Which country banned the use of plastic and polythene bags in 2002 and banned single-use plastics in coastal areas, hotels and restaurants in 2020? Sweden? USA? Germany? No, it was Bangladesh. Too many people in the West think of countries like Bangladesh as just another “third world” country, and are ignorant of what the Southeast can teach others. As a British Bangladeshi, I know that the UK can learn from Bangladesh’s example on how to adapt to the impact of climate change and act accordingly. I was born in Bangladesh and came to the UK at the age of three. With family still living in Bangladesh, I see how the country has learnt to embrace living with floods and is taking steps to tackle climate change. Two thirds of Bangladesh is less than five metres above sea level, and nearly a third of the population live on the coast.
Living with water-related natural disasters is something Bangladeshis have had to deal with for centuries, since well before the modern climate change crisis. Anyone who has spent time in the country knows how accustomed many Bangladeshis have become to switching to boats as a mode of transportation when the streets become flooded.
Last year, a catastrophic monsoon hit Bangladesh, damaging 1.3 million homes and affecting 9.3 million people, thousands of whom were left stranded. Over 500 people died, and one third of the country was under water. This is what climate displacement looks like. The situation was made worse as the most prolonged monsoon flooding in decades hit while Bangladesh was still recovering from the effects of super-cyclone Amphan.
In March, during the UK-Bangladesh Climate Partnership Forum virtual series, COP26 President-designate Alok Sharma explored how the UK and Bangladesh could work together to tackle climate change. The virtual series covered the areas of adaptation and resilience, nature, clean energy and finance, with experts and leaders from Bangladesh and the UK coming together to identify innovative ideas, partnerships and initiatives to catalyse climate action.
In the UK, the most recent State of the UK Climate report from the Met Office showed that the 10 warmest years for the UK since 1882 have all occurred since 2002. In 2019, four national UK high temperature records were set: a new all-time record of 38.7°C, a new winter record of 21.2°C, a new December record of 18.7°C and a new February minimum temperature record of 13.9°C. From 2010 to 2019, UK summers have been 11 per cent wetter, on average, than from 1981 to 2010, and 13 per cent wetter than from 1961 to 1990. UK winters have been 4 per cent wetter than from 1981 to 2010 and 12 per cent wetter than from 1961 to 1990. What used to be regarded as extreme weather is now becoming normal weather. All the above factors have resulted in an increase in severe flooding in different areas around the UK, exacerbated by the persistent wet weather since late September 2019.
Recently, a mini tornado ripped through the East End of London, pulling out trees, smashing windows, tearing away roof tiles and causing damage to vehicles and electricity infrastructure. The tornado developed after thunderstorms and heavy rain hit parts of northeast London and Kent. What can the UK – and particularly London – learn from Bangladesh and its capital, Dhaka?
Considering London Climate Change Week has just finished, it is crucial to create more events to enable knowledge sharing and to involve those who have first-hand experience of how countries like Bangladesh are becoming resilient to climate change. The government of Bangladesh recently ran an interactive training workshop, looking at climate finance mechanisms and instruments and enabling participants to devise the best responses to common climate-related problems.
Although many UK supermarkets no longer supply plastic bags at the checkout, they are still selling fruit, veg and other products in plastic packaging. One chain, Asda, is making an effort to tackle plastic pollution by removing tear-off plastic bags from the fruit and vegetable aisles in all of its branches and replacing them with a sustainable, reusable fruit and veg bag. Another, Morrisons, also became the first supermarket to ditch plastic bags entirely, replacing them with paper alternatives.
Adapting to climate change is not just a government issue. As individuals, we all have a responsibility to adapt our daily habits and choices to minimise our impact on the environment. Since climate change affects everything – from the environment to the economy – the world desperately needs policies to build more water storage, tighten building regulations, invest in flood defences, diversify supply chains, help communities to move and protect and extend natural habitats.
An increase in just 3°C in global temperature would have dire consequences for the global economy and global politics. It is smart for countries, like the UK, that want to be leaders on the issue to look for solutions everywhere. They can start in places that are already having to deal with climate change’s most extreme effects.