The Pulse | Environment | South Asia

How India Can Breathe Better: The Case Against Coal

India can’t get a grip on its air pollution crisis until it begins a true transition to renewable energy.

By Jenaina Irani for
How India Can Breathe Better: The Case Against Coal
Credit: Pixabay

At the final presidential debate for the 2020 U.S. elections on October 22, President Donald Trump stated that the air in India is filthy. He is not wrong; seven of the 10 most polluted cities in the world are in India. Indian citizens face the highest exposure to Fine Particulate Matter 2.5 of anywhere in the world. Air pollution was the cause of 1.2 million deaths in 2017 alone.

Continued government lip-service to clean energy at international and domestic forums has not yet come face to face with the ongoing realities of India’s air pollution crisis. It’s time to bridge that gap. The most impactful way the government can address this crisis is to proactively lower coal consumption in India’s energy mix and promote renewable energy as a reliable alternative.

India is slated to become the world’s most populous nation by 2027, and it will see an average increase of 6.5 percent in electricity demand over that same period. What does this mean for its primary electricity production source and a major cause of air pollution, i.e., coal? Presently, the Indian government still controls a majority of electricity production and has promised 100 percent electrification at affordable prices, while ensuring energy security, sustainability, and growth. Yet, 68 percent and 19 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions from India (the world’s third-largest emitter), come from the coal-powered energy and industry sectors, respectively. There are obvious inconsistencies in government rhetoric but it is clear that moving to zero-emission energy production is not realistic or prudent at this time.

Air pollution has many diverse contributors, but coal-fired energy plants have, excuse the pun, particulate notoriety. Coal has long been the most cost-effective way to develop India’s large population. The industry lifted millions out of poverty, provides income for India’s resource-heavy states, and fills the government coffers with billions in dividends. Fifty percent of the goods transported by the national railway system are coal-related, the revenue of which allows for subsidized passenger fares. However, the Indian people do end up bearing the cost ultimately. On average, particulate pollution in India is eight times the WHO’s standard, taking away 5.6 years from every life.

Economically, the costs of coal now outweigh the benefits. The industry is facing legitimate competition from the renewable sector for the first time. Wind and solar can generate power at 2.44 Indian rupees (4 U.S. cents) per kilowatt-hour, a price that coal-generated power is unable to match at 3 rupees. Subsidies play an important role, as they affect prices, investment, and consumption.  Fossil fuel subsidies are almost triple what is given to renewables. Yet, the latter source has already reached grid parity costs. If the government looks at efficiency, sustainability, and competitiveness between the energy sources, reforms would look different.

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Yet coal is still estimated to remain the primary energy source for India for at least 20 more years. This is despite the fact that 40.1 gigawatts of Indian coal plants are now “stranded assets,” over 40 power companies are defaulting on loans, and many state producers face major losses after using electricity subsidies to gain votes. Toxic mining effluents and non-compliance with emission regulations make India’s coal mines the world’s unhealthiest. Clearly, even the resources and lives lost to coal toxins cannot wish away the industry. Government reforms are severely needed to improve the industry’s efficiency, emissions, and ensure a non-disruptive way to reduce dependency and diversify.

Gujarat state’s cap-and-trade pilot program and its recent commitment to 30,000 MW of renewable energy by 2022 are indeed encouraging steps in the right direction. But Gujarat is also one of the country’s richest states and does not have vast natural coal reserves. Conversely, a state like Jharkhand is resource-rich and notoriously influenced by its coal mafia, which will surely fight attempted regulations. Progress is likely to be slow and lopsided. But with a majority in the lower and upper houses of Parliament, the Modi government could not be in a better position to establish a comprehensive national framework to influence the actions of states and industries.

Coal is increasingly environmentally and economically unviable as India’s primary energy source. Reducing pollution and its related costs are not just economically advantageous –  fulfilling promises for cleaner, more reliable energy would deliver a political win too. In doing so, the country has the chance to breathe a bit easier.

Jenaina Irani is a research consultant with the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders and a recent graduate of New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.