India’s coal ‘phase down’ call was all about climate justice

At Glasgow, the developed world looked keen to get rid of coal, but was silent on oil and gas. This precisely stoked India’s opposition to ‘phasing out’ the fossil fuel

coal, mine, mining
Even among the G-20 countries, India is the only one which is working at a pace required to meet the 2 degree C temperature control scenario. So coal or no coal, the developed nations need to look deep within before telling India what it should do. | Representational image

On the last day of the all-important climate summit at Glasgow on November 12, COP26 president Alok Sharma was in tears. He squarely blamed India and China for ‘watering down’ the Glasgow Pact by their opposition to ‘phasing out’ coal. “China and India will have to explain to climate-vulnerable countries why they did what they did,” said Sharma, expressing “deep frustration” at India’s stand.

Alok Sharma, a British politician, probably would never understand that India did not have a choice.

It appears that Union Environment Minister Bhupendra Yadav was in the forefront, suggesting that the wording of the agreement be changed from “phase out” coal to “phase down”. A school of thought believes India did not have to take such a strong stand on coal given the fact that we are already on course to meeting our renewables target for the decade, which would mean less dependence on coal. However, there is another belief that India can think beyond coal only after 2030, hoping that by that time new sources like hydrogen, which promises cheap and clean energy, become viable.

The Federal will look at four prominent and intricate subjects – renewable energy, coal, climate finance and adaptation – that were deliberated upon at the COP26 and give a perspective on each of them. This article looks at India’s stand on rooting out coal as a source of energy.



If coal is bad then so is gas

For records, the developed world labels coal (a fossil fuel) ONLY as the main reason for high CO2 emissions and the major cause for climate change. India, on the other hand, has argued that if coal needs to be phased out then so should oil and gas — two other prominent fossil fuels that are only comparatively cleaner than coal. The US and the European Union (EU) don’t agree mainly because they are largely dependent on gas and oil to meet their energy requirements. The US, in fact, has discovered large sources of shale gas, of late. As per one estimate, the United States produced some 37 billion cubic feet per day of shale gas in 2015. The country is projected to produce 80 billion cubic feet of gas per day in the next 20 years. There is evidence that shale gas exploration too has an environmental cost.

“The original COP document mentioned ‘phase out of coal’. The proposal did not mention other fossil fuels, like gas and oil, which are used extensively in developed countries and drive the economy of the middle-east. It is a fact that coal is the mainstay of energy systems in developing countries. So India’s original proposal said ‘phase out of all fossil fuels’, which is fair and more in sync with climate science. That was pushed back. So at the last moment India stuck to the term ‘phase down’ of coal,” said Priyadarshini Karve, national convener, Indian Network on Ethics and Climate Change (INECC), who has been closely associated with all the earlier COP summits.

“I don’t see what’s the fuss about phase out or phase down. What is important is that the Glasgow Pact did not set a time frame on ending coal usage. Also, if you analyse the Glasgow document in terms of real numbers, it doesn’t really matter what words we use here,” said Avantika Goswami, Deputy Program Manager, Climate Change and Renewable Energy, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi.

Even among the G-20 countries, India is the only one which is working at a pace required to meet the 2 degree C temperature control scenario. So coal or no coal, the developed nations need to look deep within before telling India what it should do.

What matters is global equity

A “phase down” would mean that India – the third highest polluter in the world – could still use coal and not commit to eradicating its use completely, which is being criticised in the western world. The million-dollar question is: Can India afford to phase out coal as yet?

In a country where 70% of electricity generation is still dependent on coal and where about 2% of the population (more than 2 crore people) still does not have access to electricity, it is difficult to give any commitment on removing coal from the system.

India can think of getting rid of coal only gradually and cannot be compared with the developed nations who have long back used the coal they wanted to (or even more) and have a historic responsibility towards emerging nations which are still at the cusp of development.

Also read: Glasgow climate deal isn’t perfect, but sets course for concrete action in future

“Without providing the requisite finance, and not grants, it is unfair on part of any developed country to expect India to migrate completely to renewables in the coming decade or so,” said Goswami.

“What matters is global equity or climate justice,” said Samrat Sengupta, programme director, Climate Change and Energy at the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi.

India’s methane dilemma

On the issue of ending fossil fuel subsidies too India faces a precarious situation. COP26 held detailed discussions on ending subsidies to fossil fuel companies, but India cannot blindly say ‘yes’ to such a move because it offers heavy subsidies on LPG cylinders to its below poverty line population and cannot end it abruptly, lest the population moves back to biomass based fuels like wood, which adds to deforestation and air pollution.

At Glasgow, the US initiated a methane pledge, with a collective commitment from more than 100 countries on cutting global methane emissions (a greenhouse gas) by at least 30 percent from 2020 levels by 2030. India stayed out of this deal as well because joining the pledge would mean a death knell for Indian agriculture. Cattle are considered a major sources of methane emission and India has a huge population of cows and buffaloes (35% of world population), which are not just useful source of milk protein and farm yard manure, but also considered sacred by a large majority. How can India commit to controlling methane emission then? Meanwhile, beef is heavily consumed in the US. Would Americans sacrifice their steak for a better environment?

India’s doing its bit, it is time for the world to imitate

As per Prime Minister Modi’s commitment at Glasgow, India will cut its carbon emission by 1 billion tons (1 Gt). As per one estimate, in a life-as-usual scenario, our carbon emissions by 2030 would reach 4.48 billion tonnes. But with the new commitment, our emissions in 2030 will be down to 3.48 billion tonnes. While India’s per capita CO2 emission in 2030 would be 2.31 tonnes that of the US will be 9.42 tonnes, EU 4.12 in 2030, the UK’s will be 2.7 tonnes and China’s would be around 8 tonnes per capita.

Also read: Effectively reducing methane in air can wind back global warming by 15 years

At the same time, India aims to install 552 GW renewable energy (solar, wind, nuclear) by 2030, which would be roughly 70% of all electricity generated in India. Contrast this with today’s 70% dependence on coal. (These calculations are based on the Central Electricity Authority’s Optimum Energy Mix report, which says that India’s power demand in 2029-30 will be 817 GW).

Of course, when it comes to optics, India’s stand on coal comes out as a bad diplomatic move. Since India is not the only country interested in the economics of coal, it could have done well to take a subdued position. South Africa, China and Australia must be happy that India took all the brickbats.

The bottom line is that India’s refusal to agree on “phasing out” coal should not be considered as “watering down” of the COP26 agreement.

India has made a commitment. Will the world follow?

PART I: India on path to meet renewable energy target in 2030, but hurdles remain