The recent Supreme Court judgement on coal blocks is an opportunity for India to reduce global warming by shifting focus away from coal energy and revving up renewable energy production

One of the several coal mines at Talcher in Orissa. (Image by Anannya Deb)

Coal mining at Talcher coalfield in Orissa, that has 38.65 billion tonnes of coal reserves, the highest in India (Image by Anannya Deb)

India should seize on the Supreme Court’s decision to cancel allotment of coal blocks for mining as a golden chance to revamp its energy sector and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, analysts say.

Observing that the allotment was ad-hoc, casual and flawed, India’s apex court In September cancelled 214 of 218 coal blocks allotted between 1993 and 2010 for mining.

Coal accounts for 60% of India’s electricity generation, according to estimates. Indian planners have consistently argued that coal will continue to be the mainstay of India’s energy strategy and security — given that one-third of rural households are still without access to electricity and keeping in mind the growing gap between energy demand and supply and the vast coal reserves in the country.

Following the Supreme Court judgement, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a meeting of 11 chief executives of top US firm during his visit to the US that India would use the verdict as an “opportunity to move forward and clean up the past.”

While most analysts in India have used the judgement to turn the lens on procedural and technological lacunae in India’s coal mining and production processes, especially the high inefficiency of production, others see it as a chance to make concerted efforts to rev up renewable energy production and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

“The recent Supreme Court ruling on coal blocks and the plethora of global reports on climate change, coal power and renewable energy, should hasten our march towards renewable energy economy by 2030 or 2040,” said Shankar Sharma, a power policy analyst based in Mysore in the southern state of Karnataka.

Sharma cited a 2011 report by the Pune-based NGO Prayas Energy Group, which estimates that there are more than 580,000 megawatt (MW) capacity coal power plants waiting to be built in the coming years; this is more than 4.7 times the 2011 coal power capacity of 121,600 MW.  “With about 75% of India’s electricity coming from coal power in the future, it should not be hard to imagine the vast increase in greenhouse gas emissions in the country if this humongous amount of coal power capacity is to be added,” he said.

He also cited an International Energy Agency (IEA) report, which says that the world has to leave two-thirds of the known reserves of coal, oil and gas underground for a 50-50 chance of keeping rise in global temperatures below two degrees Celsius by the end of the century. For an 80% chance, the world would need to leave 80% of the fossil fuel reserves untouched. “So the hypocrisy of making tall claims on measures to mitigate global warming on one hand and the patronising the coal power sector on the other hand should become clear,” Sharma said.

The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), too, advocates a shift away from over-reliance on coal to renewables to keep global warming under check.

Coal has, in recent years, been at the centre of a heated debate on striking a balance between meeting growing energy demands and reducing greenhouse gas emissions to stem global warming. The spotlight is particularly on the two emerging economies, China and India, besides Poland for their heavily coal-dependent energy strategies.

According to a 2014 IEA report, for example, coal demand will grow at an average rate of 2.3% per year through 2018. The actual growth rate between 2007 and 2012 was 3.4%.

IEA’s ‘Medium term Coal market report 2013’ says that China will account for nearly 60% of new global demand over the next five years and India will rival China as the top importer in the next five years.

A 2012 World Resources Institute (WRI) report also estimates that China and India together account for 76% of the 1,199 new coal-fired plants, with a total installed capacity of 1,401,278 MW, which are being proposed across 59 countries.

Proponents of coal cite the lower costs of production of energy compared to renewables as a justifiable reason for its continued and growing use. But the use of coal also comes with enormous cost to the environment in general and global warming in particular, besides health impacts, critics point out.

There are other hidden economic costs. These include India’s dependency on coal imports to meet its energy demand and the gross inefficiency of production. The losses involved in coal burning, steam making, generating, transmitting and distributing electricity with the technologies being used in the country is very high and only about 20% of coal energy can reach the end consumer in the form of electricity even with the best technologies, said Sharma.

Several NGOs have highlighted the role of coal in global warming. Coal-fired power plants are the biggest source of manmade carbon dioxide emissions, making coal energy the single greatest threat the climate faces, according to the international NGO Greenpeace International.

The US-based David Suzuki Foundation says, “Just one 150-megawatt coal-fired power plant can produce more than a million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year. That’s about the same as 200,000 cars produce.”

Coal mining directly releases methane, which has a global warming potential 23 times higher than carbon dioxide, and persists in the atmosphere for 12-17 years, particularly from underground mines, says the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, US.

A WRI analysis also shows that, as with most energy sources, coal-related industries, including mining, coal-to-chemicals, and power generation, are extremely water intensive. Coal mines depend on water to extract, wash, and process coal, while coal-burning power plants need water to create steam and for cooling.

A study in India by a team led by Sarat Guttikonda of the Desert Research Institute, US, and published in the journal Atmospheric Environment in May 2014, shows the following — in 2010-11, 111 coal-fired plants with an installed capacity of 121 GigaWatts consumed 503 million tonnes of coal and spewed an estimated 580 kilotons of soot or tiny particles of less than 2.5 micrometres, 2,100 kilotons of sulphur dioxide, 2,000 kilotons of nitrogen oxides, 1,100 kilotons of carbon monoxide, 100 kilotons of volatile organic compounds and 665 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

These emissions resulted in an estimated 80,000 to 115,000 premature deaths and 20 million asthma cases from exposure to particulates less than 2.5 micrometres

India should opt for a low-carbon inclusive growth model of economy, and “pick the low hanging fruit for co-benefits”, believes Sudhir Chella Rajan, professor at the department of humanities and social sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, and coordinator of Indo-German Centre for Sustainability.

India’s strategy for low-carbon inclusive growth should include a mix of investing in low-cost renewable energy options such as wind, biomass and mini-hydro, he told a recent workshop on climate change and sustainable development organised by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. The country should also make efforts to disseminate small-scale decentralised solar photovoltaic systems, particularly to areas remote from grid access, Rajan added.

It would provide tremendous environmental and social co-benefits, including reduced pollution and associated health impacts, improved livelihoods from small-scale manufacturing and services associated with renewable energy industries, and reductions in imports of fossil fuels,” he said.

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