Digging a Deeper Ditch

By Alex Posner

Despite a growing consciousness about the damaging effects of climate change, India is pressing ahead with its plans to produce more energy from coal. The number of coal-fired plants is on the rise, and, by 2019, the country plans to double its use of the fuel source from 565 million tons to over a billion.

This growing appetite for coal threatens to derail the environmental movement’s momentum. As public opinion on climate science converges and as the international community charges towards the Paris Climate Conference slated for next year, India’s reluctance to curtail carbon dioxide emissions stands as one of the greatest obstacles blocking environmental progress.

As Veerabhadran Ramanathan, director of the Center for Atmospheric Sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, warned in an article published in the New York Times in November, “If India goes deeper and deeper into coal, we’re all doomed.”

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India is pressing ahead with its plans to produce more energy from coal-fired plants, such as the factory featured above.

India’s coal reserves are enormous—the fifth largest of any nation in the world. But of greatest concern is the quality and location of India’s coal. 90 percent of the country’s reserves come from strip mines, which are far more damaging to the environment than conventional underground mines. At the same time, the ash content of India’s coal is double that of coal from the west. India’s use of coal, in other words, is acutely destructive.

It is no surprise that India boasts the world’s most polluted cities. Of the twenty urban centers identified as having the poorest air, half are in India. New Delhi, for example, has an average airborne particulate of 153 micrograms—six times the 25-microgram level considered safe by the World Health Organization and the largest of any urban environment in the world. New York City’s air, by contrast, averages less than 13 micrograms of airborne particulate.

The consequences of ramping up coal production will be devastating. Air pollution has already generated crop yields in India that are half of what they would otherwise be, and rates of asthma and cancer are on the rise. The melting ice produced as the planet warms is another major threat. According to one projection by the Asian Development Bank, rising sea levels will displace an estimated 37 million Indians by the middle of the century.

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Far more damaging to the environment than conventional underground mines, strip mines account for 90 percent of the India’s coal reserves.

In spite of these concerns, the Indian government is firmly committed to its energy plan as an ingredient of economic growth. In its eyes, western nations have undergone and benefitted from their own waves of industrialization, and India now deserves an equal opportunity to do the same.

Above all, proponents of India’s energy policies point to data indicating that the average Indian consumes only seven percent as much energy as his or her American counterparts. A whopping 300 million Indians live without electricity. And for those who are wired in, the flow of energy is sporadic and often inadequate. Considering these discrepancies—and that half of Indians live in poverty—many Indian officials believe they have a clear mandate to act. Boosting the standard of living is viewed as a moral imperative, even if elevated carbon emissions are an inevitable by-product.

These are powerful arguments based on India’s special circumstances. However, the environmental movement has the winning logic on its side. A failure to act to counter the effects of climate change may produce a world where discussions about poverty reduction are not even on the table. As the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded, avoiding the worst effects of climate change will require a global emission decline of at least 40 percent by 2050. A failure to act now will “substantially increase the technological, economic, social and institutional challenges” associated with climate change. So while India’s concern for lifting its citizens out of poverty is admirable, climate change prevention is a preeminent priority. The best way to guarantee a vibrant future for the Indian people is to reduce emissions and control our warming planet.

Alex Posner ’18 is in Morse College.  His blog focuses on climate change, energy technology, and sustainability. Contact him at alexander.posner@yale.edu.