Observation Deck

Modi’s Coal Conundrum

Modi’s Coal Conundrum

Leaders in India have long faced their share of momentous choices with epoch-making implications. The Mughal emperor’s decision to grant trading rights to the British East India Company in 1612 opened the door to colonization. Local leaders’ commitment to disgruntled Indian soldiers who sparked the great rebellion of 1857 led directly to the end of the Mughal crown and the rise of the overbearing British Raj. Acceptance of Britain’s plan for partition along religious lines in 1947 birthed massacres, bloodshed, and Pakistan.

The decisions India made proved, in many ways, to be worth it. Arguably, if tortuously, they eventually made India a major economy and a key player in global affairs. But still, India’s potential has not yet been fully realized. To do so, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, known for revitalizing business in the state of Gujarat, has pinned his political future on unleashing India’s latent economic might. Upon election in 2014, Modi announced an ambitious economic goal of 8.5 percent annual economic growth. It is to be driven in large part by manufacturing, which he hopes to boost from around 17 percent of GDP to 25 percent over the next decade.

Achieving those targets requires India, yet again, to make a momentous choice. It can prioritize economic development at all costs-, using dirty energy (though India’s development thus far has relied so heavily on fossil fuels that, according to the World Health Organization, the nation now has 13 of the top 20 most polluted cities, overtaking China as the world’s smoggiest country). Or it can attempt what no country, rich or poor, has so far managed, which is to skip the deadliest and messiest stages of economic growth and forge a new green path.

It’s a crucial choice because Modi’s economic vision depends on securing a whole lot more of something India doesn’t have much of: reliable sources of energy, especially electricity. Throughout the country, blackouts and brownouts are commonplace; factories depend on their own generators to stay in business. In 2012, for example, a nationwide power failure affected almost 700 million people, or around 10 percent of the global population. And even more problematic: More than 300 million Indians lack electricity altogether, essentially creating a blacked-out block nearly the size of the United States buried in the middle of the world’s second-most-populous country.

So what, then, are India’s options for finally reaching its economic potential and bringing power to the unlit masses? One is the same dirty rock that powered the West and modern China’s rise: Over the past five years, India has installed one-quarter of the world’s new coal-burning capacity. And looking ahead, Modi has vowed to triple India’s coal production to a whopping 1.5 billion tons a year, which would make it second only to China. Between 2012 and 2017, the government plans to install 85,000 megawatts’ worth of power plants, the vast majority of which are coal-fired.

For Delhi, China’s remarkable metamorphosis in decades past undoubtedly serves as an economic guide. Beijing rode coal and big industry to one of the world’s most sweeping economic transformations, lifting 600 million citizens out of poverty and expanding China’s economy almost 50-fold. Beijing’s intensive, consequences-be-damned development push birthed a $10 trillion economy, but also gave rise to choking air pollution, dead rivers, and shrinking life spans, and made the Middle Kingdom the world’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. So coal could turn India into another China economically—at the risk of turning it into another China environmentally.

This monkey-see, monkey-do potential matters not just to the families fleeing deadly air pollution in Delhi, but also to the entire planet. If India—already the world’s third-largest source of greenhouse gases—cannot commit to clean growth, then there’s little hope that other developing countries will feel compelled to do the same.

Modi’s big aspirations seem to have a green patina. In the lead-up to December’s climate summit in Paris, India submitted to the United Nations its plan for dealing with emissions. As expected, the country has stressed its “right to grow,” even as it has pledged to make its economy gradually cleaner and more efficient within the next 15 years, particularly by trimming the amount of emissions per dollar of GDP by 33 to 35 percent over 2005 levels. Consider these pledges, though, in light of Modi’s relentless development push, which will likely amount to a near doubling of India’s carbon emissions by 2030.

Yet while India’s Paris plan seems lackluster, it belies the green advances the country is actually pushing. On paper, India has some of the world’s most ambitious targets for renewable energy, especially solar and wind power. Although India has installed only 4,000 megawatts of solar power to date, Modi hopes to boost that 25-fold to 100,000 megawatts by 2022. (By comparison, the United States has just shy of 23,000 megawatts currently installed.) The government also hopes to nearly triple wind-power capacity to 60,000 megawatts by the same date and to accelerate big hydroelectric projects.

But plenty of obstacles remain for renewables. Wind and solar power are still more expensive than coal power, and the rivers of red tape that drown the rest of India’s economy deluge clean energy development too. The rules for land acquisition and land use are byzantine, making large-scale developments, whether for factories or solar farms, a huge challenge. And the utilities that, ultimately, would need to buy all that squeaky-clean electricity are broke themselves. Unless India can fix the dysfunction of the power market, these sunny visions might just be a mirage.

Still, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Modi himself overhauled Gujarat’s indebted power sector a decade ago. And he is acutely aware that China, after going down a long, dirty road, has realized that cleaner growth, if a bit more expensive, can pay for itself environmentally, politically, and economically by removing the costs of health-related absenteeism and shorter life spans.

When reading the tea leaves, what’s perhaps most important is that, at the end of the day, Indian leaders are responsible to the mass of voters hungry for jobs now—not an elite, clean, and green minority. And that, at heart, is India’s conundrum: A country with a per capita income on par with Sudan’s feels little moved by the sort of climate angst that drives well-off campaigners in Denmark or Denver. Yet the environmental costs of acting otherwise could be more than Modi, or the country, can bear.

A version of this article originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of Foreign Policy under the title “Green Gamble.”

Illustration by Matthew Hollister