India’s energy conundrum: commitment to renewables but still expanding coal | India

Three days before India’s environment minister boarded a flight to Egypt for this year’s UN climate summit, COP27, the country’s finance minister was busy with a new announcement.

“India needs more investment in coal production,” said Nirmala Sitharaman at the launch in Delhi of India’s largest coal mining auction ever, where 141 new coal mining sites will be sold at the best. bidder.

At a time when the future of the world depends on a drastic global reduction in carbon dioxide emissions and world leaders are gathering in Sharm el-Sheikh to try to limit the impact of the climate crisis – with decarbonisation on the agenda – the Indian government continues its biggest push ever for domestic coal production, even playing with the idea of ​​producing so much that it can become a future coal exporter.

This was the sixth and largest such auction that the Indian government has held since 2020 when it privatized the coal industry. Two-thirds of the 968 mining sites, known as coal blocks, are located on pristine land and many are located under India’s most ecologically rich and fragile forests and rural areas populated by tribal communities that will be destroyed if new projects go successful forward.

“The worst part is that in order to open more coal, the government is authorizing mining in dense wooded areas. Forests are sinks of carbon dioxide, so if you get new coal to burn by cutting down the forests, it’s a double environmental disaster, ”said Sudiep Shrivastava, a lawyer who has fought against the new coal blocks.

In Hasdeo Arand, a dense wooded area in the state of Chhattisgarh, where 23 and seven approved coal blocks have been proposed – which would damage some of India’s oldest and most biodiverse environments and displace thousands of indigenous people – communities have reacted against the mines.

According to anti-mining activists, the opening of coal mines in the area will not only result in the loss of thousands of hectares of forest land, but will also affect the flow of the river, cause pollution and evacuate many villagers and tribal communities who they live off forests. In October last year, hundreds of villagers in the region marched nearly 200 miles on foot from their villages to the state capital, Raipur, to record a protest against proposed coal mines.

According to anti-mining activists, the opening of coal mines will not only result in the loss of thousands of hectares of forest land, but will also affect the flow of the Hasdeo River. Photograph: Franck Metois / Alamy

On the world stage, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented himself as a staunch environmentalist and, speaking at the G20 meeting on Tuesday, Modi said: “India is committed to clean energy and the environment.” Yet India has made no secret of the fact that it will need coal for decades to come, even as it increases its reliance on renewable energy and approaches net zero in 2070.

It was one of the most dramatic moments of COP26 climate talks in Glasgow last year when India, backed by China, made a last-minute intervention to water down the language of the final agreement by changing the commitment to ” gradually reducing “rather than” phasing out “coal energy. Coal currently accounts for 70% of India’s electricity production, while renewables account for only around 12%.

At COP27 this year, India’s stance was to try to counter pressure to reduce its continued dependence on coal by pushing for a deal to gradually reduce all fossil fuels, including gas, from which Europe and the United States is still heavily dependent. India’s argument is that it is unfair to exclude coal – which is mainly used by developing countries – while other fossil fuels widely used in Western countries remain unauthorized. Speaking on Monday, Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav, who represents India at COP27, accused developed nations of “going back to fossil fuels” as the energy crisis hit.

Narendra Modi arrives for the G20 leaders' summit in Bali
Narendra Modi arrives for the G20 leaders’ summit in Bali. Photograph: Irham Tree / AFP / Getty Images

Ashish Fernandes, chief executive of Climate Risk Horizons, which analyzes the impact of the climate crisis in India, said: “It is quite clear due to the West’s failure to comply with its commitments to undertake serious emissions reductions and to comply with promised financial commitments, India uses coal as a bargaining chip. It is difficult to criticize India’s plans for new coal when Europe is trying to build much more new gas. “

India is already at the forefront of the climate crisis. This year, two thirds of the country suffered months from an unprecedented heat wave that decimated crops and livelihoods. Extreme weather events occurred on 80% of the days this year.

However, the position of the Indian government is that, as a rapidly developing country, which is the world’s second largest coal importer, it is necessary, in the name of self-sufficiency and energy security, that the country exploits its vast national coal reserves. , said to be the fourth largest in the world. As a historically low carbon emitter relative to the West, ministers say it is unfair to penalize such actions. According to plans promoted by Modi, India plans to increase national coal production to 1 billion tons per year.

In the year following COP26, the government says the situation has become even more urgent. India’s electricity demand soared after Covid, and foreign coal prices hit record highs due to inflation and the war in Ukraine, costing the government billions of rupees to import what it needed.

In April, after the hottest March in 122 years, the country suffered a severe coal shortage and some coal-fired power plants had less than three days of supply, resulting in power outages.

Nivit Yadav, program director at the Environmental Research Center for Science and the Environment, said: “We cannot avoid the fact that India still needs coal and we need to reduce our dependence on imported coal, which it is getting more expensive every day. In the long run, we definitely want to reduce our dependence on coal as much as possible, but there is so much conflict around the world that India has to secure its energy. “

Yet environmentalists and think tanks have said that opening hundreds of new coal mines across India is both environmentally devastating and unnecessary. Numerous studies have shown that India’s current capacity of coal mines and coal-fired power plants are more than enough to meet India’s growing electricity demand if they are functioning efficiently.

The coal shortage that hit in April and May is said not to have been due to a lack of domestic coal, but instead to poor planning by the power companies and the analysis showed that they could have been avoided if there had been more investment. in renewable energies. India now produces the cheapest solar power in the world and prices will continue to fall.

“India doesn’t need more coal,” Fernandes said. “There are no financial or energy requirements for new coal construction in India, this is all political.” He pointed out that India’s current coal-fired power generation was “suboptimal”, currently only running at around 60% capacity, and if managed properly it would be more than enough to meet a nation’s electricity demand. rapid development.

On average, India’s coal mines use only two-thirds of capacity, while some large ones use only 1%, according to analysis by the Global Energy Monitor (GEM), questioning the need to open up more.

Fernandes said a huge new investment in coal now means there is “a real possibility that it could undermine the renewable energy industry” by tying the Indian electricity sector into a contractual commitment to coal for decades to come, although renewable energies are cheaper.

Earlier this year, the International Energy Agency said Modi’s coal expansion plans were “difficult to reconcile with India’s changing energy needs and environmental priorities.”

There is also the problem that Indian coal, with its high ash content, is notoriously polluting and inefficient to burn, requiring twice as much energy to produce the same amount of energy as imported coal. It is also difficult to carry. Many coal-fired fire stations are located on the coast, built specifically to receive sea shipments of imported coal, and are hundreds of miles away from the central Indian states where many blocks of coal are located, putting enormous pressure on the lines. passenger railways.

For environmentalists, a major concern is that the push for new coal mines is coming as India’s environmental regulations are watered down, particularly for electrical infrastructure projects, while coal laws “act as an implicit subsidy to the coal development, “according to a recent report from the University of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment. Coal blocks are currently being auctioned before environmental permits are made in the area.

For the new Hasdeo Arand coal mine, local people claim the projects received all environmental permits from the state government without their constitutionally bound consent and using fabricated documents.

“Once the forest is gone, people will lose not only their livelihoods, but also their heritage, their culture, their religion, because they worship the forests, but their voices have been silenced. “said Alok Shukla, an environmental activist who has been at the forefront of community opposition to Hasdeo Arand’s new coal mines. “The demolition will also affect the monsoons because it disrupts the entire ecosystem. Tell me, which coal is worth this?

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