Fumio Kishida at a press conference after being elected as the new leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party at the party headquarters in Tokyo on September 29, 2021. He assumed office as prime minister on October 4. Photo: AFP / Du Xiaoyi

Non-governmental organizations have filed a formal complaint against the Japan International Cooperation Agency – the first of its kind – to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The complaint addresses JICA’s false assertion that its bond issued on US markets was free from involvement in coal-fueled power generation, when in fact its plans involve continuing to fund coal-fired power plants in Bangladesh.

While climate impacts are already ravaging that country (in May 2020, Cyclone Amphan caused widespread damage and forced the relocation of 2 million people), JICA has announced plans to fund Phase 2 of the 1,200-megawatt Matarbari coal plant, highlighting the economic development outcomes that will come with the project. 

Located on a densely populated island in Cox’s Bazar district that is home to 100,000 people, the Matarbari coal plant will bring devastation to the community instead of the development that JICA has promised.

It is estimated that air pollution from the Matarbari Phase 1 coal plant will cause up to 14,000 premature deaths during its operational years, according to Greenpeace. Air quality in parts of Bangladesh is already ranked as among the worst in the world. 

The project fails to meet JICA’s own Guidelines for Environmental and Social Considerations, which state that communities affected by its projects must be compensated at full replacement cost. The guidelines also state that countries hosting JICA projects must make efforts to enable people affected to improve their standard of living and their income opportunities to be restored to pre-project levels. 

Two turbines of the Phase 1 plant were built on land meant for shrimp farming, crops, and salt production, the disturbance of which have destroyed the livelihoods of people in Matarbari. Those displaced by the project were not given prior notice as required by the Land Acquisition Act of 1982, nor given any fair compensation for damages. 

Japan has some of the strongest emission standards at home, but the overseas coal plants funded by its public agencies apply lenient emission limits on air pollutants. They rely on outdated technology for reducing pollution, emitting many times the amount of sulfur dioxide and other toxins than an average new coal plant in Japan. 

At the recent COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, newly elected Prime Minister Fumio Kishida spoke of Japan’s “determination” to address the “shared human challenge of climate change with all our strength.” He committed the equivalent of an additional US$10 billion in public and private assistance over five years toward Asia’s decarbonization with the aim of advancing zero-emissions goals, taking the country’s total financial pledge to $70 billion. 

But in contradiction to this statement, Kishida emphasized the role of thermal energy as a reliable power source in Asia and expressed support for dubious technological “fixes,” including the burning of coal combined with ammonia and hydrogen to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Japan’s reluctance explicitly to rule out coal-fired power sees the country trailing behind other large economies on climate action. 

Bangladesh’s energy future lies in renewables, not in coal or natural gas. After 50 years of independence, Bangladeshi energy experts should have more of a say in preparing the energy sector master plan than foreign experts from JICA.

Japanese investment in Bangladesh should take the form of scaling up its renewable-energy transition to benefit from the rapid decline in the cost of solar and wind energy globally and for power storage technologies. Coal and natural gas are carbon-intensive fossil fuels, and will become a burden for Bangladesh in the long run. 

Prime Minister Kishida and his Liberal Democratic Party must prioritize action on climate change by ushering in new government policies to combat the crisis, starting by ruling out funding Phase 2 of the Matarbari coal plant. 

Shibayan Raha

Shibayan Raha is South Asia senior digital organizer for 350.org, an international environmental organization addressing the climate crisis.

Sharif Jamil

Sharif Jamil is general secretary of the environmental organization Bangladesh Poribesh Andolan.