The Pulse | Environment | South Asia

Amid Climate Strikes, Indian Protesters Ask: ‘What About the Coal?’

How can India wean itself off its reliance on fossil fuels—particularly coal?

By Vishal Yashoda for
Amid Climate Strikes, Indian Protesters Ask: ‘What About the Coal?’
Credit: Rajesh Prabhakar

MUMBAI, India – As the week-long global climate strikes led by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg concluded leading to millions marching to the streets worldwide and seeking stricter environmental friendly policies including decarbonization, Indian climate protesters marched to call for a reduction in investments in fossil fuel-based projects.

The marchers, particularly in India’s political and financial capitals of New Delhi and Mumbai, demanded the reduction of India’s high-carbon economy relying on coal-fired plants and instead called for a focus on renewable sources of energy, in accordance with India’s commitment to the Paris Accords.

Thinley Choedon, one of the marchers and a Mumbai-based Tibetan student, stressed the demand that both India and China separate politics and focus on the urgency of climate change, which was wreaking havoc in the Himalayan region, leading to melting glaciers.

“Whatever is happening with regards to coal-fired projects and melting glaciers in Tibet will have implications across South Asia and eventually the entire world due to rising oceans,” Choedon said, adding that the effects of climate change were not limited by borders or politics.

Protesting in Mumbai’s western suburbs marred by under-construction buildings and overhead cranes, Choedon further warned the perils of India-China geopolitical conflict.

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Choedon says while India and China clash over Tibet, building dams across Brahmaputra and Sutlej rivers will lead to “catastrophic climate change implications for the region in the near future.”

While Climate protests took place countrywide cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai, and tech-capital Bangalore, which witness regular heatwaves, frothing lakes, and flooding as man-made pollution magnifies the already-exacerbated problem, leading to climate migration from India’s rural hinterlands onto them, particularly drew large crowds.

For Subham Kar Chowdhury from Extinction Rebellion, India’s vulnerability to rising temperatures and oceans is a cause of worry. Amid a climate protest flanked by young students and wearing a green mask, Chowdhury says India should declare a climate emergency and that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his state-level chieftains must enable policies to protect the environment.

“Coal is the most massive problem that India needs to address and we are contributing to a large-scale of the global climate change problem. The first step is to declare a climate emergency,” Chowdhury adds, outlining how weeklong protests will conclude early October with a grotesque display of dead animal masks to highlight the devastating impacts of the climate crisis.

Under the 2015 Paris agreement, signed by 186 countries in 2015, countries promised to keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2-degrees Celsius, above pre-industrial levels and to limit the increase to 1.5-degree Celsius.

Keeping this in focus, both the state-level Gujarat and Chhattisgarh governments have announced that they are not building any new coal power plants. The latter contains India’s third-largest coal reserves, making it cheaper to produce coal-fired electricity.

Amid Thunberg’s thundering speech at Climate Action Summit 2019, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, told United Nations that India’s policy on climate change was guided by “need and not greed.” He also announced increasing New Delhi’s goals to increase its renewable energy target to 450 gigawatts from the present 175 gigawatts by 2022.

“Over four million people from 160 countries joined 5800 strikes but despite this, environmental activism still remains the most deadly and dangerous form of activism globally, with activists facing violence, restrictive laws, and disinformation campaigns,” Lyndal Rowlands from civil society organization CIVICUS said.

But, the on-ground realities are starkly different, and with economic implications for India’s energy security.

India’s Coal Problem

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As per the Global Coal Finance Tracker, India receives investment for 11,160 megawatts of coal-based projects funded by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), Nippon Export and Investment Insurance (NEXI), Euler Hermes and China Development Bank. This financing is aimed at the Kudgi thermal project, the Tiroda thermal power project, and the Meja supercritical coal-fired power plant.

In addition, India has reported a staggering increase in coal-dependency since 2007, according to data from Global Coal Tracker. In 2006, India’s coal plants had a capacity generation of 72,586 megawatts. By 2018, this capacity had increased to 220,670 megawatts.

In 2016, India’s then power minister Piyush Goyal announced that Asia’s third-largest economy could not stop using fossil fuels completely from its energy basket due to its development imperatives. Come 2019 and India’s annual coal demand rose 9.1 percent for the year ending March and coal consumption rose by 6.6 percent, as per coal minister Prahlad Joshi.

As per data for the period ending July 2019, India still has 871 operating coal-fired units with a capacity of 225,636 megawatts.

So, despite rapidly expanding its energy basket in the period between 2016-2019 by building solar-powered plants and incentivizing renewables, Asia’s third-largest economy still is struggling with fossil fuels. For over 86 percent of its energy needs, India depends on imports from the Middle East including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Russia, and the list also included Iran and Venezuela, prior to the U.S.-led sanctions against both countries.

These imports affect India’s fiscal bill and global fluctuations in oil prices send the country’s current account deficit ballooning, which cyclically also affects inflation. Therefore, India’s coal problem is closely linked to its energy security, economic growth, and inflationary pressures as well.

Recently, after witnessing a cyclical slowdown in its economic growth down to five percent, India approved 100 percent foreign direct investment (FDI) into coal mining stating the decision would boost employment for the youth and make the country a manufacturing hub.

But, experts believe the decision is ten-years late and can have environmental implications if safeguards are not met.

“FDI in coal would be a game-changer if it happened ten years back but now it is a tad too late. Many investors are pulling out of coal and it will not change the way India consumes coal,” Karthik Ganesan from Council on Energy, Environment, and Water (CEEW) said.

“What matters to India is, are environmental safeguards with regards to coal mining met?” Ganesan adds.

India’s Focus on Climate

Modeled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), India announced conducting a national review to determine the impact of a warming climate on the subcontinent. It will be done by India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) and published every five-six years, local reports say.

But, India’s huge tranches of coal reserves, pegged to be at 87 billion metric tonnes (Gt) have resulted in the south Asian nation being heavily dependent on it, with coal-fired plants, oil refineries wreaking havoc across different parts of the country.

India’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC’s) to the Paris Accords include a pledge to reduce the overall emissions intensity of its economy 33-35 percent on 2005 levels by 2030, according to Carbon Brief. A report in the publication notes how India’s planned coal plants could single-handedly jeopardize the 1.5 degree Celsius target.

Emissions Debt

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Environmentalist Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org said India is spending unnecessary money setting up an outmoded infrastructure by allowing oil refineries and coal-fired power plants.

“It’s so sad to see any new fossil fuel work going on in India because we’re right at the tipping point economically–sun and wind are cheaper sources of power already and over the next decade or two will grow cheaper”, McKibben, author of The End of Nature, a 1984 book on climate change, told The Diplomat.

Meanwhile, as climate protests gather steam worldwide, Filipino climate striker Mitzi Tan said: “Greta Thunberg’s activism has sparked a massive youth-led collective movement that, if backed by a united and clear goal can lead to sustainable and long-term changes.”

Amid Modi’s #HowdyMody event in the United States, with U.S. President Donald Trump, McKibben says “America is going backward and will be doing so as long as Trump is in office, but China and European Union are making progress.”

“If coal was the only available option, it would be a tragedy between the energy needs of people versus their need for a livable planet. But since renewables can now compete on cost, it need not be a tragedy, if India goes on building coal plants it will be a farce,” McKibben concludes.

And, as India’s coal workers went on a strike against the government’s FDI decision earlier this week, Modi announced around 80 countries had joined the International Solar Alliance, headlined by Asia’s third-largest economy.

“We need to stop coal-fired plants and fossil fuels right now to enable meaningful action. But, protesters need to understand power structures in the governments worldwide and how to engage with it,” Doreen Stabinsky, Professor of Global Environmental Politics, College of the Atlantic, said.

“Time for climate deniers is over as scientific facts are hard to ignore. Donald Trump is not the leader of the free world anymore and has undermined his office. The U.S. has put maximum carbon into the atmosphere and must pay emission debts and help countries transition to cleaner sources of energy,” Stabinsky concludes.

Vishal is a Climate Tracker South Asia Hub fellow.