How to loosen India’s grip on coal without abandoning the millions of people who depend on it

India must move away from coal while not leaving millions of people in mining areas worse off.

India is the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases and its transition to a low-carbon economy is crucial to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement. But sadly, the nation still clings firmly to coal.

Our new research examined this problem, drawing on a case study in Angul District, India’s largest coal reserve in the eastern state of Odisha.

We have found three main factors that are slowing the energy transition: strong political and community support for coal, a lack of alternative economic activities and strong links between coal and other industries such as rail.

India must move away from coal, while maintaining economic growth and not leaving millions of people in mining areas worse off. Our research explores this nasty problem in detail and suggests ways forward.

Why India matters

India’s population will soon reach 1.4 billion and this decade it is expected to overtake China as the most populous nation in the world. This, combined with a young population, a growing economy and rapid urbanization, means that energy use in India has doubled since 2000.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that India will experience the greatest increase in energy demand of any country by 2040.

An affordable and reliable energy supply is essential for raising the country’s standard of living. A recent World Bank analysis found that up to 150 million people in India are poor.

Locals mine coal in Dhanbad, India. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Along with its massive dependence on coal, India has one of the most ambitious renewable energy plans in the world, including a target to quadruple renewable electricity capacity by 2030.

The IEA claims that coal accounts for around 70% of India’s electricity production. And as the country recovers from the coronavirus pandemic this year, the increase in coal-fired power generation is expected to be three times that from cleaner sources.

Coal production is expected to increase 4.6% per year until 2024, and coal is expected to remain a major emitter of greenhouse gases until 2040.

While India’s energy trajectory remains aligned with its commitments under the Paris Agreement, the speed and readiness of its transition remains a complex and divisive issue. The World Economic Forum’s 2021 energy transition index ranks India 87th out of 115 countries analyzed.

Bottlenecks in the transition

Our research involved visits to Angul district in Odisha in 2018 and 2019, where we conducted focus groups and interviews. Angul is home to 11 coal mines.

We have found three critical bottlenecks to the energy transition, which arguably exist in India’s other coal belts and could derail the country’s decarbonization efforts.

First, the Odisha government has always been very pro-business. Politicians from all walks of life support coal mining and seek to position it as the region’s main economic lifeline.

The official position in favor of coal receives little backing from the residents of Angul, who largely ignore Odisha’s contribution to national greenhouse gas emissions. Any local opposition to coal usually stems from concerns about environmental degradation such as air, water and soil pollution.

Most of the people of Angul felt a deep connection to coal because their livelihood depends on it. One participant told us, “Even though all the water is polluted and five inches of dust settles on our well, we would prefer that mining continue because my family’s survival depends (on the contract with the mining company). .

Most participants viewed their farmland as an asset to sell to mining companies for a large sum. The money in turn would allow them to start a business, buy a car or organize a family wedding.

Second, the heavy reliance on coal means that efforts to diversify the region’s economy have been grossly overlooked.

In Angul, mining areas and dedicated coal railway lines crossing the rice fields mean that agricultural productivity has declined over time. Rural development programs have been short-lived, often set within six months of the election deadline, then modified or abandoned.

An Indian street vendor cooks food on a charcoal fire. (photo: Pxfuel)

Skills development programs in occupations other than coal have also been limited. This lack of viable alternatives implicitly generates local support for charcoal.

And third, a series of industries in Odisha – such as steel, cement, fertilizers, and bauxite – depend on cheap coal for electricity. This is reflected across India, where coal has strong ties to other industries in a way not seen elsewhere.

For example, in 2016, Indian railways earned 44% of their freight revenue from transporting coal.

Indian Railways is India’s largest employer and revenues from coal help keep passenger fares low. So, in this way, a possible phase-out of coal in India would have far-reaching effects.

The path to follow

We offer these ways to ensure a regular and fair energy transition in India:

  • India must help its coal regions to diversify their economic activities
  • bipartisan support for a coal-free India is needed. Transition champions like Germany can show India leaders the way
  • a national energy transition working group should be set up. It should include representatives from across industry and academia, as well as climate policy makers and local organizations.
  • India’s coal regions are endowed with metals necessary for energy transition, including iron ore, bauxite and manganese. With improved regulatory standards, these offer economical alternatives to coal
  • concerns about the phasing out of coal in coal-mining communities must be dealt with fairly and in a timely manner.

The world’s emerging economies are responsible for two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions. India’s energy transition, if carried out well, could show the way for other developing countries.

But as new industrial sectors emerge and clean energy jobs expand, India must ensure that those in coal-dependent regions are not left behind.

This article was written by Vigya Sharma, senior researcher at the Sustainable Minerals Institute at the University of Queensland; Chris Greig, professor at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University; and Paul Lant, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Queensland. It is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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