November 14, 2022 - Far from the phase-down of coal that COP26 called for in Glasgow, it is a pronounced phase-up that the world has seen this year. The large disruption of conventional energy supplies by the Ukraine war has sent Germany reviving coal-fired plants and China mining record volumes. Now midway through COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, India has proposed that the decision text should call for phasing down all fossil fuels rather than making a villain out of only coal. This position follows from two factors. First, natural gas and oil do contribute to GHG emissions as well so don’t whitewash them. Second, India does keep being targeted for heavy coal reliance for its energy needs. And this targeting is hypocritical and unjust.
Rich countries have fallen horribly short of their commitments to help developing countries make a just-transition from fossil fuels. Their historical emission contributions aside, look at the place from where these countries are asking India to clean up: US energy use per capita is 6,804 kg of oil equivalent compared to India’s 637 kg. Of course, India is making significant investments in renewables. But geopolitical disruptions, growing summers and also welcome reductions in poverty mean such new demands that our energy security remains dependent on coal. Hastening us along the change path should be done via more finance and technology support.
India also has to navigate an internal just-transition challenge as 85% of coal production is concentrated in the relatively poor eastern and central states, while over 60% of renewable energy potential and 80% of current capacity is concentrated in relatively wealthy southern and western states. When the political economy has to transition millions of livelihoods, blunt-force approaches are near unaffordable.
At the same time, regular accidents that show open-cast mines to be death traps also show that cleaning up coal is very much in workers’ interests. It is also in everyone else’s interest, given both the sickening smog hovering over northern India right now and global carbon emissions from fossil fuels expected to hit a record level this year. Thus, even if coal has to keep playing an important role in India until at least 2040, it must not be business as usual. Instead, cleaner technologies must be harnessed in extracting and deploying it. And India should put hard timelines to such transitions.