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António Guterres’s Anti-Coal Push For India: Unrealistic and Unwelcome

Vijay Raj Jayaraj, India

The demand by UN Secretary General António Guterres for a renewable transition in India do not reflect the reality where cheap fossil fuels have been prioritised by the government.

Source: The Economic Times of India

UN secretary general António Guterres has asked India to abandon coal and embrace renewables. His clarion call re-affirmed the UN climate agenda, which aims to make the world transit from conventional energy sources to renewables. However, such anti-coal rhetoric is likely to be disregarded by the India’s federal government which is on a mission to increase production, import, and use of fossil fuel resources in the coming decades.

Speaking at an event organized by TERI, an organization that was earlier headed by the former UN IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri, Guterres said, “Coal spells stranded assets and makes no commercial sense – the coal business is going up in smoke. India can become a true global superpower in the fight against climate change if it speeds up its shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.” But his comments—besides being factually wrong—are strikingly ignorant of India’s contrasting energy approach in the recent past. 

Resistance to “Climate Imperialism”

India, though a member of Paris agreement, has been outspoken against the attempts made by UN to suppress India’s rightful access to conventional energy sources. In 2017, just a year after India ratified the Paris agreement, the then Chief Economic Advisor of India Arvind Subramanian slammed the international ploy to limit India’s access to carbon-based energy sources: “Coal will remain and should remain…. India cannot allow the narrative of carbon imperialism to come in the way of realistic, rational planning for the country’s energy future.”

In July 2020, India’s Home Minister reiterated that coal cannot be made the scapegoat for climate action. He insisted that “coal sector is a pillar of India’s economy and fulfills nation’s power requirements”. He also outlined India’s vision for improving coal productivity, indicating that “an investment of INR 1.25 Trillion (USD 17 Billion) is envisaged under the Infrastructure Investment Scheme during the period 2020-24 for which 534 projects have been identified.”

No Compromise on Fossil Fuel

Guterres’ hopes for a renewable transition in India do not reflect the ground reality where fossil fuel has been prioritized by the government. His claim about coal businesses going up in smoke is as delusional as it can get. 

When it comes to fossil fuels, India is taking no chances. With a strong determination to make its energy sector secure, the country has strategically evaded the anti-fossil pressure from the UN and continues on its fossil fuel path unabated. Though India is scaling up its renewable installations rapidly (a generation capacity increase of 12.23% between 2018 and 2019), it has simultaneously ramped up its fossil fuel investments. Thermal power plants account for 68% of the total installed capacity of power utilities. Raw coal use increased by 7.7% between 2018 and 2019. Despite the reduced energy demand during the first half of 2020, coal production and consumption bounced back to record levels. Coal India Limited (CIL), the largest coal producer in India, registered a 17% increase in coal excavation outputs form its opencast mines during July 2020 and expects it to increase further in 2020. CIL produced 43.39 million tonnes of coal in July, the highest so far in 2020. 

CIL has set an ambitious target of producing 1 billion tonne of coal by 2024. During 2019, 11 new mining projects have been sanctioned in 2019 and there are 121 on-going coal projects under different stages of implementation. Just 3 days after Gueterres call for an end to coal in India, CIL’s chairman reiterated that coal will continue to be India’s primary energy source despite the challenge posed by Renewables. 

The most recent evidence of this fossil-first attitude was at display during the COVID-19 lockdown phase, when India did not shy away from allocating a significant portion of its COVID-19 stimulus package to the development of mining infrastructure in India. Valued at INR 500 billion (USD 6.8 billion), the stimulus package was one among the string of policy measures and financial approvals that the government has been announcing for the betterment of fossil fuel sector. The largest state-run bank in India is now planning to introduce policies that make it easier for private coal mining companies to borrow loans. The step is aimed at boosting increased participation before the second round of auctions for the 41 new coal mining blocks, an auction the Government believes will increase coal productivity in the country.

In his speech, Gueterres also claimed that “Investing in fossil fuels means more deaths and illness and rising healthcare costs. It is, simply put, a human disaster and bad economics.” The statement by Gueterres fails miserably.

The relationship between the growth of energy sector and its impact on public health is a well-documented one. Coal and oil were singularly responsible for Industrial revolution and for the higher quality of life that the West enjoys today. India is no exception. In the past three decades, India’s investment in fossil fuels increased dramatically and in the same three decades the life expectancy at birth increased dramatically too! Fossil fuels accounted for just 35% of all energy consumed in India during 1971.

In contrast, 87% of all consumed energy in 2019 came from Fossil fuels. And it has been a boon, not a human disaster as claimed by Gueterres. Infant mortality rate (death per 1000 live births) decreased from 161 in 1960 to just 30 in 2018. The abundance of reliable and affordable primary energy source enabled India’s GDP to grow fast enough to alleviate poverty at a significant rate and increase living standards for more than a billion people. Because of a thriving fossil fuel sector and increased imports from trade partners, India was able to achieve energy surplus in the year 2017, a feat India never managed to achieve before that year. 

With the GDP shrinking to -23% due to the COVID-19 lockdown, India is unlikely to curb its dependence on fossil fuels in 2021. Even in the distant future (2050), India’s reliance on fossil fuels will continue and is expected to contribute around 65% of its energy needs.