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India’s dilemma: cheap coal vs. public health

Coal Workers India

Coal workers in India. Creative Commons: Ben Beiske, 2011

Accelerating growth in India is spurring the country to look towards cheap coal for its electricity needs. But despite its price, the fuel contains dangers for India’s public health as well as adding to rising greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the International Energy Agency, coal prices are likely to stay low in the next five years. The agency forecasted that low prices are likely to increase demand for coal in India and other Asian countries.

China continues to be the world’s largest coal consumer, but escalating energy needs in India may cause the nation’s coal usage to jump. This could make India the world’s second largest consumer of coal, overtaking the United States.

In India, some 300 million people lack access to electricity, and coal presents one route to expanding energy access. India’s plan to ramp up its power generation through coal plants would triple its capacity to 450GW by 2030.

Such a rapid escalation of coal burning would make India’s famously polluted cities even worse and would incur a very real human cost.

Soot, mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides are released from burning coal, and these pollutants are associated with heart disease and severe respiratory illness. If India doesn’t establish stronger emissions regulations, the Conservation Action Trust warned that coal could kill upwards of 200,000 Indians by 2030.

Pushing for more coal power would also have dire impacts on the already changing climate. An upswing in coal burning would dump even more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming at a time when sharp emissions reductions are needed to contain warming to the international redline of 2 degrees Celsius.

The impacts of climate change also come with costs, and rising oceans, more frequent storms, and changes to precipitation patterns will have a significant impact on the economy of India.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has outlined universal energy access as one of his top goals, and some see coal as the best path to expanding access to electricity. Others, though, see the costs of continued fossil fuel usage as too high. At an event in Lima, Peru earlier this month, climate economist Nicholas Stern called for regulations to curb unabated coal power generation.

“The cost from particulates from burning fossil fuels is immense,” he said. “We should not be allowed to poison people now from unabated coal-fired power stations.”

If India decides to seriously invest in renewable technologies such as solar, public health will win a victory. But the country is unlikely to do so without help.

As India negotiates its energy future, it is certain that financing from developed countries will be critical in spurring low-carbon energy projects, and technology transfers could help speed the transition to renewable power sources.

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