India’s coal conundrum: which comes first, the climate or the poor?

With the US and China now having agreed to limit their emissions – and China committing to peak CO2 releases by 2030 – the biggest unanswered question now in climate change is this: what will India do? India’s leadership responded warily to the China-US deal, and the reason is not hard to fathom. India has immense quantities of coal, and intends to burn much of it over coming decades to accelerate its development.

A quick look at the stats highlights this dilemma. India is immensely energy-poor – it has 300 million of its citizens without access to modern energy supplies, dependent on fuelwood they can gather, often burning dung and charcoal in their houses at a cost of many thousands of premature deaths per year due to indoor air pollution. India also has the world’s fifth-largest coal reserves, and the Modi government is making plans to liberalise the state-dominated and highly inefficient (and corrupt) coal mining sector.

So India will burn more coal – the question is how much, and for how long. As the New York Times reports in a recent story:

“India’s development imperatives cannot be sacrificed at the altar of potential climate changes many years in the future,” India’s power minister, Piyush Goyal, said at a recent conference in New Delhi in response to a question. “The West will have to recognize we have the needs of the poor.”

Mr. Goyal has promised to double India’s use of domestic coal from 565 million tons last year to more than a billion tons by 2019, and he is trying to sell coal-mining licenses as swiftly as possible after years of delay. The government has signaled that it may denationalize commercial coal mining to accelerate extraction.

“India is the biggest challenge in global climate negotiations, not China,” said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development.

The New York Times story also illustrates some of the devastating human and environmental consequences of poorly-regulated and low-tech opencast coal mining which is typical in India:

Coal Mining In India's Jharia

Coal Mining In India’s Jharia

The city of Dhanbad resembles a postapocalyptic movie set, with villages surrounded by barren slag heaps half-obscured by acrid smoke spewing from a century-old fire slowly burning through buried coal seams. Mining and fire cause subsidence that swallows homes, with inhabitants’ bodies sometimes never found.

Suffering widespread respiratory and skin disorders, residents accuse the government of allowing fires to burn and allowing pollution to poison them as a way of pushing people off land needed for India’s coal rush.

“The government wants more coal, but they are throwing their own people away to get it,” said Ashok Agarwal of the Save Jharia Coal Field Committee, a citizens’ group.

So the conundrum is this: if India burns billions of tonnes of its own coal to reduce poverty and accelerate its economic growth, the resulting emissions will undoubtedly push the entire planet towards a hotter future than would otherwise be the case. If the US-China deal, plus the EU’s 40% cut, more or less keep the world on the IPCC’s RCP 4.5 pathway, India’s surge in coal-burning would likely push us closer to RCP 6.0 (see graph below), and resulting temperature increases of 3C or more. This is especially the case if future emissions from Africa and other less-developed areas in Asia are factored in.

From Sandford, T. et al, 2014: 'The climate policy narrative for a dangerously warming world', Nature Climate Change, http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v4/n3/full/nclimate2148.html

From Sandford, T. et al, 2014: ‘The climate policy narrative for a dangerously warming world’, Nature Climate Change, http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v4/n3/full/nclimate2148.html

On the other hand, if India decides not to burn much coal in future in order to limit emissions, development could be slowed and hundreds of millions would remain in poverty longer than otherwise.

Climate activists try to resolve this dilemma by insisting that India could move straight to renewables, and indeed India already has a substantial solar programme. But solar is still much more expensive than coal, and is unproven as a reliable source of electricity for entire countries: to put all energy eggs in the renewables basket would clearly be a massive risk for India’s leadership. Climate campaigners 350.org recently had an ‘India Beyond Coal’ day of action, supported by assertions such as this:

Our excessive dependence on coal threatens a future where we can pull millions of Indians out of poverty. Rising costs of coal, reduced availability, excessive deforestation, negative health impacts and the climate crisis are strong reasons to begin the transition towards renewable energy and energy efficiency.

I really don’t think this is true. The costs of poverty – which includes millions of preventable deaths of young children, lack of access to water and sanitation, reduced livelihood prospects, large-scale hunger and malnutrition, and so on… are clearly much greater than the direct costs of coal burning, and this equation probably still holds even when the future damages from climate change are factored in.

The proof of this is right on India’s border in the shape of China’s coal-based development miracle. China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in recent decades, and made such immense strides in its development index that it alone has helped the world achieve most Millennium Development Goals – all based on a manufacturing boom almost entirely fuelled by coal.

Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that the best way for poorer countries to protect themselves against future climate change might not be to reduce their emissions, but to use as much energy as possible – including from coal – in order to develop richer and more resilient societies. There is a very good reason why hurricanes of an equivalent ferocity kill thousands in a country like Myanmar or Haiti, but only a few dozen at most in the US or Australia. To be poor is to be vulnerable, even in today’s climate. The fact that only ‘climate sceptics’ tend make this point currently is somewhat shameful.

That is why I have a queasy feeling when I see climate campaigners insisting that money should not be spent on supporting coal projects even in the poorest countries like India and Bangladesh. Remember, for any collective action problem like climate change to be solved, the solution must be perceived by all parties to be fair – and it clearly is not fair to insist that India stop burning coal when its per capita emissions are a tenth of those in the US, and historical cumulative emissions (the ones that really matter for the climate) even lower still proportionately.

I really don’t see how people in industrialised countries can oppose coal in India or Bangladesh when their own lives are still highly dependent on the world’s most-polluting fuel. In Britain we are still burning 30-40% coal for electricity generation. In the US the proportion is similar. In ‘green’ Germany it is even higher, and Germany is only stopping subsidising its coal mines in 2018 at the insistence of the EU. As a commenter in the New York Times piece put it:

“The gluttons shouldn’t pontificate to the emaciated about the virtues of dieting.”

Maddeningly, the same environmentalists who oppose coal in India have also opposed the largest alternative clean and sustainable energy source – nuclear. There were enormous protests last year, fomented by Western-funded Indian NGOs, against the opening of Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu. Other proposed sites have been blocked or face years of expensive delays because of opposition.

So the upshot is: India’s coal conundrum is real, whatever the wishful thinking of climate activists. Solar on its own will not provide sufficient power to run megacities and industrial revolutions. Without nuclear, India will need coal to develop – a lot of it. Yes, India could use more expensive renewable energy sources, but per dollar invested they deliver less energy than cheaper coal by definition. And moreover, so long as rich countries continue to burn a single tonne of coal in their own power stations – let alone millions of tonnes per year as currently – they are in no position to insist that the poor should be using more expensive power.

I hope however that India’s leadership does not become too much of a blocking presence at the UNFCCC international climate negotiations. The principle of fairness – of so-called ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ – is well-enshrined in the process, and no-one is about to force India to shutter its new coal stations at the point of a gun. India’s leadership needs to take a sophisticated position that acknowledges its development needs but remains a partner in the worldwide mitigation effort. This will involve technology-transfer, renewables, nuclear, CCS and anything else we can come up with.

We’re all in this together as a planet and as a species – but the need for fairness is one of our most universal and deeply-held values. If the rich start blaming the poor for causing climate change that will surely doom the international negotiations, and the planet, like nothing else.

60 comments

  1. Clyde Davies says:

    What’s the progress on getting India to adopt cleaner coal generation technologies, such as coal gasification? That would seem to be a sensible half-way step to weaning them off coal altogether.

    • Michael Cunningham aka Faustino says:

      Clyde, it might be sensible if there were low-cost, readily available and easily-applied cleaner coal technologies. I don’t think that this is the case, even if it were, a cost-benefit analysis for India would not support measures which increase the cost of energy.

    • Sanne says:

      High developed countries should invest to speed up the price decrease of solar and batteries, so those become cheaper and will replace coal in India.
      They have enough sun.

  2. Mark,

    I agree with the sentiments expressed here. We must always remind ourselves that it pays to be rich in a storm.

    A secondary issue is the structure of fossil fuel use in developing countries. Look at cement in China. Per-capita cement consumption there is 10 times what it is in Britain. And there is a similar situation with steel making. Zero-carbon steel and cement is not exactly just around the corner. In addition, these countries see energy consumption much more concentrated in industry, where again it is much difficult to decarbonise.

    From an environmental point of view “leap-frogging” western economies straight to a low-carbon economy is desirable, but probably not possible. China now burns half a billion tonnes of coal each year to make steel. And if it wants to keep making that much steel it will have to keep using that much coal, more or less.

    The US-China deal also raises serious problems of equity. India currently emits 1.5 tonnes of CO2 per-capita. China is at 7 tonnes. This deal means China’s will likely peak above 10 tonnes. In this sense, the deal is a “game changer”. It demonstrates just how high the bar is for developing countries. If everyone follows China’s course – and how can we tell them not to? – the norm will now be above 7 tonnes per-capita. And 7 tonnes per-capita is the EU average.

    As you say at the end fairness is the key here. If India, China or anyone else makes products for us, we should accept that some of these emissions are ours. The “polluter pays” argument is simple moral sophistry. The argument did not hold when we were importing cotton made by slaves in the American south and it does not hold today. Emissions accounting should switch to being on a consumption, not a production, basis.

    • And I should add that the sun also goes down in the megacities of Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta. Strangely, many environmentalists imagine that it does not.

    • Clyde Davies says:

      “Emissions accounting should switch to being on a consumption, not a production, basis.”

      Interesting idea. Have there been any moves to this, do you know?

    • Robert, I also agree with Mark and said so at TEDxVienna Nov 1. Though I wrote THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal, the key technology that makes this possible is liquid fuel. A practical design for mass-producing enough such power plants to satisfy India is nearing completion. The Executive Summary (a bit technical) is posted at thorcon-energy.com.

      With abundant, affordable electricity we can tackle other problems, too. Steel-making uses much coal in blast-furnace technology, but direct conversion uses much less coal. Reducing emissions from cement-making is more difficult, but possible by using electric plasma arc heating. But the low-hanging fruit is easy — replace coal-burning electric power plants with liquid fuel nuclear reactors, which can generate electricity at 3 cents/kWh.

    • george crisp says:

      the Thorium argument has been a top feature at blogs such as Brave New Climate for best part of a decade, promising cheap and abundant nuclear power, and a solution to nuclear waste. Where is this solution? If it were real, why wouldn’t UK be building one of these new reactors?

      They are not, they re still building expensive Gen III reactors with all their waste problems.

      I would be in favour of nuclear power if it genuinely could, be a) cost competitive, b) avoid diificult to manage waste and proliferation and c) be scalable in the time frame required to address climate change .. which is now!

      The only real options here are a combination of large scale quick to deploy renewables AND a reduction in energy use (through efficiency and reducing consumption).

      Nothing else is going to cut it.

    • Indeed in the UK Moltex is designing a molten salt thorium reactor, with funding from John Durham who helped set up the Alvin Weinberg Foundation. The group I am affiliated with in the US has a ThorCon design that we would like to introduce into the UK. Terrestrial Energy in Canada and Flibe Energy in Alabama are both proceeding with designs.

    • Barry Woods says:

      check out on google – china is largest market for:

      luxury goods, Jaguar/Landrover, Mercedes, BMW, etc,etc

      maybe the West should ban selling goods that the Chinese don’t need…
      after all, we don’t want to be blamed for their consumption (and vice versa?)

      Chines car manufacturing, is now largest in the world (and they are not all for export either)

  3. Jo-Inge Teig Holen says:

    Great articel.

    Just one thing, death from household air pollution is not counted in thousands, but in millinos.

    http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs292/en/

    • Mark Lynas says:

      Yes, in millions globally per year. I guess that would translated to hundreds of thousands in India alone, but I didn’t want to be accused of exaggeration!

    • Jo-Inge Teig Holen says:

      I see you point, but I think «thousands» hides the scope of the problem.

    • george crisp says:

      Outdoor air pollution is counted in millions – approx 3.5 million according to WHO – attributable mostly to vehicular and stationary energy generation ie burning coal.

      It makes no sense trying to reduce indoor air pollution using a technology that increases outdoor air pollution, when there aries very tried and tested technology that produces neither ie solar and wind

    • Jo-Inge Teig Holen says:

      @george crisp

      We agree that outdoor air pollution is a serious problem. I hope we can agree that indoor air pollution I a serious problem too. Fixing indoor air pollution with coal-burning obviously makes sense for people in India, and I can not say I blame them.

      “when there aries very tried and tested technology that produces neither ie solar and wind”

      Tried and tested are they? Can you tell us then where in the word this has actually succeeded? Germany is often used as an example off a country that has focused on wind and solar. The sad fact about German energy-policy is that the CO2-emissions is not going down, the amount of coal burnt is not going down, and the deaths form outdoor air pollution you allegedly care so much about is not going down either.

    • George says:

      Thanks for your response.
      all of the points/ questioms you raise are can be assessed or answered by published evidenced based sources.
      I am pretty familiar with air pollution having written articles for publication and have given many talks to the public and my peers on this subject. There’s no foubt that both indoor and outdoor air pollution are major global health problems. You are not correct in equating ondoor AP so closely with coal. Dung, wood and other comustibles are more prevalent. In India for example much would be achieved with new stove designs. The barriers are largely cultural and practical.

      My understanding is that Germany coal use has declined over yhe last 7 years as has total electricity generation. Again this is testible and I am happy to ne corrected.

      Europe is committed to reduce ambient AP and both the heslth impacts and consequent economic costs have been studied. Action on climate change has been shown yo be cost effective through health snd other cobenefits! We sctually save money and lives!

      Increasing coal use in the developong world is lilely to have little or negative health benefit. I can provide published material supporting this

    • Jo-Inge Teig Holen says:

      “Increasing coal use in the developong world is lilely to have little or negative health benefit. I can provide published material supporting this.”
      Given the many health-benefits of a high energy lifestyle this seems highly counter-intuitive. Does published material actually take all this things into account? You may be right, but I do find it hard to believe.

      The evidence of industrialized economies powered by solar and wind would really be interesting. It may be technically possible, but I seriously doubt that it is economically and politically possible. My impression is that counties that have tried have gotten about the same results as Germany. You can find a graph of German electricity by fuel at http://www.iea.org/stats/WebGraphs/GERMANY2.pdf and total coal use at http://www.iea.org/stats/WebGraphs/GERMANY5.pdf. One could argue that it is a slight downward trend in coal-use over the 20 last years. But the trend is so week that Germany is using about the same amount of coal for energy production as it did 20 years ago. Even if we believe the most optimistic predictions for the so called German energy transition (and I really do not) facing out coal will take at least 30 more years. The French practically decarbonized its electricity supply in 15 years (http://www.iea.org/stats/WebGraphs/FRANCE2.pdf). The interesting thing is that if Germany had chosen the same solutions as France ore Sweden they could have stopped burning coal for electricity by now. It is of course true that coal use is not the only source of outdoor AP but it is a big one. So even if we believe the most optimistic proponents of the German energy transition the some of the people dying of asthma and lung cancer in the coal-smog of German cities are predictable victims of German energy policy.

    • Finn Jensen says:

      Denmark is showing the way in CO2 reductions, reductions in coal use, etc.

  4. There’s no way after 18years and counting without warming that this deal is going anywhere.

    The US have not agreed. A lame duck president based on no scientific evidence of any current warming has said …

    And the only reason the Chinese signed up for this, is because they know Obama cannot deliver.

    The real reality is that most countries have already given up any idea of reducing CO2 and are only given lip service to the idiot greens who think anything will ever come of these.

    Wake up! Smell the oil …. because it’s the oil companies who are funding this green non-science through their wind companies.

    • Clyde Davies says:

      “A lame duck president based on no scientific evidence of any current warming has said … ”

      Thousands of scientists out there disagree with you. Care to tell us why they’re wrong and you’re not another right-wing windbag?

  5. Francisco G Nobrega says:

    Great Mark Lynas! Human development will in the end help the environment, look at Europe. No human sacrifices based on unproven warming due to CO2.

  6. quokka says:

    One of the stories that is put about regarding rural electrification in India is that that the cost of poles and wires is so high that it would be cheaper to use distributed off grid PV rather than bring grid connection to all these villages.

    I was curious about the substance of this and a bit of googling turned up some data on village electrification.

    http://www.vasudha-foundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2)%20Reader%20Friendly%20Paper%20for%20USO_Status%20of%20Rural%20electrification%20status%20in%20India.pdf

    It seems that in reality 94.4% of villages are electrified where that is defined as at least 10% of dwellings having electricity as well as schools, health clinics, government offices etc.

    At least to a first order approximation it looks like the claims of the off-grid crowd are wildly wrong and India is following the same path towards rural electrification as everywhere else and that the prospects of off grid PV seriously denting the growth of coal are not very good. PV may produce a useful amount of network support, but more than that remains problematic.

  7. Michael Angwin says:

    G’day Mark. To what extent do you think ENGOs are holding back nuclear development in India (and elsewhere); and what will it take to develop broad ENGO support for a mixed, cleaner global energy portfolio?

  8. Clive Hambler says:

    A typically thoughtful and independent article, Mark.

    But “the world’s most-polluting fuel” is arguably biofuel from South East Asia. Please recall the impacts that this and other large-scale ‘renewables’ such as mega-dams have – on wildlife and people. Many scientists see these as the greater environmental problems.

    Your climate sensitivity assumptions are looking out-of-date.

  9. Scott says:

    Which comes first, Climate or the poor? Very simply, they are not mutually exclusive. If you use the bonanza of cheap fossil fuel to destroy the environment, then yes, we have a conundrum. However, if we use that cheap energy to restore the environment and its ecosystem services. (one of which is climate regulation and carbon sequestration). The way you do that is by changing the agricultural model.

    When you do that you provide large numbers of jobs for the poor, and restore the function of the carbon cycle at the same time. Produce far more food too. Win for industry, win for the climate, win for the environment, win for the poor. Win for India. Everyone wins except Monsanto and their ilk.

    The conundrum India has is in modeling their society after the western model instead of developing their own. They’d do far better developing their own. In other words keep their rural agricultural system largely in place, just adding to it part by part with organic technology and scientific advances, but rejecting agribiz. Yet at the same time embracing other sectors of industry in the cities where appropriate.

    See the reason the industrial model in agriculture worked in the West, albeit temporarily, was that we had more land than people. We needed labor in the cities to build those industries and fight those wars. India is different. They have people. There is no labor shortage. What they need is appropriate technology that works in their unique society, not blindly copying the Western model every time.

    • Hans Erren says:

      Not many people know that mining in NW Europe initiated reforestry. Firstly because timber was needed in mines but secondly because with abundant cheap coal available, people did not need to burn forests anymore. The biggest copper mine in Sweden, Stora, had planted so much acreage that they are now the biggest renewable paper producer. The discovery of petroleum around 1850 saved the whales, who otherwise had been hunted to extinction for their oil. Fossil fuels bring wealth and health.

    • Scott says:

      Hello Hans,
      You said, “Fossil fuels bring wealth and health.” That isn’t always true. But your point is valid. Fossil Fuels can bring Health and Wealth. But they can also bring poverty and sickness. It’s a fundamental universal axiom that it is never the tool that is good or evil, it is in the use of that tool.

      As long as their policy reflects the knowledge that for every bit of coal they burn, they need to sequester an equal amount of carbon in their soils, then they can become a leader of the world in appropriately applied technology. Failing that, they simply add to the mistakes we in the West made and are paying for now with climate change, dead zones in the oceans, contaminated air, food and water supply etc….

    • Hans Erren says:

      Scott, global warming is in its essence a problem for the rich, the rich of 2100. Because if you look carefully at the RCP8.5 scenario, in 2100 there are no poor countries left. People moved in the 1800 to the mines, why? To find work and to get rich as life in the countryside was harsh for the poor, much harsher than in the cities. Karl Marks was wrong, he wrote his book living on a pension, he never had to work in his life. Read Ridley’s The rational optimist.

    • Scott says:

      Hans,
      I have read parts of that book already. One of the best chapters contains a discussion about Holistic managed planned grazing. Here is a rancher in Australia that is using modern technology to restore failed ranches and return them to both profitability and productivity, with an added side benefit of sequestering large quantities of carbon in the soil. It takes full advantage of technology like electric fencing, steel manufacture, computerised technology in the handling gates and pens, etc… That’s appropriate technology. Yes all those require FF use and mining, but they are put to a purpose to regenerate the environment. They are actually part of the fight against AGW, part of the fight to feed the world, and also profitable to the people involved, all simultaneously.

      Your idea that AGW is a problem for the rich of 2100? Sorry, it is immoral for us to force our grandchildren to pay the cost for our destruction of the environment. Those environmental costs need addressed now by the same people who caused them. Which is why I expressed already to Mark, they are not mutually exclusive. It the cheap energy from fossil fuels is used to reverse climate change instead of cause climate change, then you can do both.

    • Hans Erren says:

      Scott,
      Talking about immorality: what is more immoral leaving a problem with the future rich to solve or force expensive measures for which the poor of the present have to pay. Every active CO2 limiting action is hurting the poor, be it by expensive fuel costs, expensive electricity costs or expensive food pricing. Recently the oil price dropped twenty percent, that is very good news for the poor. In the past, environmentalists were concerned with pollution of the present, now they are more concerned about the possible problems of the future rich. Pollution is a problem, CO2 is not a pollutant. Currently CO2 is not a problem: we have a mild warming, no increase in storminess, and a longer crop season. India has pledged to provide countrywide 24/7 electricity by 2019.

      http://www.powerengineeringint.com/articles/2014/11/india-pledges-24-hour-electricity-to-all-by-2019.html

      We have full rights to pick the current low hanging fruits and eat them ourselves. What would you say to a landowner if the poor came to buy cheap apples from his yard, and he would reply to them : “no these are not for you; they are for the rich of the future. Go and buy some expensive alternatives in the supermarket in the high street.” Would that be a morally just act?

    • Scott says:

      Hans,
      Do you understand the logic error in a false dichotomy? I ask this because that lat post set up more false dichotomies. For some reason you seem to be focused on choices A or B and ignoring the 1000’s of other choices available.

      Let me explain. You said, “Talking about immorality: what is more immoral leaving a problem with the future rich to solve or force expensive measures for which the poor of the present have to pay.”

      That is a false dichotomy because it ignores the fact that there are countless ways to address ecological issues that are not expensive and can help the poor without sacrificing the ecology for future generations. That means you can feed the world and help the poor and regenerate the ecology simultaneously. So while your two choices set op a false dichotomy of two bad unethical choices, and attempt to try and figure out which bad choice is less bad than the other, the true ethical choice is to reject both and instead use appropriate technology and business models. (reject both A and B and choose C instead)

    • Hans Erren says:

      Scott,
      There is no false dichotomy, there is only poor people of the present who need to get rich at the fastest possible route. Because every delayed year is killing people now, that’s how serious it is. I visited Bangladesh in 1996. At the airport my taxi has to plough its way through litary thousands of people begging and knocking at my car window. I saw children literaly living in the gutter. I had a meal at a middle class house and at six oclock the electricity would shut down as it was rantioned over other parts of town. Scott, do you want jobs for the poor? Buy clothes manufactured in Bangladesh! You wrote the above post with 24/7 electricity, internet and a computer available. Every Bangladeshi should have it. Wealthy people are healthy people.

      The only way that alternative solutions are presented as profitable, is by blowing up potential future adverse side effects of the cheaper options: coal and nuclear. “Oh but it will harm our grandchildren”. I am urging you not to focus on the problems of the RICH and VERY WEALTHY people of 2100, there’s nothing you can do about it as it is a boundary value problem and not an initial value problem. It’s very easy to make a worst case projection: heck Malthus already made one in 1798! Please focus on the problems of the here and now.

      The most ridiculous example of new technology was when I saw this lady in a shantyshed who was given a smartphone to monitor her PV system. The smartphone already was worth one local annual salary.
      You want a win-win example? Plant trees. Provide solar stoves together with kerosene stoves, so people can cook also in the rainy season and don’t get indoor smoke from wood stoves anymore.

      There is nothing wrong with letting the future rich pay for us poor. It is fundamentally unethical to make the poor of this century pay for the rich of this century by promoting the very expensive alternatives. (“No bread? Let them eat cake”). Just ask yourself: how many lives can we save here and now. The future will take care of itself, it always has.

    • Scott says:

      Hans,
      Did you ever wonder where those masses of starving poor came from? When an agribiz company like Monsanto following the industrial “green revolution” model, drives 1/2 the population off their farms because they are too small for the industrial business model…. in the name of helping the poor starving populations of the world, what happens? It creates more poor starving people than it helps. Much more. Then by destroying the ecological womb at the same time, it insures even more mass poverty into future generations.

      That’s why I have said from the beginning, nothing wrong with coal, it’s the use you put it to that matters. Use that coal for energising a rural landscape that also values the small farmer (and associated infrastructure) and boosts yields per acre without driving them off the land..something small organic farming business models can do far better than conventional, and you have used that bonanza of cheap energy appropriately. Not only that, but intensive organic methodology can also reduce the country’s carbon footprint by as much as, or in some cases even more than, what is released by the cheap fossil fuels, simply by sequestering that carbon in the soil. And that of course increases the yields per acre even more! Now suddenly you are in a positive feedback loop, each making the rest even stronger. Win for the environment, win for the economy, win for the poor, win for future generations, even a win for the wildlife. The whole country benefits when you address problems with a holistic framework like this.

      But if you use coal inappropriately and ignorantly to try and “fix” your problems without looking at unintended emergent effects like ecological destruction, you end up in a negative feedback curve and more poor starving masses than you started with. Like trying to run up the down escalator! Lots of effort, little gain. And once you run out of energy, then all earlier hard fought gains quickly eliminated.

    • dp says:

      What you are saying is India must require a part of the population remain as farmers rather than following their passions in high tech or medicine or ??? This is perhaps the most frightening and elitist notion I can imagine.

    • Hans Erren says:

      Scott,
      Interesting new topic, Monsanto. Now if you would have read Ridley carefully, then you would have discovered that monopolies aren’t free markets. So yes I don’t agree with Monsanto’s business model. OTOH, I don’t think that directly subsidising ailing small farmers would be helping safeguarding a true free market and increasing efficiency lowers market price for the consumer by itself, monopolies and kartels are price increasers. And no, the beggars of 1996 in Bangladesh were not chased from their grounds by Monsanto – who wasn’t in agro anyway then – they fled to the city hoping for a job, and you know what: They found it in the rapidly growing textile industry. The GDP of Bangladesh almost tripled since 1996.

      Organic farming needs more acreage for the same yield, so with a rapidly growing population that means a direct assault on nature’s reserves. So a bad idea. Carbon footprint is also a horrible metric. It’s of the same logic as: “If everybody would live like a Roman landowner, there would not be enough slaves in the world”

      “intensive organic” is an oxymoron. Using coal appropriate I can agree with, coking coal to make steel, steam coal with scrubbers to make electricity for everybody. So that everybody in the world can read our comments on this fine blog, and reply to the comments.

      Mark needs to get some extra server space…

    • Scott says:

      DP,
      Who said that? Only you. Certainly not me. And the farmers committing suicide? They are not committing suicide because they are so excited about leaving the farm and entering high tech medicine. That’s for sure. Maybe more because a corrupted short sighted elitist government influenced by Western models devalued the farmer and then drove them from their ancestral farms?

      Hans Erren,
      Who said anything about subsidizing small farmers? I am a conservative and a conservationist and a small farmer all rolled in one. Conservatives don’t ask for subsidies, they fund their own ecology projects with the higher profits contained in a better managed landscape. I can easily compete with the big boys without subsidies. The big boys make a couple hundred dollars an acre and must have hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in equipment to do that, meanwhile the land deteriorates. I make 10,000 dollars an acre with almost no equipment costs and my land gets better every year. In fact, here in USA it’s the big boys who get the subsidies just so they have a chance to compete with the likes of me. Otherwise they’d all go bankrupt. But I can do this because I have accessibility to high tech infrastructure appropriately applied. I have rural electricity, good roads, electric fencing, clean water, internet, education etc… Now if you use the cheap coal to provide rural electrification. Then you have many possibilities for the small farmers in the way of pumps for water, refrigeration, heating, electric fencing, electric power tools, canning etc…. all of which can be used by the rural population to better themselves without needing subsidies. Just build the public infrastructure and educate the population on the new high tech intensive organic systems.

      PS BTW organic and intensive are not oxymorons. Traditional and intensive are oxymorons. Organic is not the same as traditional. Some examples of intensive organic agricultural methods include System of Rice Intensification (SRI), Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing, Pasture Cropping, several polyculture and/or permaculture methods. Maybe it is you that need the education first? That way you could tell when your assumptions and long held belief systems are fundamentally flawed?

    • Hans Erren says:

      Scott,
      Happy to learn about intensive organic farming. I remember the old organic shop in the 80’s with fruit and vegetables full of stains and in the corner those soft biscuits that were made without sugar.

      I think we agree on coal!

    • Scott says:

      Hans,
      You said, “Happy to learn about intensive organic farming.” I’ll post both Layman’s citations and further in depth citations, one for the overview and the other for more scientific/working knowledge. Hope this helps:
      SRI :http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/feb/16/india-rice-farmers-revolution and http://sri.ciifad.cornell.edu/

      Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sYWYU5V8JOo&list=PLmwY2K-O1lmVe3ZPq1j3WwjjiUxOJZ0Ee and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpTHi7O66pI and http://learningstore.uwex.edu/assets/pdfs/A3529.PDF and http://www.savoryinstitute.com/media/40591/Savory_Institute_Carbon_RestoringClimateWhitePaper_April2013.pdf and http://www.grazingbestprac.com.au/research/grazing/AGEE3851%20Grazing%20management%20impacts%20in%20north%20Texas%20v12011.pdf

      Pasture cropping: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnDg-FJiOec and http://www.milkwood.net/2010/12/07/why-pasture-cropping-is-such-a-big-deal/ and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=khNprFGW0N8&list=PLmwY2K-O1lmVj69XENVjDNOHv8AtVQc2_

      Various polyculture/permaculture methods: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJk4R1xpMC8&list=PLmwY2K-O1lmUmMwoyjfZ8kkEAHqMy-olT and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apZJT-0BruU

      I of course only scratched the surface. It would take years for you to educate yourself on just what I know, and I know just a tiny, tiny % of what’s available.

      But the most important thing to take from all this is that it’s all about the soil. That soil needs carbon. Coal spews much carbon into the atmosphere. So potentially we could have an industrial model including fossil fuels and all the social benefits that brings, and also use that excess carbon to regenerate our soils. The problem is that industrial agriculture turns the carbon sink that is our soils into an additional emissions source. So both Fossil fuels AND our agricultural soils are flooding the atmosphere with too much carbon. It’s unbalanced. Too much going in the air and not enough coming out. But if you flip agriculture worldwide from an emissions source into a sequestration sink, then you can get all the benefits from fossil fuels AND simultaneously by putting it in the soil, get benefits in increased productivity there as well!
      http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960852407007092
      http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0038071702001748
      http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1164556306000379
      http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960852402000172

      Oh and BTW I only agree with you about coal, if and only if it is directly and inextricably tied to carbon sequestration in the soil by improved organic agricultural models. Without that, it is incredibly harmful. As I said before, it is unethical and immoral to force our grandchildren to deal with the mess we made of the environment. But as long as those two are linked and in balance, sure, fossil fuels are a great tool! I agree with you 100%

    • Scott says:

      Hans,
      I haven’t forgotten about you. You said, “Happy to learn about intensive organic farming.”

      I sent a whole bunch of citations about that to get you started. But I believe due to the number of links, it will be delayed by moderation.

  10. Bas says:

    They make progress towards less CO2. Even in the high mountains of Kashmir:

  11. “There is a very good reason why hurricanes of an equivalent ferocity kill thousands in a country like Myanmar or Haiti, but only a few dozen at most in the US or Australia. To be poor is to be vulnerable, even in today’s climate. The fact that only ‘climate sceptics’ tend make this point currently is somewhat shameful.”

    Powerful post Mark, and brave statement there. Thankyou

  12. Michael Cunningham aka Faustino says:

    “the biggest unanswered question now in climate change is this: what will India do?” Modi answered that question in Australia last week: India will go for growth, primarily driven by (increasingly Australian) coal, also by nuclear (Australian uranium). Anyone who knows India, as I have since 1972, would know that this is the only sensible and humane approach.

    China limiting its emissions? It’s planned annual growth in GHG emissions up to 2030 equals Australia’s annual emissions; yet in Brisbane, Obama panned Australia after praising China. By 2030, China’s urbanisation push will be largely over, the population is expected to decline. Renewable energy will be almost all hydro, other will be about 2% of total emissions in 2030, coal stations are powering ahead. Modi will do what China is doing.

  13. Michael Cunningham aka Faustino says:

    Hi Mark, a good article, I’m pleased to see your take on India’s situation.

    When you say of India’s prospective coal-burning that “the resulting emissions will undoubtedly push the entire planet towards a hotter future than would otherwise be the case,” there are some doubts as to whether rises would be as great as you suggest, e.g. the “pause” in warming since 1998 and the attendant re-evaluations of sources of warming, and recent studies which suggest that equilibrium climate sensitivity is in the order of 1.3-1.7, significantly less than the IPCC’s projections assume.

    Even if warming does resume, I have often argued (I won’t go into detail here) that the future is always uncertain, our capacity to predict it has always been poor, and the best response to suggested CAGW is to increase our capacity to deal with whatever unknown future eventuates. This means pro-market, pro-growth policies, policies which increase flexibility, self-reliance, innovation and entrepreneurship, rather than the GHG emissions-reduction which have high costs for little, if any, apparent benefit. Most proposed remedies to potential CAGW involve heavy centralised government control and direction, which is anathema to an innovative, self-reliant, productive society.

    The prospect of high reliance on non-hydro renewables seems very remote. There were two good articles which explain why on Judith Curry’s blog recently – well worth a read if you haven’t seen them. They are by “Planning Engineer,” who has over 30 years’ experience in the electric utility industry and has overseen generation planning and transmission planning. He is a registered Professional Engineer with a Masters in Electrical Engineering and graduate training in Policy Analysis. He has served and continues to serve on a variety of regional and national committees in the power supply arena. (PE adopted a pseudonym to avoid the hassle and delays associated with getting clearance for his articles if he used his real name.)

    http://judithcurry.com/2014/10/22/myths-and-realities-of-renewable-energy/#more-17092

    http://judithcurry.com/2014/11/05/more-renewables-watch-out-for-the-duck-curve/#more-17149

  14. Barry Woods says:

    India will be fine, China has set the precedent.

    Indi will say, our emissions are much lower, we intend to peak around say 2040 (though they will probably say 2050 and negotiate hard to be seen to do a deal, and settle on around 2040, lots of lee way)

    pure international politics. then pressure on the West to ‘do something’ LOL

    what I don’t understand, is why Mark hasn’t been called a ‘coal shill’ or ‘climate denier’ yet by the usual suspects… any sceptic, writing this article would have been, as they have been pointing this dilemma out for years (Llomborg being one such voice, though like most sceptics he has never denied climate change, nor that man contributes)

    c’mon. Mark has favourably cited the GWPF, that’s heresy.

  15. Michael Cunningham aka Faustino says:

    Hi, Mark, my post of 22 November at 10.51 pm is still in moderation. The only possible reason I can see is that I included two hyperlinks to Climate Etc – there’s nothing in my text which could cause offence.

    I hope that it eventually sees the light of day!

  16. björn says:

    Your historical temperature graph is incorrect. Temperature has leveled out from the last years of the past century to no net increase today. Your graph shows it rising, that is not true.
    ex.
    http://www.cru.uea.ac.uk/cru/data/temperature/CRUTEM4.pdf
    http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/graphs_v3/Fig.C.gif

  17. Andy Revkin says:

    Great piece, but I have to note that climate skeptics are not the only people making the point about the moral need for more energy production (including fossil) in developing countries. e.g.:

    The Power Gap Behind India’s Mass Blackouts http://nyti.ms/OznCEs via @dotearth

    Dispatches from Rio and Nepal: Knife Fights Over Firewood http://nyti.ms/LlTnnv via @dotearth

  18. Sou says:

    I’ve no idea where Mark Lynas got the idea that only “skeptics” make the point that to be poor is to be vulnerable. (Deniers are quoting this comment gleefully as if they invented the poor – and some of them probably did!) Sure there are a lot of hypocritical deniers who’ve suddenly developed a love for the “poor” and, after ignoring their plight for decades, suddenly decided they want to “help” them by selling them oil and coal.

    However there have for years been IPCC reports focusing on “”Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability” which have highlighted the particular vulnerability of less developed countries. Other organisations and individuals have constantly highlighted the particular vulnerabilities of poorer countries in regard to climate change, including the complex array of issues surrounding energy, health, education, economics and environment.

    Many individuals and organisations have been working to reduce this vulnerability, not least of which are those who’ve been bringing for the first time, electricity to millions of households – via solar energy. Many less developed countries have a population distribution that makes old-style energy production and distribution horrendously expensive. They can and are taking advantage of more nimble systems available today by advanced renewable technology, so they don’t have to put all their eggs the one basket (coal) or go in the pure linear route taken by developed countries: coal to renewable with, in some instances, nuclear as a supplement.

    There is one point on which I agree with Mark – that we are all in this together and playing the blame or guilt card won’t help. We’ve got to move forward looking forward and, hopefully, collaboratively – helping each other, not pointing fingers and saying “I won’t until everyone else does”.

    • MB says:

      Well said!

      Decentralisation of power works admirably at the village scale in rural sections of poor nations. Power grids are horrendously expensive, even for developed nations.

      However, poor people from the countryside are now moving to cities in droves. This will, no doubt, be the Urban Century. It is the cities where centralised power, notably for industry, performs well. There are, however, millions of roofs even in Mumbai where solar PV could make a difference and help temper emissions and monopolies on power gneration that tend to raise the price of energy.

    • Hans Erren says:

      The problem in India is not that the villages aren’t connected to the grid,. Most rural villages in india have grid connection, it’s the poor in the villages that are not connected.

  19. George Crisp says:

    “On the other hand, if India decides not to burn much coal in future in order to limit emissions, development could be slowed and hundreds of millions would remain in poverty longer than otherwise.”

    .. is a false conclusion. One by ignoring the alternative solutions: distributed renewable energy for example, and two, not accounting for the implicit health costs of coal.

    Indoor air pollution kills around 4 million people each year (not to mention the colossal associalted morbidity) but outdoor air pollution kills over 3 million, and coal is one of the significant contributors to this.

    Clearly the solution is not to replace one polluting activity with another, but to look for cleaner and healthier (and in fact more sustainable eg water use) solutions.

    There are quite a few studies in the medical literature that highlight the costs of coal in health terms, and they can completely outweigh the benefits of coal. Until we include these currently externalised costs, we cannot have a neaniful disucssion in this subject.

  20. Derek Colman says:

    The agreement between America and China does not stand up to scrutiny. Obama is unlikely to be able to deliver, and the Chinese have just bought themselves 16 years without criticism before they renege on the deal. It’s unlikely that they even believe in AGW, especially as they have their own scientists not bought and paid for by Big Green. They have already embarked on a programme for renewables, mainly wind, solar, and hydro and that remains the same, and is not altered by any agreement. As they are probably not bothered about AGW, their motive is fear of fossil fuels becoming in short supply due to political interference in the countries from which they import.

  21. Mark, we are working on an approach that does not have to deal with the morality or political impracticality of asking impoverished Indians not to burn more coal. It’s economics. We are developing a molten salt reactor power plant that can be mass produced and deliver electricity at 3 cents/kWh. It’s clean, safe, and cheap. India’s limited financial resources dictate that they must generate as much electricity as possible for the investments they can afford. They will opt for nuclear power. There is more about this in the book THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal, Here’s a 3D rendering from the engineering design
    https://www.facebook.com/ThoriumEnergyCheaperThanCoal/photos/a.401743253214503.94464.400192543369574/725808194141339/?type=1
    and here’s a technical introduction
    thorcon-energy.com.

  22. Mark, your essential points here are well taken. That is: India’s development needs demand more, not less affordable energy. And for now, that is still coal.

    But your suggestion that India take a more “sophisticated” approach to UN climate negotiations is less convincing. If anything, the Indian government’s candor is refreshing, and potentially more useful than the kabuki of the UN’s chronically futile quest for a global “climate protection” compact.

    China’s more sophisticated approach, as noted, comes down to little more substantive than Prince Potemkin’s villages.

    Your post also seems to overly emphasize a per-capita basis of equity or fairness. There is an alternative view that “excessive” fertility and population growth themselves unethically burden ecosystems, and hence should not be rewarded with dispensations. Indeed, it is the difference in the views of whether GDP or population is the proper denominator in assessing shared responsibilities for AGW mitigation that lies at the heart of of UNFCCC perpetual gridlock.

    This is not merely an academic distinction. While much of the developing world, like all of the developed world, has more or less made some of the normal “demographic transition” to lower fertility and thus reduced or even negative population growth, in much of Africa fertility remains persistently high. As a result, projections which had seen the world’s “peak” human population as leveling off somewhere around 10 billion recently have been revised upward toward 12 billion.

    You noted correctly that poverty is the most insidious form of pollution — in its destructive effects — and that greater wealth can make countries both cleaner in their environmental impact and more resilient in coping with all kinds of hazards. But a key part of the mitigating effect of national wealth has long been understood to be the demographic transition to low fertility and eventually zero or negative population growth. If that is not part of the equation, then the equity implications of demography loom larger.

    Regarding the AGW issue, what should be clear from your observations and is that the only effective solution will come not from the regulatory approach the UN has emphasized but the technical fix: developing breakthrough technologies that can provide clean energy alternatives that are cheaper than coal. More advanced nuclear power systems may be close to meeting some of that need, but conventional nuclear power still entails collateral hazards that need fixing. Electricity still is only part of the equation; alternatives to liquid and gaseous fossil fuels also are need.

    A number of centers and analysts — the Breakthrough Institute, the Copenhagen Consensus Centre, and others — have called for shifting the emphasis away from the regulatory obsessions of the UN and too many climate activists to what is needed instead: an aggressive effort to accelerate energy innovation.

    Moreover, simply throwing more money at conventional R&D programs will not suffice. For one thing, a sluggish global economy and government budget constraints are likely to limit what further discretionary funds can be provided. For another, the centralized approach focused on government labs and universities lacks the agility and breadth needed to achieve important innovations at the pace required.

    A “Plan B,” stressing open science, open innovation, and broad trans-national collaboration is described in detail here: http://j.mp/NrgInnov.

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