Climate of Fear IX November 2014.

India is bound to be a big loser from global climate change. The air pollution in Delhi is worse than that in Beijing; sea-level rise could forcibly displace 37 million Indians by 2050, and water for farmers could be affected by accelerated melting of glaciers in the Himalayas or disruption of the monsoons. So, India has a deep interest in limiting climate change. However, India is also one of the principle forces causing climate change.[1]

Burning coal for generating electricity is central to India’s strategy for economic development. The country has huge coal deposits (the fifth largest in the world), but little oil or natural gas. Consequently, India launched a ten year plan for building coal-burning generating plants back in 2009. Generating capacity has already expanded by 73 percent. In 2013 India burned 565 million tons of coal. Most Indian coal has a high ash-content, so it pollutes more than do some other commonly used types of coal. This makes India the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. By 2019 the government plans to burn more than a billion tons a year. “India’s development imperatives cannot be sacrificed at the altar of potential climate changes many years in the future,” the government’s Minister of Power has asserted.

It will be difficult to argue that India should adjourn its plans for development. Three hundred million Indians have no electricity at all, and many more have it only in fits and starts. On a per-capita basis, Indians consume only one-fourteenth as much electricity as do Americans. In a country with hundreds of millions of people living in grotesque poverty, making do with less isn’t much of an option. Electricity powers industry and industry raises incomes.

India’s coal-fired industrialization effort alarms environmentalists elsewhere. “If India goes deeper and deeper into coal, we’re all doomed.” said one climate scientist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. There isn’t much ground for expecting push-back by Indian environmentalists. For the most part, Indians seem to accept both air pollution and the physical displacement of populations in the countryside to make space for more coal mines. The environmental movement in China seems to have more support behind it and, therefore, more influence with the government than is the case in India.

Nuclear power and solar generation offer alternative energy sources. A lot of Western India is cloudless for much of the year, so a lot of solar energy the ground. The government of Narendra Modi has said that it will launch a program of constructing solar-energy plants. Whether this can be carried forward fast enough and on a large enough scale to replace India’s reliance on coal is hard to tell.

So, that’s a problem. Still, China currently burns as much coal as every other country in the world combined. Can India’s coal-burning really pose more of a problem than does that of China?[2] The recent agreement between the United States and China called for China to cap its greenhouse gas emissions before 2030. The Chinese may continue to shovel on the coal until then, but they also might begin to shift from a reliance on coal to other energy sources. If that comes true, it will be a lot more significant for the climate than is India’s continuing development of coal. If the rest of the world moves in one direction, then India might find a way to follow. There’s a couple of big “Ifs” there. Still, the prospects look better than they did a little while ago.

[1] Gardiner Harris, “Coal Rush in India Could Tip Balance of Climate Change,” NYT, 18 November 2014.


[2] China produces 46 percent of the world’s coal and imports more; India produces 7.7 percent of the world’s coal, but has been developing its own reserves because of the cost of imports. See: “Climate of Fear IX.”

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