Coal politics in an unequal world

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

Australia is a coal country. It is big business—miners are important in politics and black gold exports dominate the country’s finances. But dirty and polluting coal evokes emotions in environmentally concerned people. Coal-based power provides 40 per cent of the world’s electricity and emits one-third of global carbon dioxide, which is pushing the world to climate change.

EnergyGiven this, on my recent visit to Australia, it was obvious I would be asked about my opinion on Australian coal exports to India. My answer, at the end of a discussion on the environmental challenges the world faces, was that as long as Australia was addicted to coal for energy it would be hypocritical for it to ask countries like India to give up coal. It is also important to note that Australia’s per capita carbon dioxide emissions are the highest—18 tonnes per person per year, compared to India’s 1.5 tonnes per person per year.

This position is not acceptable to anti-coal campaigners, so I have been scolded in email after email for betraying the cause. Anti-coal groups, largely led by big US NGOs, are on a warpath to stop the use of coal in our part of the world, as they believe we can make the transition to cleaner energy sources like solar and wind. We should not make the mistakes of the rich world; we should not add to the climate change problem because we want cheaper energy from coal. Furthermore, they argue that the real cost of coal is very high in terms of health and environment.

And efforts to stigmatise coal have been successful. Anti-coal groups have bullied the World Bank into agreeing that it would not fund coal-based power in developing countries. Last week, US President Barack Obama became their star campaigner as he persuaded his Dutch counterpart, Prime Minister Mark Rutte, to join the US-led effort to end public financing of coal-fired plants abroad.

What is my position as an Indian environmentalist? We do believe that coal mining will destroy forests, water sources and livelihoods of the poorest. We have pushed policy to recognise this, take careful and cautious decisions on clearance of coal mines and, most importantly, to heed the voices of communities when they protest mining in their backyard. This, we recognise, will reduce the availability of domestic coal and will increase the cost of energy as plants depend on imported coal.

In addition, we want stringent standards on pollutants from coal, including mercury. We also want all industries, including coal thermal plants, to pay for the real cost of raw material, including water. All this will make coal-based thermal power more responsive to environmental safeguards and local concerns and make clean fuels more competitive.

Having said this, I do not accept the assumption that countries like India, with huge unmet power needs, can make a transition to renewables so that we replace coal in the short run. Currently, coal accounts for over 65 per cent of India’s power generation. India needs to massively increase its power generation and make sure that the cost is affordable to the poor. In all this, it is clear that we need to aggressively push renewables, particularly with the objective of energy access, so that the current energy poor move to clean sources of power. But we must also recognise that this will be expensive. The objective is to do what the rest of world has not: reach the poor, not rich, with relatively more expensive power. But even after doing all this and more, it is also a fact that India will remain dependent on coal for the coming years.

So, why do I say it is hypocritical to ask India not to use coal? The fact is that coal is still the mainstay of energy production in most parts of the rich world. The only countries, which have weaned themselves away from coal, are those that use nuclear on a large scale (like Sweden and France) or those with natural gas (like the US and large parts of Europe). The hard inconvenient truth is that the US President is an anti-coal campaigner because his country has now options of large finds of shale gas. It is gas versus coal, not climate concerns versus coal. It is now convenient for him to be green and to preach to the world.

The fact also is that shale and natural gas are not necessarily clean or green. Gas is also a fossil fuel, and even though its carbon dioxide emissions are lower than that of coal, there is huge uncertainty about methane emissions from gas. Therefore, transition to gas from coal is not even an intermediate solution to countries, which should be reducing their total emissions in the interest of climate change. While countries like India need atmospheric space to grow, countries like the US and Australia and even Europe have exhausted their claim to the common atmospheric space. They have to make the transition, not to shale, but to solar. Not tomorrow but today.

But this is not what global NGOs are screaming about. The rich have not reduced their carbon footprint by reducing consumption. As yet, it is only a game of switching from dirty to not-so-dirty fuels. In this view, the poor in the world have to take on the burden of climate change by moving to renewables and reducing consumption. This is the definition of justice in the rich man’s world.

The Coal Regulatory Authority Bill, 2013

Black and dirty: the real challenges facing India’s coal sector

The Indian coal sector: challenges and future outlook

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  • It was a nice article as an

    It was a nice article as an eye opener on
    The question is now put before you-

    Which in your opinion should get the priority-




    to meet the energy crisis in INDIA.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • The situation in Australia if

    The situation in Australia if massive exports of coal are permitted to India will be disastrous. As we try to shut the industry down here, it finds new export markets. The idea that the West contracts its coal use so that India can increase it, gets the planet nowhere, despite being socially just. Large coal use in India helps ruin the planetary envelope for everybody, including poorer nations than India. China has at least realised the error of its carbon intensive energy production, but too late. I would expect India to do the same.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • I would have expected a

    I would have expected a better editorial and explanation from Sunita on this issue. We just can't say that as because the West has not reduced their carbon footprints, we should not look into the way we see our energy situation. Coal is dirty and our compliance mechanisms are worst. It's a reality that we cannot phase it out but the intent has to be there and strategy should be well thought out. The editorial should have also dealt on who consumes the maximum of this energy in India at whose cost. A blanket talk about per capita emission is ignoring the rich urban and powerful in India. I am sure more than any US-supported NGO, the local people are opposed to dirty coal. Diesel is a convenient fuel for the rich and powerful. Why then CSE opposed it? I am sorry but I find this editorial favoring the rich, urban and powerful in India. The unequal world in India should not be promoted.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Hey Sunita, Your arguments

    Hey Sunita,
    Your arguments for developing countries like India to be allowed to use Coal Energy is justified, but there are pilot plants and technologies available to make coal a greener source, by reducing its CO2 emission and trapping all the pollutants. I am in the same field and promote the use of Coal for greener fuels.

    However, it was totally wrong to argue that Australia's CO2 emissions are higher than India's on per capita basis, as you were not stating the fact. The total emission of India's C02 is about 2.15 Billion tonnes more than Australia's, because Australia has very small population of only 22 million people, compared to India's 1.7 Billion.

    Yours Sincerely,

    Sourav Sinha

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Yes I agree, we are an energy

    Yes I agree, we are an energy starved country with per capita power consumption of the order of ~800kWh and what to speak of peaking power shortages or of quality power supply.
    We have no option but to increase our power generation and have a mixed basket approach; a lot needs to be done in hydro, nuclear, solar, wind etc., necessarily not in this order.
    If we do not increase the existing per capita consumption to a four figure soon, we may not be able to approach and sustain the targeted 8-10% annual GDP growth in coming years. We also have to learn how to develop community & environmental friendly hydro power which is comparatively cleaner power source.Coal will dominate to stay with a near 65%-35% thermal-hydro mix at present (other sources have negligible contribution with nuclear at ~2% at present).

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • While I agree with Sunita's

    While I agree with Sunita's comment that India cannot totally wean itself away from coal, I don't think she has made a strong enough plea to take actions to reduce the use of coal. I am quite disappointed that the article makes no mention at all of improving energy efficiency, which provides by far the near to mid-term option for reducing carbon emissions (and local pollution) and also reducing supply-demand imbalances and enhancing energy security at a much lower cost than any renewable or conventional energy option, without in any way compromising economic development. As a practitioner in the energy efficiency field, I am frustrated with the lack of attention to this large and unique resource that can be tapped with only a little effort and less financial commitment than other resource. Our challenge is to get policy-makers and the media to recognize energy efficiency as a resource and make every effort to deploy it.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • This analysis is poor on

    This analysis is poor on facts.
    "The only countries, which have weaned themselves away from coal, are those that use nuclear on a large scale (like Sweden and France) or those with natural gas (like the US and large parts of Europe). The hard inconvenient truth is that the US President is an anti-coal campaigner because his country has now options of large finds of shale gas. "
    Fact: The US has reduced coal more through efficiency and renewables, not by fracking. Electricity consumption is the same now as 2007, coal, oil and nuclear natural have decreased. Gas and renewables have increased with about the same, and not all gas is from tracking. (See, short term outlook.)
    In Europe it is the same thing. Spain, Portugal, Germany, Denmark and lately also the UK have cut their coal use by efficiency and renewables. We have much less coal and nuclear now than year 2000.
    This is also beginning to happen in China, the world leader of wind and solar investment. About 40 per cent of added generation in 2013 was renewable, in a country with a very strong coal lobby.
    Is coal actually cheaper than renewables? This used to be true, but can you prove it now? Where are your data?
    New coal power plants with modern standards are not cheap, and the indirect costs for infrastructure are very high.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sunita, I live in a

    Dear Sunita,
    I live in a country (Germany) that claims international leadership in climate politics and is currently on the way to demonstrate that an energy transition (away from nuclear and fossil fuels towarss renewables) is possible without putting our economy and wellbeing in danger (
    However, the success of this transition is under great threat by the German coal industry (and some other fossil fuel-dependend sectors like the automobile, chemical and steel industry) defending a business model that has no future.
    While Co2 emissions are rising in German today, German coal power plants are amongst the dirtiest ones in the EU and the business lobby is successfully fighting one of the few policy instruments that work (feed-in tariff), the German government cannot credibly ask other countries to stop using coal - I am completely with you on that one!
    BUT I would like to contradict you in one point of your argument: German (but also European, American and Australian) NGOs ARE fighting hard against the fossil fuel industry in their respective countries. From the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline to the local anti-fracking movements all over Europe, from protests against coal mines and coal plants to a global divestment campaign ( - the protests and actions are manifold and powerful and they aim at our own governments!
    Here in Germany, our job as environmentalists and as a movement is not to ask India to stop using coal. But it is our job to insist, for example, that our public development bank KfW stops subsidising German companies for selling their coal technologies abrad (to Australia, India, Chile, Serbia, South Africa...).
    Indian civil society could demand of international donors and governments of Annex 1 countries (like Germany) to support India on its way to a low carbon, sustainable and inclusive energy transition instead of supporting a system that creates carbon-lock and severe loss and damage due to climate change.
    I would like to thank you for clearly spelling out that we need to think the right to development and the right to a safe climate together. Climate Justice requires international solidarity. This goes both ways.
    Warm regards and greetings from Berlin
    P.S.: For a German comment on your editorial see

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • I appreciate the editorial.

    I appreciate the editorial. Coal based thermal power can not be replaced soon with any other power though renewable power can supplement it.Clean coal technologies must be utilised by the power industry. Global warming can not be our priority while rich and developed countries are burning fossil fuels recklessly.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • I wholly agree with Sunita -

    I wholly agree with Sunita - extremely well said, especially the west having "exhausted their claim to the common atmospheric space" decades ago. Western nations do not generally see that they have a debt to the planet. Most (not 100%) are entirely hypocritical on this issue because local standards of living are at stake and most voting people even in Europe, vote to protect their vested interests. Hence the tragedy of the commons continues to bedevil us.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • CouldnÔÇÖt agree more with you,

    CouldnÔÇÖt agree more with you, dear Editor. The hypocrisy of all those involved in such decibel raising is no longer intriguing. We have NGOs who oppose all thermal, all nuclear and all hydropower plants. If they come to know that there are solar-thermal plants using some fluid and water, I have no doubt they would oppose those plants too. So it is their ÔÇÿdharmaÔÇÖ (read livelihood) to oppose any and every energy plant that public or private or public-private sector comes up with. Thanks for raising the issue unequivocally and so candidly. Keep it up.
    Your sincerely,

    Vinod K Tiwari, Shimla.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Coal can't be replaced soon

    Coal can't be replaced soon enough. What we can and must do is invest in improving the efficiency of coal power plants, espcially Super critical coal based power plants and ultra super critical power pants. Solar is only a long term alternative. we will 800,000 MW of electricity by 2030 and this can't be met without relying on coal.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • CouldnÔÇÖt agree more with you,

    CouldnÔÇÖt agree more with you, dear Editor. The hypocrisy of all those involved in such decibel raising is no longer intriguing. We have NGOs who oppose all thermal, all nuclear and all hydropower plants. Global warming cannot be our priority while rich and developed countries are burning fossil fuels recklessly.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • That's a difficult line to

    That's a difficult line to take and hold, even if the use of coal by developing countries is an inconvenient reality, as is the politics of advanced nations on climate change.

    But I agree with your take on Coal as a fuel, and the way the rich countries play their politics.

    The problem of coal was sown a century or two ago by these very nations- the have a history of looking only to themselves. They saw only benefits of industrialization and a world view had not descended nor did they have a need or capacity to estimate the effect of progress, as development and technology both dynamically exploded. Men change with difficulty: So do Nations. They still look to themselves first.

    Much Much more has to be invested in cleaner fuels and in R & D in this area- Hydrogen Solar and even nano for instance - certainly by the rich ..and this research & development must be open for access and sharing.

    Time is short for civilization. What will be the effect of climate change in a 20-30 years from now if we continue in this manner?

    Otherwise the die is cast. The Karmic arrow of Coal (and fossil fuels) has left the bow many years ago and will fall where it has to,... unless another renewable way to meet is found FAST.

    Why find faults? find solutions within our global network -

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • The rift between green

    The rift between green activists of developing & developed countries is mostly along lines of positions taken by establishments of their respective countries,But this rift demoralises lay supporters of green movement of either side [like me from India]. Introspection & empathy for views of other side may lead to a commonly agreed approach. Comparison of per capita energy consumption is not justifiable for India. [For China with one child norm it may be] We did not have a vigorous f.p. policy. Otherwise our population would have been round about 1 billion with more per head consumption & less severe developmental problems .What right do we have to blame West for wrong policies adopted 2 centuries ago when we were unable to adopt more enlightened policy halt a century ago. Now about a consentious approach. Our govt. can modify its stand. We would continue additional coal consumption, but without increasing present carbon foot-print. We Would seek more effecient methods of energy use.Secondly we will create additional carbon sinks by making use of waste land for mini forests. To make waste land fertile we would use silt obtained from desilted water bodies rivers & lakes. This desilting alonging with rain water harvesting will raise ground water level. This can result into less use of energy in agriculture. All this will require money. Funds should come from developed countries. Responsibility of green activists
    would be , to press their resoective govts to adopt some such approach.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • The focus needs to be on

    The focus needs to be on cleaning up coal production and reducing air pollutant emissions from coal power plants. This needs to be taken up as a higher priority in India.

    Why can't Indian coal power plant be as clean as the new US and EU coal power plants?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Dr. Narain A

    Dear Dr. Narain

    A well-written article spooked by some data such as misleading per capita emission between developed and developing countries; developing nations always lose out on population. It shows the old war between Malthus and Marx; and Malthus still wins on scares resources vs. population. Surely in the last 65 years India has engaged in more gimmicks than good governance. Our leaders talk big in international forums, come back and forget to act on commitments. Frankly speaking our NGOs are not as strong as those in the West. They are more concerned with semantics like "secularism" than fighting a crusade against malnutrition, stopping mining illegal or otherwise, forcing the government to go for renewable green energy etc. India depends on automobile boom to sustain her economy. Can she dump coal and steel for only nuclear energy? Not. We have more negative NGOs to go on Dharna for media space.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply