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India’s Prayer: Lord Make Me Green (But Not Yet)

In both India and China today, the mantra is grow, baby, grow.  Clean, baby, clean, will have to wait.

The growth of India and China may be the wonder of the world, but it depends on a lot of little things going right: institutions, workforce, transportation, logistics, energy, and the like. These days, energy threatens to be a roadblock in India’s path.

Oil and gas involve deals with countries like Iran; domestically India’s biggest resource is coal:

As a power crisis looms, both [growth advocates and environmentalists] have focused on coal, the source of about 70 percent of India’s power supply. This year, environmental groups applauded the Environment and Forests Ministry when it declared 203 coal fields off-limits because they are in heavily forested areas. But many officials opposed the decision, saying India desperately needs energy to fuel its industrial growth.

Now businesses fear a coal shortage. India hoped to produce 660 million tons of coal this year, but officials say it is likely to fall short of that target by 139 million tons because of new regulations and delays in granting licenses, which include pollution controls. Dozens of power plants under construction across India, amounting to more than $22 billion in investment, will sit idle next year because of the coal shortage, officials say.

These are not easy dilemmas to solve.  Coal is dirty and destructive, and mining it will wreck valuable forests and disrupt the lives of nearby residents.  On the other hand, it is there.

In the West (plus Japan), industrialization in the 19th and first half of the 20th century pretty much ignored the environment.  Let the chimney sweeps get cancer; let London’s once famous “pea soup” fogs blacken the entire city for days.  Even as late as the 1940s and 1950s, environmental concerns had little impact on economic development.

India and China are developing in a brave new world, one where both international green groups (who can lobby international agencies like the World Bank) and domestic constituencies (who can lobby politicians and demonstrate) can turn something as technically simple as a coal mine into a huge political issue that takes years to resolve.  But with growth of 8 to 10 percent a year to serve, the economy can’t always wait.

There are no easy answers, no magic bullets that eliminate the need for tough trade-offs. Generally speaking, as countries become wealthier they can do a better job integrating environmental concerns into their development strategies.  In both India and China today, the mantra is grow, baby, grow.  Clean, baby, clean, will have to wait.

Via Meadia, 13 September 2011