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Why India Can’t Wean Itself Off Coal

Those who see India as a climate boogeyman are holding it to a standard they would never apply to themselves.

By , the director for energy and development at the Breakthrough Institute, and , senior research lead in the energy security and climate change program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Woman working in Indian coal mine
A woman carries coal on her head while working at the Jharia coalfield in the Indian state of Jharkhand on Jan. 20, 2020. Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images

When the United Nations climate summit convenes in Glasgow, Scotland, in just a few weeks, rich countries will once again pressure India to speed up its energy transition. India is the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and its use of fossil fuels is still rapidly growing as it continues to industrialize and raise its standard of living. Because India is so dependent on carbon-based fuels—especially coal—and has understandably little interest in curtailing its own development, it has been a notable holdout in the current global climate negotiations, including an agreement to phase out coal consumption and end the financing of coal plants. India skipped the pre-summit ministerial meeting in London, the only one of 51 invited countries to do so. And while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will attend the Glasgow summit, New Delhi risks once again being painted as an obstacle to the global fight against climate change.

Yet those who point to India as a climate boogeyman—mainly policymakers, activists, and journalists in the developed world—are holding it to an unfair standard they would never apply to themselves. Yes, we all know that burning coal is bad for the environment, not to mention the health of coal workers and local communities. But it is not fair to ask a developing country like India to bear the costs of an exit from a carbon-based economy without developed countries making significant emissions reductions first—which they are demonstrably not doing. What’s more, weaning India off coal too fast would come with terrible human costs that cannot be ignored.

It’s a truism but bears repeating: One of the main reasons Indians are still poor is that they don’t have enough access to energy. Modern energy services such as reliable electricity, clean cooking fuels, and mechanical power are critical for lifting people out of poverty, ending malnutrition, improving health and education outcomes, and raising productivity in agriculture and industry. The Indian government’s Economic Survey shows that Indian states where more schools have access to electricity have higher rates of literacy. When health care facilities have a reliable supply of electricity, fewer patients and babies die. The need to lift more Indians out of poverty is once again acute: The Pew Research Center estimates that the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic pushed 75 million Indians into poverty, nearly doubling the number of people who live on less than $2 per day.

When the United Nations climate summit convenes in Glasgow, Scotland, in just a few weeks, rich countries will once again pressure India to speed up its energy transition. India is the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and its use of fossil fuels is still rapidly growing as it continues to industrialize and raise its standard of living. Because India is so dependent on carbon-based fuels—especially coal—and has understandably little interest in curtailing its own development, it has been a notable holdout in the current global climate negotiations, including an agreement to phase out coal consumption and end the financing of coal plants. India skipped the pre-summit ministerial meeting in London, the only one of 51 invited countries to do so. And while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will attend the Glasgow summit, New Delhi risks once again being painted as an obstacle to the global fight against climate change.

Yet those who point to India as a climate boogeyman—mainly policymakers, activists, and journalists in the developed world—are holding it to an unfair standard they would never apply to themselves. Yes, we all know that burning coal is bad for the environment, not to mention the health of coal workers and local communities. But it is not fair to ask a developing country like India to bear the costs of an exit from a carbon-based economy without developed countries making significant emissions reductions first—which they are demonstrably not doing. What’s more, weaning India off coal too fast would come with terrible human costs that cannot be ignored.

It’s a truism but bears repeating: One of the main reasons Indians are still poor is that they don’t have enough access to energy. Modern energy services such as reliable electricity, clean cooking fuels, and mechanical power are critical for lifting people out of poverty, ending malnutrition, improving health and education outcomes, and raising productivity in agriculture and industry. The Indian government’s Economic Survey shows that Indian states where more schools have access to electricity have higher rates of literacy. When health care facilities have a reliable supply of electricity, fewer patients and babies die. The need to lift more Indians out of poverty is once again acute: The Pew Research Center estimates that the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic pushed 75 million Indians into poverty, nearly doubling the number of people who live on less than $2 per day.

India’s annual per capita electricity consumption is only 972 kilowatt-hours—a mere 8 percent of Americans’ and 14 percent of Germans’ consumption. While most Indian households are hooked up to the electricity grid, power is often unreliable. Many poor Indians only recently switched from cooking with wood or dung to bottled cooking gas—a drastically cleaner fuel that has saved countless lives from indoor air pollution all across the developing world.

It’s a truism: One of the main reasons Indians are still poor is that they don’t have enough access to energy.

To lift millions of people out of poverty, India needs energy—and lots of it. The International Energy Agency predicts that between now and 2040, the country will have the largest growth in energy demand of any country in the world. To meet this demand, India will need to rely on a variety of energy sources—both conventional and renewable. While India has made remarkable strides in developing wind and solar power, coal remains the bedrock of its energy supply, powering 75 percent of electricity generation. The current coal shortage—coal-fired power stations are down to an average of only four days’ worth of stock—is expected to cause significant power outages.

In 2020, India was the world’s second-largest producer and consumer of coal. State-owned Coal India is the largest coal miner in the world, producing approximately 600 million tons of coal a year. The country has an estimated 100 billion tons of coal reserves.

Beyond providing desperately needed energy, coal is also a vital source of jobs and economic growth and a driver of industrialization, just as it was in developed countries. Around 4 million Indians are employed either directly or indirectly in the coal sector. Consider Coal India: It employs some 300,000 people across 84 mining complexes in eight Indian states. Other than active workers, another 500,000 Indians rely on the coal sector for their pensions. Evidence from rich countries shows how costly it can be to transition to green power. In the United States, closing coal mines has created mass unemployment and devastated local communities. Promises that workers would be transferred to green jobs—which are often less secure and worse paid than those in coal—have rarely been kept.

The importance of coal to communities can be hard to grasp for Westerners eager to wish the fuel away overnight. Almost 40 percent of India’s 736 districts have some form of coal dependency. Some are home to workers and pensioners. Others collect funds from the District Mineral Foundation, a benefit-sharing mechanism for mining communities. Several are beneficiaries of corporate social responsibility programs, where part of the revenues from coal is spent on health, education, and public services.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has called for developed countries to be the first to phase out coal, not countries like India. They might listen to him instead of giving themselves maximum flexibility when transitioning to renewables. In Europe, for example, countries have set their own timelines to exit from fossil fuels, coal and otherwise. In June, European Union energy ministers decided to prolong support for some natural gas projects. Two bills passed in the U.S. Congress in recent years—the European Energy Security and Diversification Act and the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act—are promoting new supplies of gas to Europe. In the face of rising oil prices, the Biden administration has been exhorting OPEC to pump more oil.

Perhaps the worst example of rich-country hypocrisy is Germany, the West’s green poster child. The country is expected to record its biggest jump in emissions in 30 years this year, thanks mainly to a sharp rise in coal use as it phases out carbon-free nuclear power. Germany burned 28 percent more coal in the first half of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020 and now generates 27 percent of its electricity from coal. This number is likely to rise further because the country is on track to close its remaining six nuclear plants by 2022, two decades ahead of the original phasing-out schedule. Germany’s nuclear power plants are the source of 8 gigawatts of clean power; shutting them down could lead to an additional 60 million metric tons of carbon emissions each year, as more coal and gas will likely be needed to meet the demand for electricity.

This year, when the wind stopped blowing across much of Europe, wind power’s contribution to German electricity generation dropped from 29 percent to 22 percent. At the same time, the post-lockdown economic recovery increased the demand for energy. Germany has responded by opening a new coal-fired power plant and increasing the use of natural gas from Russia. Germany has given itself until 2038 to stop generating power from coal—a substantial part of which is domestically mined lignite, the dirtiest type of coal.

If developed countries enjoy this type of flexibility, why shouldn’t others?

India has already announced its climate fighting goals as part of the U.N.-backed Nationally Determined Contributions process. The country aims to build 450 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2030 and use technologies such as improved battery storage to make renewables more dependable. And while it’s uncertain whether India can succeed, the goal has already spurred growth in the renewables sector.

India can do more to phase out coal. It does not need to build new coal plants. It must phase out inefficient plants. It can help coal-dependent areas diversify their economies, invest in skills retraining, and prepare to support millions of workers needing other jobs.

Rich countries can help by financing the transition away from coal and the deployment of clean energy sources. They can also invest in making renewable energy, storage, and new electrical grid technology cheaper. Through mechanisms such as the Green Climate Fund, they can provide funding for adaptation, including the compensation of millions of workers in India’s coal-dependent regions.

Rich countries are responsible for the vast majority of carbon emissions. They are primarily responsible for causing climate change and must be the first to eliminate fossil fuel consumption. Anything else would be hypocritical, unethical, and inhumane.

Vijaya Ramachandran is the director for energy and development at the Breakthrough Institute. Twitter: @vijramachandran

Sandeep Pai is senior research lead in the energy security and climate change program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Twitter: @Sandeeppaii

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