Development vs Environment

India’s defense of coal use has come in for criticism at and since the COP26. In the debate over phasing out fossil fuels, coal in particular, the moot question is that countries like India are in a developing state and have, like it, a target of providing cheap electricity to all villages and households. Is it prudent to sacrifice development needs for those of the environment?

In the days since the summit’s end, India was portrayed in the West as the principal villain responsible for weakening an agreement aimed at saving the planet.  For over seven decades, India has championed not just its interests but those of the developing world at international, but this time, it could possibly not be successful in resisting pressure from the developed world. Island nations, specially in the Caribbean and the Pacific, among the most vulnerable to climate change, are leading demands for dramatic policy shifts and were understandably the angriest with the summit text.

New Delhi, at the moment, is facing accusations of having trampled over the future needs of poor nations through the defense of coal use. India’s anonymous response so far is a version of ‘it wasn’t just me. Others are responsible too”. That’s not how leaders behave. They don’t pass the buck. They explain their actions clearly and transparently. India and many other major developing economies have reasonable arguments why it is harder – almost impossible –for them to commit in 2021 to a time-bound phase out of coal.

In its report “India Energy Outlook 2021’, the International Energy Agency (IEA) raised concern over uncertainties surrounding India’s coal industry, at a time when shortage in supply of coal has resulted in the threat of large-scale power shortages across the country. The energy sector has been impacted by the pandemic, wherein the industry saw a 15 per cent drop in investment in 2020. Currently, India’s energy needs, which have doubled since 2000, are largely being met by coal, oil, and biomass. Moreover, the country’s import bill for coal is likely to triple in the coming two decades. It suggested India, the third-largest consumer of energy in the world, to shift its energy dependence to cleaner and renewable sources of energy.

India depends on fossil fuel for 70 per cent of its electricity needs and China for over 50 per cent of its requirements. As Union Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change Bhupender Yadav had candidly explained at COP26, developed nations have used coal for centuries before now shifting to slightly cleaner fossil fuels like gas. Asking developing nations to meet the same timeline for ending coal use as their wealthy counterparts is to condemn emerging economies to slow down development.

The implications of phasing out coal in a steady manner, say over a 10-year period would entail not just huge financial burden on the country but also lead to loss of jobs in the sector. Though an increase in renewable capacity is very much necessary, starting the process of phasing out coal at present is indeed an impossible task. It needs to be stressed that the difference between the developed nations, which have abundant financial resources and technological strength with those of Third World countries like India has no justification whatsoever. Moreover, the scenario is compounded by the fact that technology transfer as also financial grants in the environment sector, as promised at the Paris meet, has not been met by the West.

However, to start with the country should concentrate on evolving technologies where emissions from coal can be kept at the minimum. Experts are of the opinion that mining of low ash coal has to be encouraged and more washeries with modern technology have to be set up as present coal washing is not effective.

Another important development is the recent prediction of Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari that cost of electric vehicles (EVs) will be the same as petrol and diesel cars, if not less in the not-too-distant future. “India is waiting, as EV revolution with 220 startups companies for engaging in innovation of EV technology is the most cost-effective manner. Moreover, big auto manufacturers have also entered the competition to reduce the cost of EV manufacture”, he added at the Annual General Meeting of the Indian Chamber of Commerce. In fulfilling the country’s commitment at COP26, Gadkari also said that EV trucks and EV tractors are being introduced in the Indian roads shortly.

The minister also raised hopes by announcing that 50 per cent ethanol production in aviation fuel is being contemplated. Brazil has successfully done so. In this connection, Gadkari has taken the right stand that since we produce so much rice that can feed the world, “we can produce ethanol from rice waste”, thereby benefiting farmers and controlling emissions.

The big challenge before India is that though renewables, green hydrogen and even nuclear power may get fresh impetus, whether it would be able to balance development with environmental concerns. But at no cost can the development process be stalled, specially since this directly benefits the lower segments of society. The developed world has achieved all this and is both technologically and financially strong to make the necessary shift.

But this is not the case with India. It goes without saying that at present, phasing out coal may stand in the way of various programmes, specially rural electrification throughout the country, as power needs are destined to increase with development picking up. Physical as also social infrastructure cannot develop fast without availability of coal-based power.

Rightly, Prime Minister Modi has pointed to the ‘colonial mindset’ of developed nations and that some in India too were using Western benchmarks without examining the developmental issues. He observed: “Today there are no colonies of any country in the world but the colonial mindset has not ceased to exist. This mindset is giving birth to many skewed ideas… The resources and the path which led to the Western countries reaching the status of ‘developed’, today there is an attempt to restrict the same resources and the same path for developing nations”.

Thus, there is an imperative need of balancing urgent development needs with environmental concerns and, though the undersigned is an environmental activist and researcher, development that benefits the poorer sections of society has to be given top most priority, even over any other concern as poverty and squalor still haunt the country.


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Dhurjati Mukherjee

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