Monday, August 13, 2018



The black hole of coal
India shows how hard it is to move beyond fossil fuels towards a renewable future

DARKNESS is falling as coal starts its long, lawless journey from the pit. The first signs are the cycle-pushing foot-soldiers, such as Ravi Kumar, a 26-year-old whose yellow shirt and grey turban are as coal-smudged as his face and hands. Using his bike like a wheelbarrow, he strains uphill with his back bent, then coasts down with one sandalled foot on the pedal, the other scuffing the tarmac as a brake. The bike is laden with half-a-dozen sacks of coal, pilfered from a nearby mine.

There are hundreds of other small-time thieves like him, he says nervously, supplementing their income on a Sunday evening by fanning out to sell bike-loads of coal to owners of iron works and brick kilns, and tea brewers. Coal-fed braziers and stoves flicker by the side of the road, black smoke pouring out. An Indian Dickens would be scribbling furiously.

Then there are the coal lorries-the heavy artillery. They gather at the edge of a nearby village, 140 of them squeezed along the roadside, ready to trundle off for the nightlong journey to Hazaribagh, the biggest city in this part of Jharkhand state.

Across eastern India, which sits on the country's largest coal reserves, this ragtag army sets out at dusk to feed the furnaces, fill the railway wagons, and fuel the power stations that get India's economy moving.

It is the same across much of Asia, where coal consumption grew by 34% a year from 2006 to 2016, accounting for almost three-quarters of the world's demand for the most polluting fossil fuel.

Last year, just as Western banks and global development agencies were shunning coal projects on environmental grounds, India, the world's second-biggest burner after China, consumed an additional 27m tonnes, a rise of 4.8%. That led to the first increase in global coal consumption in four years, says bp, an oil company. Demand in China also picked up slightly, and there were big increases from Bangladesh and Pakistan to the Philippines and South Korea. Such is the supply and demand that prices for thermal coal, the type used for generating electricity, are at their highest since 2012, and have more than doubled in the past two years.

The environmental implications of this resurgence are deeply troubling. Asia accounts for more than half of the 9m pollution-related fatalities recorded in 2015, according to a recent study for the Lancet, a medical journal. India's 2.5m deaths is by far the biggest share. Coal is the main culprit. It is also a wrecker of the climate. Coal's comeback helps explain why 2017 was the first year in four that global emissions of carbon dioxide have risen, thwarting the planet-wide effort, accelerated by the Paris summit in 2015, to control climate change, BP notes that coal's share of global electricity generation—by far the largest source at 38% - has not shrunk in over 20 years, despite the rise of gas and renewable energy.

No country is likely to contribute more to the growth in energy demand over the next two decades than India, says the International Energy Agency (IEA), a global forecaster. When India submitted plans for climate-change actions at the Paris summit, it predicted that its electricity demand would triple between 2012 and 2030. If coal meets much of the growing appetite for power, as the iea expects it will, no country will contribute more to the rise in carbon emissions.

India has plans for alternative means of generating electricity. Even before the Paris summit, Narendra Modi, the prime minister, aimed to install 175 gigawatts (GW) of renewable-energy capacity by 2022, a vast M increase from today. That has now risen 227GW. In the meantime, price of wind and solar power have tumbled. Recent auctions have left to a 50% drop in the cost of solar power in the past two years, to about three rupees ($0.05) per kilowatt hour, about the same as wind. This can make both sources cheaper than building new coal-fired Capacity. An excise tax on production and Imports makes coal ever less attractive. After a massive spree of building coal-fired power plants in recent years, investment slumped last year, while that in alternatives surged.

It is one thing to recognise the imperative for reducing coal in a country's energy mix. It is another to consider the ramifications of shifting from a cheap source of fuel native to India. A swing through coal country provides a sobering illustration of how hard it is to wean a country off fossil fuels. The first thing you notice, however obvious, is that coal is grimy. It cakes roadsides and blackens rivers and lungs with soot.

Although coal is horribly filthy, India is utterly dependent on it. It generates more than three-quarters of the country's electricity. Mining it and turning it into power accounts for a tenth of India's industrial production. It provides jobs as well as power. Coal India, a state-owned coal miner that is the world's largest, employs, at last count, 370,000 people, and there are up to 500,000 working in the coal industry at large. Far from reining in production, Coal India plans to increase it, from 560m tonnes in 2017 to lbn tonnes by 2020. The government's target for national production is 1.3bn-1.9bn tonnes by 2030.


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