temperature rise "well below" 2 degrees Celsius Image: Reuters

Naimul Karim
Slavery and Trafficking Correspondent, Thomson Reuters Foundation
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This article is part of: Centre for Energy and Materials
  • Only about 3.5% of the Bangladesh's power comes from renewable sources, a figure the government plans to increase to 40% over the next two decades.
  • Bangladesh's emissions are minimal compared to developed nations, but if it rolls out plans to build new coal plants, it will likely miss current climate goals.
  • Fortunately, a number of policy initiatives suggest Bangladesh is committed to ramping up green energy.

As Bangladesh prepares to release a new five-year national power plan early next year, researchers are urging the government to boost clean energy and pursue policies that would help secure a green and socially just transition for the South Asian nation.

Today, only about 3.5% of the country's power comes from renewable sources, a figure the government plans to increase to 40% over the next two decades. But climate activists say it lacks the comprehensive approach needed to achieve that goal.

The South Asian nation now depends on natural gas for more than half of its power, while a further 8% comes from coal - a percentage that is set to rise in the coming years if plans to build new coal-fired plants are implemented.

That would be incompatible with the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit planetary heating - and could put the low-lying nation at higher risk of climate change impacts such as rising seas, environmentalists argue.

Under the Paris accord, close to 200 countries agreed to slash emissions to keep global temperature rise "well below" 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial times and ideally to 1.5C.

But the planet has already warmed about 1.1C since then and is projected to heat up by 2.4C even if current targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 are met, scientists say.

Bangladesh's emissions are minimal compared to developed nations, but if it rolls out plans to build new coal plants, it will likely miss its climate goals, while adding unsustainable energy infrastructure and jobs, activists warn.

Governments at last month's COP26 climate summit backed the need for a "just transition" approach, including efforts to secure workers’ rights and livelihoods as economies shift to greener production to tackle climate change.

Here's a look at where Bangladesh has got to with planning a "just transition" for its people:

How popular is the concept in Bangladesh?

The term "just transition" has recently made its way into national policy and labour discussions. But many workers and factory owners may be unaware of the term, researchers say.

A number of policy initiatives suggest Bangladesh is committed to ramping up green energy. Earlier this year, for example, it cancelled plans to build 10 new coal-power plants.

But according to the government website, it is still working to add eight others, most of which are under construction.

The "Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan", launched this year and presented at COP26, focuses on low-carbon growth.

But the real-world impact of such policies is not yet visible despite the government's publicly stated aim of boosting wind and solar energy, said Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director at the Dhaka-based Center for Policy Dialogue.

"There is a gap between the political commitment and the bureaucratic process," he added.

He pointed to growing interest in using more Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), which emits lower levels of carbon dioxide than coal but is still a planet-heating fossil fuel.

Officials say Bangladesh's carbon emissions are very low compared with other countries, and the steps it is taking are necessary for economic growth and development.

Which Bangladeshi industries are focused on just transition?

Apart from small steps in the Bangladesh garment industry, the world's second largest clothes exporter, the principles of a just transition are rarely being applied, researchers say.

About 140 out of at least 2,000 garment factories that export clothing are certified by LEED, a U.S.-based ratings system for green buildings.

Those factories are putting solar panels on their rooftops, seeking new ways to recycle water and chemicals, and using more energy-efficient machines.

The International Finance Corporation (IFC) in June told the Thomson Reuters Foundation it had helped 338 factories cut their greenhouse gas emissions by more than half a million tonnes a year - equal to removing over 119,000 cars from the road.

Such reforms are crucial because the apparel industry produces 4% of the world's planet-warming emissions, equal to the combined annual total of France, Germany and Britain, according to a 2020 study by the nonprofit Global Fashion Agenda and consultants McKinsey and Company.

But greener factories and clean energy require more capital investment, owners say, raising questions about how such a shift will impact Bangladesh's 4 million garment workers.

Some bosses believe new energy-efficient machines could make a share of workers redundant. But others say the industry is not suited to high levels of automation as fashion changes fast.

Some argue a green energy switch could benefit workers by making factories more labour-friendly and reducing physical tasks.

There is also likely to be a focus on how to protect workers' rights and jobs in the shipbreaking sector, as the government has ordered yard-owners to clean up their practices by 2023 and implement standards in the Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships.

That pact, adopted in 2009 but yet to come into force globally, aims to improve worker safety and limit pollution, but could also reduce the need for labour as yards deploy more high-tech equipment to help meet requirements.

Have you read?

Can Bangladesh secure a just transition for climate migrants?

Home to at least 160 million people, Bangladesh is regarded as one of the countries most at risk as the planet warms, bringing worsening storms and floods.

Migration to escape encroaching oceans in Bangladesh's coastal regions could drive at least 1.3 million people from their homes by 2050, the American Geophysical Union, a nonprofit international scientific group, warned in April.

Today, most migrants from coastal areas end up in city slums where they get informal support from relatives and work in dangerous conditions, including factories lacking proper safety measures or permits.

Researchers believe that to manage future flows of people, job opportunities should be created in towns away from overcrowded cities like Dhaka and Chattogram that suffer from poor sanitation and housing.

Tasneem Siddiqui, who set up the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit, called for "more innovative" use of money intended to help communities adapt to climate change, which is currently used mainly for things like developing crops that are resistant to salt or can grow under water.

"For true adaptation, we need to have proper plans that make cities more migrant-friendly and develop rural areas," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation earlier this year.

She called for a just transition for the migrant labour force and planning for decent work and new green jobs by bringing together officials, trade unions and employers' groups.

Mizan Khan, deputy director at Bangladesh's International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD), said "small farmers, fishermen and women" forced from their homes in coastal areas by river erosion and floods would need the most support.

Who needs to be involved in implementing a just transition?

The International Labour Organization (ILO), which is working on a just transition for Bangladesh's garment industry, believes solutions need to come from within the sector.

Cristina Martinez, a senior ILO specialist on environment and decent work in Asia, said climate action and just transition processes could lead to many opportunities in Bangladesh.


What's the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

"But they will not come from outside - these opportunities need to be planned for and the momentum is there for working in partnerships with many actors that share the urgency to act," she said by email.

Khan of the ICCCAD noted the concept of "just transition" has only recently entered the national conversation - and more focus is needed to turn it into a reality on the ground.

At local level, the work must be led by communities who are on the frontline of adapting to climate change, he added.

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