Unbundling the coal-climate equation

Ahead of the Paris climate summit, India announced on October 2 its INDCs for climate change mitigation and adaptation. While this commitment has drawn fulsome praise from many, the green ayatollahs have predictably ignored its herculean clean energy ambitions and focused on Indian dependence on coal. It is time to lay bare the 'coal hypocrisy' of these privileged 'western greens'.

Ahead of the Paris climate summit, India announced on October 2 its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) for climate change mitigation and adaptation. India intends to reduce its carbon emissions intensity by 33-35 per cent by 2030, from its 2005 levels. While this commitment has drawn fulsome praise from many, the green ayatollahs have predictably ignored its herculean clean energy ambitions and focussed on Indian dependence on coal. It is time to lay bare the ‘coal hypocrisy’ of these privileged ‘western greens’.

India’s total energy consumption is a fraction of that of China, the U.S., the European Union and the OECD. Its position at the climate change negotiations has continued to reflect the centrality of access to energy for human development. And India’s normative position is supported by data, such as the positive correlation between energy access and the Human Development Index (HDI).

Lifeline energy

While a number of estimates exist on how much energy is needed to meet development objectives (we call it ‘lifeline energy’), an interesting benchmark is that of the 2000-Watt (W) society, based on a Swiss research group’s findings. The research states that 2000-W per capita is a basic level of energy which accounts for housing, mobility, food, consumption (manufactured goods) and infrastructure. In a forthcoming paper for the European Council on Foreign Relations, we argue that if the ‘space’ allocated to India for coal consumption towards fulfilling lifeline energy needs is even nominally equitable, India does not have to compromise on its development and growth aspirations.

On an average, U.S. citizens consume nearly the full extent of this lifeline energy benchmark using coal, the ‘dirty fuel’. India consumes only 19 per cent of the benchmark through coal. In fact, citizens of OECD countries get a much larger proportion of their energy needs relative to the 2000-W benchmark from coal than non-OECD countries.

It is important to note that in 2014, the average Indian accounted for around 20 per cent of the average American’s coal consumption and around 34 per cent of those from the OECD. What has caused concern in the developed world is that while they have reduced per capita coal consumption relative to pre-financial crisis levels, India has increased consumption over the same period. In our analysis, we point out that just as reduced coal consumption of developed countries following the crisis does not necessarily reflect a greater degree of ‘responsibility’ towards the climate, the increase in consumption by India does not reflect ‘irresponsibility’.

This is better explained by two key trends, visible after the crisis. One, while developed countries have been cutting down energy consumption as a whole, developing countries have been increasing consumption, albeit at a gradually declining pace. Two, while developed countries have been cutting coal consumption faster than primary energy consumption, developing countries have increased coal consumption faster than primary energy consumption. Clearly then, industrial consumption (manufacturing and jobs) is very much part of the lifeline consumption matrix for developing countries.

Growth-development link

Many financial institutions such as the U.S. Exim Bank have stopped funding coal-based power generation projects. The World Bank also seems to be following in this direction even though coal consumption has been increasing in developing countries and coal-based energy remains the most practical option of scale. This tendency isolates economic growth from lifeline energy and skirts the central goal of development within growth.

India is neither in the same basket of per capita coal consumption as developed countries nor comparable to China. In fact, we have shown that India will meet a larger proportion of the 2000-W benchmark through ‘clean’ fuels than developed countries. Therefore, there is enough room for India to grow its coal consumption while continuing to accelerate its renewable energy thrust. And this is precisely what the Indian INDCs reflect.

India has set a target of renewable energy capacity of 175 gigawatts by 2022; and has promised to achieve 63 GW of nuclear energy if “supply of fuels is ensured”. It will be among a handful of countries to source a large proportion of its lifeline energy needs from non-conventional sources, across the developing and developed worlds.

It is worth emphasising that unlike developed countries that have already peaked their energy consumption, India must first strive to provide the 2000-W per capita lifeline energy to all, even as it seeks to clean this energy mix. India will continue to consume coal to grow its industrial base, improve HDI and develop its economy. This in turn will allow it the financial capacity to invest heavily in non-conventional sources. The Indian INDCs reflect this enduring paradox; India will need to grow its coal capacity if it is to successfully go green.

Developed countries such as those within the EU want to reduce their emissions to two tonnes per capita by 2050; which will in turn reflect the total carbon ‘space’ available per capita if the world is to limit global warming to manageable levels. While the road to Paris is paved with such good intentions, it is essential that each person on this planet begins to move towards an equitable carbon profile. This has two clear implications.

First, large developing countries such as India must invest in renewable energy benchmarks that match developed countries. Second, developed countries must pare down per capita coal consumptions to levels which would match India’s lifeline consumption through coal in the future.

Simply put, every time a new coal plant comes up in India, one should be shut down in the OECD. If coal use can be substituted by clean sources, then millions of tonnes of coal capacity in EU and the U.S. are low hanging fruits. India uses coal to satisfy less than a fifth of its potential lifeline energy needs, while OECD countries use this ‘nasty’ fuel to satisfy two-thirds of theirs. It is time to meet in the middle. No, we are not suggesting historic responsibility; only the one we jointly shoulder for tomorrow.

(Samir Saran is Vice-President and Vivan Sharan is Visiting Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, India)

Courtesy: The Hindu, October 7, 2015




Samir Saran

Vivan Sharan