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,
From Sandford, T. et al, 2014: ‘The climate policy narrative for a dangerously warming world’, Nature Climate Change,

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 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.

© Mark Lynas
« · »