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From “phase-up” to “phase-down” of coal

  • Category
    Environment
  • Published
    1st Dec, 2021

Context

India (backed by China), made a last-minute diplomatic push at the Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow to water down the language of the final agreement from calling for a “phaseout” of unabated coal power to a “phasedown”.

Phasedown

The term “phasedown” means India can decrease its share of coal in the energy mix but allow its coal use to rise in absolute terms.

Background

  • The Glasgow Climate Pact, which documents the outcomes of negotiations at COP26, calls upon nearly 200 nations to accelerate “efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies,” among others.
    • The COP is the UN’s flagship climate summit.
    • It has of late become the occasion where member countries negotiate both national and multilateral climate targets and implementation.

Promises made by India at COP26

  • India will bring its non-fossil energy capacity to 500 GW by 2030.
  • India will bring its economy's carbon intensity down to 45 per cent by 2030.
  • India will install 552 GW renewable energy (solar, wind, nuclear) by 2030, which would be roughly 70% of all electricity generated in India.
  • India will reduce 1 billion tonnes of carbon emissions from the total projected emissions by 2030.

Analysis

Assessing coal’s share in India’s ‘energy-mix’

  • Currently, coal powers most of India: it accounts fornearly 70% of the country’s electricity generation.
  • India is the second-largest producer and importer of coal in the world.
  • Domestic electricity demand is predicted to double by 2040. India’s installed capacity at present is a little shy of 400GW, of which coal, or thermal power, makes up more than 200GW.
  • India is now aiming to have an installed renewable energy capacity of 500GW by 2030 — an enhancement of its initial pledge — and ensure that half of its energy supply comes from non-fossil fuel sources by the end of this decade.
  • Renewable sources, including hydel power, make up for about 150GW of domestic capacity at present.

India produces over 85 minerals including coal, lignite, bauxite, chromite, copper ore and concentrates, iron ore, lead and zinc concentrates, manganese ore, silver, diamond, limestone, phosphorite etc.

Status of coal usage worldwide

  • Since 2000, the world has doubled its coal-fired power capacity to around 2,045GW.
  • Mainland China leads the world on the number of coal-fired plantsand has more than 1,000 operational plants, nearly four-times higher than India, the country with the second-highest number of coal plants.
  • The US is third on the list, which is rounded off by Japan and Russia, in that order.

Thus, not only developing countries, even advanced nations are dependent on coal power to meet their energy needs.

Why this transition would be difficult?

  • Power need: Coal is used to meet over 70% of India’s electricity needs. 
  • Heavy dependency: 266 districts in the country have at least one asset linked to the coal sector, such as a coal mine, thermal power plant, sponge iron plant or steel plant. Of these, 135 districts have two or more assets dependent on coal.
    • The states that are most vulnerable to the impact of a coal phaseout include West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, and Madhya Pradesh, and parts of Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, and Andhra Pradesh.
  • Employment generating sector: A large proportion (about 70 per cent) of contract/informal labour involved in coal and coal-dependent sectors (such as power, iron and steel and brick manufacturing)
  • National policies not aligned with the goal: The national policies and growth plans for coal dependent sectors that don’t necessarily align with India’s commitment to phase down coal

Why coal is becoming a huge concern?

  • CO2 emission:India’s coal-based thermal power sector is one of the country’s biggest emitters of carbon dioxide (CO2).

India produces 1.8 metric tonnes of carbon emissions per capita against 15.2 metric tonnes produced by the U.S. High-income countries in general emit over 50 times as much carbon as low-income countries and over six times as much carbon as lower middle-income countries.

  • GHG emission:It spews out 1.1 gigatonne of CO2 every year; this is 2.5 per cent of global GHG emissions, one-third of India’s GHG emissions, and around 50 percent of India’s fuel-related CO2 emissions.
  • Ash content:Indian coal is known to contain 30-50% ash, meaning that for every two units of coal burned, one unit of ash could be produced. 
  • Danger to public health: Besides the creation of poisonous landfills in the ground, the burning of poor quality coal increases carbon emissions and air pollution, a danger to public health. 
  • Adverse effect on vulnerable section: Coal mining continues to have, many adverse effects on India’s people, although vulnerable and marginalised communities have borne the brunt.
    • For example- In Chhattisgarh, tribal communities have been resisting coal-mining in Hasdeo Aranya but the Centre accorded permitsfor mining in yet another section of the forests last month.

What needs to be done?

  • Efficient innovation: The government’s renovation and modernisation policies need to play a key role in maintaining the efficiency of India’s coal fleet.
    • India has one of the youngest coal fleets in the world, with around 64 per cent of the capacity (132 GW) less than a decade old.
    • Maintaining efficiency of this large fleet will be crucial as it is going to be operational for at least the next 15-20 years.
  • Propagate biomass co-firing: Biomass co-firing is a cost-effective method for decarbonising a coal fleet.
    • Only one plant currently co-fires biomass in India.
    • India is a country where biomass is usually burnt on the field — this reflects apathy towards resolving the problem of clean coal using a very simple solution that is readily available. 
  • Invest in carbon capture and storage (CCS): Businesses should invest in indigenous research and development to bring down the costs of CCS. 
  • Bring back coal beneficiation: This is another missed opportunity on which the government needs a course correction. Coal beneficiation, or coal preparation refers to the processes through which inorganic impurities are separated from raw mined coal, thereby providing improved combustion characteristics to the fuel produced.
  • Developing alternate employment source: The coal industry is a vital source of livelihood for millions in India. Thus, there is need to explore incentivising alternate sources of income, such as tourism, which will require some state and national investments. 

Conclusion

Coal being the cheapest and most reliable way to meet energy needs, is likely to make it difficult for India to reduce its consumption. Moreover, the future of the target lies in an effective approach towards reining in carbon emissions.

While India has committed to stepping up on renewables, it needs to set up the infrastructure to maximise on clean energy requires vast investments.

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