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The contemporary discourse surrounding climate change around the world weighs heavily on two notions. Firstly, the phasing down of fossil fuels. Secondly, and more relevant to the Indian context, the phasing out of coal. The majority of Annex 1 countries and several international organisations have come together in unison to promulgate the ideals mentioned above. In some concealed or passive vocabulary, you will find this as a part of every speech, argument, and discussion at the Conference Of Parties (COP) meetings and other climate conferences. On paper, it does seem to have merit. Fossil fuels, namely coal, oil, and natural gas, solely account for more than 75% of all greenhouse gasses and over 90% of carbon dioxide emissions. The internet is ripe with articles, blogs, and papers all supporting that coal is the menace that caused climate change. While these are scientifically accurate information, it is different from where the story ends or begins, for that matter. Coal and its usage have a history, and so does climate change. In the following paragraphs, we will look at global narratives surrounding climate change, India’s historical and current stance on coal, and the importance and irreplaceability of coal in developing nations like India. We will also analyze India’s energy needs, global targets, and the intricacies that lie within.
It is becoming apparent that the planet is facing the vagaries of climate change, and it is collectively gearing up efforts to fight it. Governments, scientists, researchers, philanthropies, international and transnational organisations, NGOs, and NPOs are all part of this fight and frequently work together to ensure they are all on the same page. One way this collaboration happens on an official and global scale is through COP (Conference of Parties) meetings held yearly where 197 nations and territories come together to explore new knowledge, technology, methods and other improvements. Here, countries measure progress, negotiate for better policies, and make individual declarations for dealing with climate change. As the decision-making body of the UNFCC (United Nations Framework on Climate Change), the COP sets common goals and targets for all countries to work towards.
The COP has directed its extensive efforts to reduce fossil fuel energy dependence. But even within this larger gamut, the focus specifically lies on eliminating coal from the picture. The phrase “phase out coal” came into the spotlight post-COP 26 at Glasgow. The final statement of this conference explicitly mentioned the phrase “phase out coal.” India pushed and was successful in its plea to replace that with the words “phase down fossil fuels.” Many developing countries at the conference resonated with India and supported the amendment. This change might seem like a benign play of words, but the implications of this are massive. Before analysing this further, however, it is important to understand the Global state of affairs as far as collective climate action is concerned. Currently, the globally agreed target was conceived in the Paris Conference in 2015.It laid out a framework to limit global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees celsius, with the focus being on keeping the temperature rise within the ambitious 1.5 degrees celsius target. All 196 parties present signed this legally binding agreement and it has since been the the overarching principle guiding all successive meetings and conferences that discuss global warming and climate action.
2.What is the difference and why does it matter?
Both phase-out coal and phase-down all fossil fuels converge at achieving net zero and limiting global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees. The former, however, indicates radical exclusion of coal usage. At the same time, the latter can be understood as a progressive reduction of fossil fuel usage to the level where carbon capture will be able to nullify the impact of remaining emissions. Phasing out coal accosts all developing nations that are dependent on thermal power production for domestic developmental needs to bear mitigation efforts. Bear in mind that many of these nations were not even involved in creating the problem we today call climate change, and most of them are growing economies like India, China, Brazil and the like.
Although the decision to adopt the phase-down change was unanimous, many Western and mostly Annex 1 nations have criticized India for watering down global commitments to the cause. These relatively lesser-income countries are grappling with adaptation efforts as is. The phasing down of fossil fuels has a more generalist tone. It talks about mustering steps to cut down the use of all fossil fuels, not just coal. Thereby not pressurizing developing nations dependent on coal.
It is also important to note the political skirmishes that directly impact these negotiations. India and China have also received a lot of flak for not doing enough and contributing insufficiently to mitigation efforts. As they are bigger economies involved in a lot of production and emission, many Annex 1 countries hinge their participation towards the cause on the involvement of these two countries (India and China). Within the developing world, there are two types of nations. Some countries are at a much higher risk of being directly affected by the impacts of climate change. These include small island nations, as a rise in global temperatures is deemed to directly impact rising sea levels, which in turn directly affects these islands. On the other hand, countries like India, Brazil, and China exist. These countries prioritize their national development and call for a more lenient approach as far as the phasing out of coal is concerned. These countries, despite their vulnerable position, advocate for a slightly more relaxed approach.
3.India’s historical stance
Throughout the history of climate negotiations, India has made its allegiance clear. India's carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions since the birth of the industrial revolution, spanning over 200 years, have totaled approximately 57.1 billion metric tons (GtCO₂). However, it is important to note that India's contribution to emissions remained relatively modest until 1990, amounting to just 11 GtCO₂. This conveys that India had minimal involvement in the activities of the industrial revolution that initiated significant anthropogenic emissions.
Despite the drastic increase in emissions over the past three decades, India still possesses a substantial carbon credit. This implies that, based on the fair share of emissions, India can emit an additional amount equal to about 300 GtCO₂ and still maintain a carbon-neutral position. It is a recognition of the fact that India's emissions have been historically low, especially when compared to developed nations. Despite this, India has always enunciated that since the effects of climate change are omnipresent, the country will mobilise efforts towards fighting it. But in the same breath, it has also repeatedly emphasised that the state has a burgeoning population to cater to and that its primary goal will be internal development - the purpose of which is to increase the living standards of its populace, even if it means burning some coal to ensure stable electricity to all households. Bhupendra Yadav, the environment minister who was part of the Indian Delegation at Glasgow stressed that India will move to cleaner energy forms, but in line with its national circumstances.
Coal is arguably India's dearest fuel and currently occupies 55% of the nation's energy basket. India has been geographically blessed with large coal reserves. It is the second-largest producer and consumer of coal in the world. Nearly 72% of the power generated in India today can be traced back to coal, which is a testament to the importance and irreplaceability of this fuel source. India has seen an annual growth rate in coal consumption of 6%. Despite the increase, around 13% of Indian households still don't have access to grid-connected electricity. While there have been strides in increasing access to and quality of electricity provided, there still is a long way to go. Gaining access is just the first step in serving the developmental needs of the population. Furthermore, the quality (voltage) of electricity delivered needs to be considered. Additionally, electricity supply must be equitable and affordable for all. Reliable electricity is critical to lift people out of poverty, reduce malnutrition, and improve health and education outcomes. India’s per capita energy consumption is abysmal as is at an annual average of 972 Kilowatt hours which is a mere 8 percent of that of the Americans’ and 14% of that of the Germans’. In January of 2023, India logged a double digit year-on-year growth of 13% in energy consumption. This figure is bound to increase and it has to in order to improve the standard of living. Considering our dependence on coal for power generation, increasing the efficiency of current operations (mining and power generation) while simultaneously building capacity in more renewable alternatives is a more achievable and realistic goal than shutting down the entire coal industry.
4.Why is doing away with coal impractical?
A rapid and complete phase-out of coal would require significant time and investment to develop alternative energy infrastructure, including renewables, nuclear power, and natural gas. Such a transition necessitates careful planning, policy frameworks, and adequate financial resources to ensure a smooth and sustainable energy transition.
The intermittent nature of renewables and the need for energy storage infrastructure make them impractical to hedge all bets on. Right before the summer of 2023, every news outlet was warning the public of possible power outages due to a national deficit. In 2022, India faced its worst power shortage in 6 years. The power deficit stood at 5,691 million units during August to November 2022. While solar energy will possibly cover for the increasing demand when the sun shines, a lot of consumption happens at night in the summers. People require steady electricity to run their air conditioners and coolers and this connection can most conveniently and efficiently happen through coal generated power. This is because the power that is generated using coal is connected to the grid and hence easier to regulate as compared to renewables like solar. The fate of hydro electricity can be an essay of its own given the vast life-altering implications it has on the communities around and along the river on which the dam is envisaged. As previously mentioned, to make the transition seamless, the renewable energy sector needs to grow alongside the more dominant coal sector rather than in opposition to it.
Furthermore, several livelihoods depend on the coal sector in India. The number is estimated to be somewhere around 20 million but is assuredly more than that if you account for the trickle down effect coal has on an economy. The sector supports various ancillary industries, including the manufacturing of mining, transportation, and power generation equipment. A sudden transition from coal could have severe socio-economic implications, such as job losses and economic disruptions in these sectors. People dependent on coal should be gradually weaned off of it with the help of sustainable alternatives.
On the demand side of the equation, coal is also the cheapest and most feasible option available. Coal has historically been a cost-effective energy source for India, as the country has already invested heavily in coal mining infrastructure and power generation facilities, which brings down the overall cost of producing electricity along with supporting employment and economic growth in coal-dependent regions as well as. The think tank, iFOREST recently released a report that estimates that the price tag for India shunning coal is somewhere around $900 Billion.
5.The point we are trying to drive home
The entire notion of development revolves around the idea of well-being. As simple as it sounds, well-being is actually a complex combination of a person's physical, mental, emotional and social health factors. It is strongly connected to being happy and satisfied in one's life. While happiness and satisfaction may vary from person to person, it is a given that the basic needs of life must be covered for an individual even to consider being in a state of well-being.
There are two concepts, or rather principles that are well known in climate circles - “Just Transition '' and “Common But Differentiated Responsibility and Respective Capabilities (CBDR-RC). Although they exist, they don’t seem to have a foothold on the negotiations that happen. Outlined in UNFCCC is the principle of (CBDR-RC) and it acknowledges the existing disparities between countries and historical environmental degradation. It was reflecting on CBDR-RC that the convention divided countries into Annex I and non Annex I so that countries that are better off economically can take more responsibility and step up while the other countries do what is possible per their capabilities. This approach should be the cornerstone in all climate negotiations as it gives the developing countries some leeway to catch up with development while the annex I countries lead the way in climate efforts.
Just Transition pushes the idea that in our flight against climate change, nobody should be left behind. The world is not a level playing ground which means countries and communities across the world operate differently, at different paces on different things and nobody should be forced to trade their national goals and developmental pursuits in this fight. The International Labor Organisation (ILO) defines Just Transition as, “Greening the economy in a way that is as fair and inclusive as possible to everyone concerned, creating decent work opportunities and leaving no one behind.” This concept combined with the principle of CBDR-RC should be the guiding principle in all efforts combating climate change.
6.The way forward
While there might not be a single solution or alternative to replace coal entirely, a combination of measures can substantially reduce India's reliance on coal and pave the way for a greener energy landscape. These measures require the backing of a long-term transition plan, with a special focus on sturdy investments, lasting partnerships, and a steadfast commitment to the goal.
6.1Making coal more efficient and clean
The government should invest in the identification and development of cleaner coal technologies that improve efficiency and reduce emissions. This could include collaborations with research institutions, universities, and private companies to explore cutting-edge technologies. Examples of such cleaner methods of dealing with coal include setting up HELE (High Efficiency Low Emission) plants and IGCC (Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle).
6.2Public Private Partnerships
This could also mean forming public-private partnerships between the government and private companies in the coal industry to jointly invest in clean coal technologies. These partnerships can share the financial burden and technical expertise required for the successful implementation. This could also lead to the creation of green hubs and companies that work in the field of green energy and climate science. For instance, in India, the Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI), a public sector undertaking, has collaborated with private companies to set up solar parks and other renewable energy projects. These partnerships have helped increase the share of renewable energy in the country's energy mix, reducing the dependence on coal. The Kochi International Airport is one such success story as it is the world’s first solar powered airport and India's first airport that was built under the PPP model.
Public-private partnerships are essential drivers in the phasing down of coal and the promotion of sustainable energy alternatives. By leveraging the strengths of both the sectors, these collaborations create synergies, efficiently mobilize resources, and accelerate the adoption of cleaner and more sustainable energy sources. This further paves the way for innovation within a more environmentally responsible future. For example, in Germany, partnerships between energy companies and the government have facilitated the integration of renewable energy into the grid, enabling more efficient and reliable power distribution. This was one of the first instances of renewable energy sources being channeled into the main electricity grid.
6.3Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)
By implementing CCS technology, power plants can significantly reduce their carbon emissions and their contribution to climate change. It would allow India to continue using coal as an energy source while effectively preventing a large amount of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere. Although this technology is still in a very nascent stage, the long-term potential of it can not and should not be overlooked. CCS is not the sole solution but an important player in the long-term reduction of overall emissions. A simple working of CCS is mentioned below -
Capture: During the combustion of coal to produce electricity in power plants, carbon dioxide (CO2) is released into the atmosphere. CCS technology captures this CO2 before it is emitted into the air.
Transport: Once captured, the CO2 is transported to a storage site. This transportation can be done using pipelines or ships, depending on the distance between the capture facility and the storage location.
Storage: The CO2 is then stored deep underground in geological formations, such as depleted oil and gas fields or saline aquifers. These natural formations securely trap the CO2, preventing it from entering the atmosphere.
6.4Heavy investment on green energy, innovative technology
Apart from direct investments made in companies and technologies, the government could make tax deductions and other financial incentives for start-ups and other companies working in the field of clean energy and climate solutions. This could be in the form of fueling in-house research and development in carbon capture, climate science, green energy, and storage technologies.
India is the world's most populous country, with a growing economy and a rising energy demand. Coal has been a significant energy source in India, meeting approximately 70% of its electricity needs. It is crucial in providing affordable and reliable power to industries, businesses, and households, especially in areas with limited access to other energy sources. In a nutshell, coal enables people in certain regions to even dream of electricity. At the same time, electricity facilitates almost all basic needs of a human being today, directly contributing to an individual's well-being. The summation of several individuals' well-being contributes to the development of a region, and the development of many such regions accounts for the development of a nation. And it all starts from coal for a majority of India. To put it simply, coal is king in India and it will likely remain so until we find cleaner and more sustainable alternatives that can also take the load that the coal industry in India is currently bearing.
This paper is not an attempt to support the expansion of coal or preach that coal is the way forward for India. The authors are merely trying to put things in perspective and lay out the intricacies of climate negotiations, India’s relationship with coal and its energy needs.
Meet The Thought Leader
Laboni Singh is a mentor at GGI and is currently working at The Bridgespan Group as an Associate Consultant. She takes keen interest in socioeconomic development issues, public policy, and equity across different vectors of gender, caste, class, and ability, which in turn fuelled her transition from working at a global bank to the social sector. She is an Urban Fellow from the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore and has a bachelor's degree in Economics from St. Stephen's College, University of Delhi.
Meet The Authors (GGI Fellows)
Sankalp is a recent development graduate from Azim Premji University with a background in journalism and marketing. Prior to this, he worked with KPMG in the communications wing and created communication material for Swachh Bharat Mission Urban. He has a keen interest in climate action, mountain development, disaster management and sustainability.
Janani is a fellow at the Antara foundation. She has a background in Journalism and recently graduated from Azim Premji University with a masters in Development. Prior to this, she has freelanced as a content writer for digital marketing firms. She also briefly worked at Warhorse Innovations, an ed-tech start-up that focussed on gamified learning as a content writer and training assistant. She is interested in climate action, sustainability and livelihoods.
If you are interested in applying to GGI's Impact Fellowship program, you can access our application link here.
1.Climate Change - Climate change refers to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns. Such shifts can be natural, due to changes in the sun’s activity or large volcanic eruptions. But since the 1800s, human activities have been the main driver of climate change, primarily due to the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. Burning fossil fuels generates greenhouse gas emissions that act like a blanket wrapped around the Earth, trapping the sun’s heat and raising temperatures. (Source : UN)
2.COP (Conference of Parties) - COP is the main decision making body of the United Nations Framework of Climate Change Convention. All nations that are parties to the convention are represented at these conferences that happen every year.
3.UNFCCC - The United Nations Framework on CLimate Change Convention (UNFCCC) is an international environmental treaty that came into force in 1994 and has a near universal membership. Preventing dangerous human interference with climate systems is the ultimate aim of the UNFCCC (Source- https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/what-is-the-united-nations-framework-convention-on-climate-change )
4.Carbon Credit - Put simply, this means that a particular country has not exhausted its fair share of the carbon budget and hence has some amount of emissions left in its basket.
5.Fair Share Metric - Fair share metric is an approach that aims to determine each country's equitable responsibility for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It is calculated by dividing the percentage population of a country with the available carbon budget.
6.Carbon Budget - This refers to the maximum amount of greenhouse gasses that can be put into the atmosphere for a given rise in temperature (1.5 or 2 degrees). Depending on the threshold of temperature the budget might differ.
7.GtCO2 - It is the unit that is most commonly used to measure emissions and it is abbreviated as Giga Tonnes Carbon dioxide.
8.Anthropogenic Emissions - Emissions that are caused as a result of human activity. Such emissions have been the driving force of climate change.
9.Emissions - Release of GreenHouse gasses into the atmosphere (GreenHouse gasses include Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4), Nitrous Oxide (N2O) and many other industrial pollutants)
10.Net Zero - Net Zero is a state where the total amount of gasses put into the atmosphere is balanced by the amount removed or offset. That essentially means that there is a net zero of emissions done as the emissions and captures nullify each other.
11.IGCC - An integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) is a technology using a high pressure gasifier to turn coal and other carbon based fuels into pressurized gas—synthesis gas (syngas). It can then remove impurities from the syngas prior to the electricity generation cycle.
12.HELE Plant - HELE stands for High Efficiency, Low Emissions. It's still a coal-fired plant – but to generate the same amount of electricity as a traditional plant, a HELE plant will burn less coal, emit less carbon dioxide and release less pollutants, giving it a smaller environmental footprint.
13.Carbon capture - Carbon Capture is the technology which makes capturing the carbon from the atmosphere possible. The carbon captured can be stored and used for other purposes.