India’s coal addiction harms the country and the planet

15 Juli 2019

India is on the frontlines of climate change with extreme heatwaves sweeping across much of the nation this summer. Endemic water shortages, exacerbated by prolonged droughts, likewise serve as stark reminders of the formidable challenges posed by a warming planet.

Yet even as India is suffering from climate change it is also contributing to it. Last year global CO2 emissions grew at their fastest rate since 2013 with new coal-fired plants contributing the largest share of the increase, according to a report by the International Energy Agency. Demand for coal grew in 2018 as a result of increased dependence on the fossil fuel for power generation in India and China, which offset declines in CO2 emissions in Europe and the United States.

“As a result of higher energy consumption, global energy-related CO2 emissions increased to 33.1 [gigatons of] CO2, up 1.7%,” the IEA notes. “Coal-fired power generation continues to be the single largest emitter, accounting for 30% of all energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.”

India’s continued addiction to coal has also worsened chronic levels of air pollution, which are among the worst in the world around the country’s teeming urban centers. The environmental and health costs of rampant pollution are formidable in India where millions of people, including young children, sicken and often die as a result. Climate change is likely to make air pollution even worse, a team of experts has warned, because decreases in low cloud cover will result in less rain and so toxic aerosols won’t be removed from the air in town and cities through natural means.

And worse may be yet to come. India is the second most populous nation on Earth and boasts one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, which is likely to grow at around 8% for the next decade. As the country’s economy and middle-class keep on growing, so will India’s electricity needs. A quarter of a billion Indians living in the vast rural hinterland still lack access to electricity and they, too, will need to be hooked up to the grid if India is to reduce stark social and economic inequalities.

India generates around 1,160 billion units of electricity annually, based on data from 2017, which was an increase of 4.72% over the previous year. India’s current power-generating capacity stands at around 334 gigawatt, which is the fifth largest in the world. In recent years India has added another 99.21 GW of capacity, predominantly from thermal sources (91.73 GW) with the rest coming from hydropower and nuclear power (5.48 GW and 2 GW, respectively).

Yet coal accounts for the largest share by far with a whopping 72% of domestic energy still derived from the burning of it. India Coal, the country’s largest coal miner, is bullish on its prospects, expecting continued growth in years to come. Domestic demand for electricity continues to outpace supply, and the country’s electricity needs are expected to double within two decades, creating plenty more demand.

Troublingly, coal is still seen by many local policymakers as the easiest way to boost supply in the short term because India is the world’s second largest producer and importer of coal, after China. Coal-fired plants are health hazards everywhere, but they are especially so in India, whose outdated plants are the worst in the world when it comes to their adverse health effects, according to a recent study by researchers at ETH Zurich.

Despite a global “collapse” in the number of new coal-fired plants, the sector remains relatively robust in China and India, which together have accounted for 85% of new coal power capacity since 2005, according to the Global Energy Monitor. India has 36 GW of new coal capacity in the works to add to the existing 220 GW. The country’s National Electricity Plan foresees adding a total of 94 GW of new coal-fired capacity by 2027.

However, there are indicators that the sector is beginning to face obstacles in its path. Banks and insurers are increasingly reluctant to back new coal-fired plants because of the substandard nature of many of India’s highly pollutive current plants. “Coal won’t disappear in India, with the existing fleet likely to generate power for at least two more decades,” an analyst notes. “But coal’s share of generation is likely to slip.”

To replace coal, at least in part, India wants to boost its installed renewable energy capacity from 78 GW to 175 GW by 2022 with solar power accounting for 100 GW in the perennially sun-drenched country. By 2030 the share of renewables in domestic electricity generation, according to ambitious government plans, should grow to 40%.

Nuclear power, which is currently the fifth largest source of electricity in the country, is also touted as a much-preferred alternative to coal. At its seven current nuclear plants, which have all been constructed indigenously, India operates 22 reactors with a total capacity of 6.7 GW. Nuclear accounts for only 2% of domestically generated electricity, yet another six reactors are under construction to provide an extra 5.4 GW within a decade.

The country’s government has ambitious plans not only for renewables, especially solar, but for nuclear too. The Atomic Energy Commission of India predicts that by 2050 the nation’s nuclear power capacity could balloon to 500 GW, which would make India a world-leader in nuclear power generation.

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