Updated: Dec 17, 2021
EVENT DATE : 26 OCTOBER
The IPCC’s alarming 2021 report details the grim realities of climate change, and its deep
consequences on vulnerable countries such as India. It has underscored the need for India to
completely end its dependence on fossil fuels, especially coal. In the next few decades, India
could be looking at phenomena like droughts, forest fires, irreversible biodiversity loss,
increased migration and heat waves. This can already be evidenced by pollution in India’s major metropolitans, severe water stress and increasing frequency of extreme weather events.
Meanwhile, with a growing population and developing economy that strives to beat
widespread poverty, India’s energy needs are at an all-time high, wherein coal factors in as a
huge denominator. While India continues to import huge quantities of coal, the coal sector
reforms of 2020, allowing for commercial mining of coal, further seal the view that coal
production should be scaled up within the country. Millions of Indians also continue to depend on the coal industry for their livelihood. It is not surprising then that India stands as the third largest carbon emitter of the world today, following China and the US.
Switching to renewable energy has not been easy for India, despite attempts to do so, as it
involves complex factors such as cost of production and the demanding overhaul of the carbon- dependent system that India’s energy sector currently rests on. India faces a serious dilemma- Can the country continue to progress at the increasing cost of environmental degradation?
Under this context, the moderator opens the floor with the following question-
Yajur Arora(YA): Why this commitment to coal? To give some context, the recent IPCC report has some dire predictions for India, including extreme weather events like floods, cyclones, submerging coastal areas, so why this continued reliance on a dirty fuel like coal?
Umesh Kulshrestha(UK) : Thanks for putting together a panel to what I think is the question of the century. Coal use was started in the 1880’s, it was an imperative to further the campaign of the industrial revolution. A lot of products were manufactured using coal, and it happened to be cheap. There was a visionary Swedish scientist predicted after ten to fifteen years of coal use itself, global temperatures will go up. Nobody bothered then, of course. After 1950’s, the conventions and conversations followed. Coal has been cheap and convenient. India has almost doubled its capacity of coal, bringing its capacity to 1 billion tonnes. Given the need of hour, we have to switch over to cleaner technology, keeping all consequences in mind, by 2050.
YA: In the upcoming conference in Glasgow, there is an expectation that India If we continue with coal, can India still meet expectations of the global community to fulfil its global commitments to cut carbon emissions?
Keya Acharya(KA): One of the biggest problems of the environmental field is the conventional mindset. In the last decade, we’ve more than doubled our coal. I don’t think it is totally correct to say that we have a shortage of coal. From what I understand, there is lobbying involved, with different groups telling different narratives. We have to change the mindset and the divided interests that come up in this country. Yes, we can reduce our dependence on coal, but there are riders to it, in particular, political will. For instance, solar power has really proliferated, but there are operational problems that we still haven’t tackled. So, what is the point of going to public platforms and talking about India’s increased capacity for renewables if we don’t even know how to use it properly? In India, decentralized systems, managing lobbies, improving quality of access to energy, and decommissioning of old coal mines will help get this done.
YA: We can reduce our reliance on coal if there is political will. But what we are seeing right now is that a shortage in coal is resulting in so much of criticism of the government. We all understand that energy transition is always going to be painful, not just for India, but for the whole world. These kinds of shortages are the first sign of this pain. Is Indian society ready to take the pain of the energy transition to cleaner fuels?
Abhayraj Naik(AN): The framing of the coal shortage itself needs to be questioned in terms of the larger political economy of coal production, consumption and mining in India. I am a teacher of climate justice and the way I see it; the shortage comes across rather starkly as “the emperor has no clothes.” I do think the government hiding under a fig leaf of coal shortage, is a rabbit hole that takes us away from not justice climate or energy justice, but a much larger assemblage of issues related to people’s connection with land and water. Despite the rhetoric that we are transitioning away from coal, statistics will tell you that we are actually transitioning much deeper into coal. In the aftermath of Covid-19, you see a multi-billion-dollar investment involving auctioning of large swathes of land- land that is inhabited by the most marginalized or voiceless, constantly victim to dirty politics. We continue to say that Indian people desperately need power, however the biggest consumer of energy remains industry. Even as millions are energy-starved in India, we continue to export our electricity to other countries. I find it very ironic when we ask that can Indians bear this transition, because what’s really happening here is an extractive state is feeding directly on its people. Our nationally determined contributions are nationally determined. National Climate Plan says zilch about coal. Whereas science across the globe points that coal should stay within the ground. The moment India, the second largest producer/consumer of coal stonewalls, we all sink in some senses. It’s not a question of can India transition away from coal- we have to.
Lydia Powell( LP): I agree with the previous speaker that our Paris Climate goals were set very low, and that is one of the reasons why they were met. And the net zero target does not mean that we get out of coal. Net zero means that you remove carbon dioxide from the air, using carbon capture technology. The objective of self- reliance is one of the reasons. In Indian per capita income is barely two thousand dollars and coal happens to be very affordable. Coal is heavily dependable, especially when everyone wants electricity 24*7. At the moment, most power distribution companies are running huge losses. Even with coal, how are we going to recover the cost of supply with this electricity demand.
YA: The consequences are being faced by us, we have some of the most polluted cities in the world. We know about the cost of coal, but what about the cost of healthcare?
UK: Yes, air pollution is a concern. However, coal alone cannot be blamed. Take for example the Delhi NCR region, the major source of pollution is adulteration of fuel, open plastic burning, illegal factories doing pyrolysis. On top of that, the metrics we use to track air pollution are limited, which has an inevitable effect on policy-making. When the graded action plan was implemented by the CPCB was started, there was a cleaner Delhi after 2013. However, off late, malpractices have reversed the little work that authorities like EPCA have done. Do we see any coal trains today? Why is that? Simply put, where there is a will, there is a way. We have to say bye to old technology and welcome the newer, greener ones.
YA: There is an argument that we are very committed to coal not just because people don’t want to move away from it, but also because of the other interest groups at play. What are your thoughts on that?
KA: I think that we have a very comfortable conjunction between industry and government. Climate conventions turn out to be a huge talk-shop. Instead, we should turn our attention to the fact coal is a dirty fuel and that we should do something about it. If I may pose a question to Ms. Powell, you said that net zero can be achieved in India, but what about the environmental fallouts from the use of coal?
LP: Even the people who have defined net-zero, have not dismissed fossil fuel use, but rather have recommended carbon capture.
UK: India’s carbon dioxide emissions are not because of coal or fossil fuel, but due to massive deforestation, which is not able to capture the carbon in the air. At the same time, carbon particles cannot be controlled.
YA: Can you also shed some light on the clean coal technology, which is claimed to be not as bad as the conventional coal?
UK: Coal has two major pollutants- fly ash and sulphur dioxide, reducing that reduces pollution. Washing of coal is also done, but that consumes a lot of water, which lands us into another tough spot.
YA: Coal is deeply entrenched into our ecosystem. There are many states which largely rely on the revenues from the coal industry, and many depend on it for their livelihood. Wouldn’t a transition have severe economic consequences on these sections?
AN: When we talk about coal mining in India, what we tend to gloss over is that it is an extremely violent, extractive process. People are forcibly dispossessed of their lands, environmental activists are being killed, the violence to rivers, forests are all part of the coal story. People working in coal mines don’t exactly have decent work, if we look at decent work standards as defined by agencies like the ILO. We need to bring accountability to private and government coal mining in a way that ensures human rights. If we look at initiatives such as “Build Back Better” they are saying let’s create jobs that greener, cleaner and more decent, and help clean up the mess that coal has made. The economics of coal is not about its affordability, it is much more complex than that. Let’s see who makes money every time a coal field is auctioned. In states like Chhattisgarh, Bihar or Jharkhand the money that comes from coal is either unspent or misappropriated. Income inequality in India has gone up, so let us not run away from the fact that the rich are getting richer.
KA: In my experience, the people are happy to switch over, if the power is affordable, and accessible. We can’t do it drastically, but we have to do it.
YA: We are making new coal plants now, and these are most likely to become stranded assets in the future. Is this a prudent strategy or are we being short-sighted here?
LP: Most of the coal plants are less than 15 years old. Demand for electricity hasn’t materialized yet as we had anticipated, which is why there are stranded assets in the electricity sector. These are technical economic questions, which will take their own time to be answered. Coal plants’ pollution can be controlled by technology, which is simple to use. We can’t talk about social issues and cover the economic issues.
YA: Why can’t the government manage the demand of power with renewables if demand is manageable. Economically, isn’t the cost of renewables , with that don’t we run the risk of stranded assets?
LP: You have to have backup storage, which is provided by coal. Renewables are still not as affordable. However, India has put policy-driven priority to provide impetus to renewables. Because coal is an important backup for us, and there is a wear and tear challenge, because of increased capacity and decreased dependence on coal.
UK: None of the raw materials, rare earth metals for wind power, for solar energy is available in India, we have to depend on China, so it becomes a matter of national security.
YA: There has been a lot of discussion on hydrogen, can you elaborate on the promise of hydrogen for India?
UK: We can dissociate water to produce hydrogen, instead of using coal for breaking down molecules, we can use nuclear material. There are some rare earth metals which are not available. Successful trials are already happening. OECD countries decide the strategies when it comes to energy, so we don’t really have much of a choice, what we can do is develop a visionary strategy.
LP: Hydrogen is an energy carrier, not a primary source of energy, which means you need another primary source of energy to produce hydrogen. And transporting hydrogen is a very expensive proposition. Using hydrogen to store renewable energy is also a plausible option. Costs can come down with technology.
YA: For your concluding comments, I would like all of you to please share your thoughts on how India can transition away from coal.
AN: I think most importantly India needs to take a proactive role in charting its energy trajectory, and not be a follower. Paris climate convention was actually a huge bargaining loss for India. That being said, the truth is India has huge income, energy inequality and huge costs on the environment due to an extractive coal sector. Unfortunately, we have no energy planning. Most of the urban spaces that we are going to use, have not been built yet. The transition has to happen through a transparent conversation, and the process should be participatory, not elite-captured, like the translation of environmental laws into local languages, for starters.
KA: I think we need to sit and put down a policy for transitioning, cleaning up our transmission in coal, working towards a decent, integrated mix, in a decentralized manner.
LP: I don’t think that ending reliance on coal should be our goal, that’ll happen on its own. I think our goal should be shared prosperity, enhancing the quality of life for all. We are faced by a unique challenge, where we have to industrialise while trying to decarbonise.
UK: We are part of the earth, so we have to respect global reports, such as that of IPCC, which warn against coal and fossil fuels. Heavy investment to alternatives such as hydrogen and nuclear energy should be a priority. When it comes to energy, we have to show foresightedness, especially considering our economics and security.
The debate ended with a consensus that India’s reliance on coal will decrease if it chooses to adopt energy as a policy priority, while keeping the overall well-being of its vast populace in mind.