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‘Phase Down’ Over ‘Phase Out’: India’s COP26 Coal Stand Necessary, Say Experts

‘Phase Down’ Over ‘Phase Out’: India’s COP26 Coal Stand Necessary, Say Experts

Union environment minister Bhupender Yadav at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, November 13, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Phil Noble

  • India’s supposedly last-minute insistence on changing the complete “phase out” of coal to “phase down” came under the scanner by many commentators.
  • But experts said coal is still essential for India: it accounts for nearly 70% of the country’s electricity generation, and India needs the fossil fuel to lift millions out of poverty
  • The bigger point is to not phase down/out coal so much as to make this transition in a way that is ‘just’, and not simply climate-oriented.

Kochi: As India’s firm stand to “phase down” coal use versus phasing it out is being discussed by the world with many terming it as “disappointing”, this is a “necessary” move from India’s perspective, say experts.

In a first, limiting coal use and phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies found mention in the outcomes of the recently-concluded Conference of Parties (COP26) at Glasgow. The COP is the UN’s flagship climate summit, and has of late become the occasion where member countries negotiate both national and multilateral climate targets and implementation.

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.

‘Phase down’ vs ‘phase out’

India’s supposedly last-minute insistence to change the complete “phase out” of coal to “phase down” in the pact text came under the scanner by many commentators and sections of the media; some claimed this had “weakened” the language on coal.

Sébastien Duyck, senior attorney and human rights and climate campaign manager at the Centre for International Environmental Law, Geneva, called India’s coal story a “cover up” for the “absence of climate justice and ambition”.

“India’s additional amendment weakened already insufficient action, widening the gap between what was accomplished and what scientists tell us is needed for the sake of people and the planet,” he wrote in an email to The Wire Science.

However, India’s action was a “necessary” and “desirable” move, according to R.R. Rashmi, director of the Earth Science and Climate Change programme at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), India.

There are several kinds of energy sources and coal is one of them, and we should talk about a clean energy transition rather than a coal transition, he added. Rashmi has been India’s principal negotiator for climate negotiations at the UN climate talks for many years.

Does India need coal?

“In the international scheme of things, it is completely unfair to call out India [on its stand],” said Sandeep Pai, senior research lead of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ Energy Security and Climate Change Program in the US. “Coal is a key domestic fuel for India and is important right now from an energy security point of view. India will need to burn some coal now because it needs to grow and industrialise to lift people out of poverty.”

Rashmi echoed this view: India’s situation is not comparable to that of developed countries, because countries like ours have an inflexible energy access issue and will be able to decrease the use of coal only over time while developing alternative energy sources.

Developed countries on the other hand, have already used fossil fuels for their development and now switched to oil and gas, which is cleaner. Hence, he added, it is “hypocrisy” on the part of the Western media to blame India for its stand.

Currently, coal powers most of India: it accounts for nearly 70% of the country’s electricity generation.

“Coal is essential for India,” said T. Jayaraman, a senior fellow at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai, who studies climate change and low-carbon growth strategies.

“We cannot not mine for coal,” he told The Wire Science. “There has to be a differentiation between developed and developing countries. Yes, we have to worry about displacement [of people] but this has to be dealt with properly.”

Coal mining – and its use – have had, and continue to have, many adverse effects on India’s people, although vulnerable and marginalised communities have borne the brunt. In Chhattisgarh, for example, tribal communities have been resisting coal-mining in Hasdeo Aranya but the Centre accorded permits for mining in yet another section of the forests last month.

Coal transportation has been cited as one reason to double-track a railway line that will cut through Goa’s Mollem National Park and Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary. The project has faced stiff resistance from the locals because the line requires a significant removal of green cover.

Air pollution is a concern as well. According to news reports, coal-powered thermal power stations and delays in implementing novel carbon capture storage technology were among the major reasons for air pollution in India, according to a study in early 2021, by experts at the International Energy Agency’s Clean Coal Centre.

Just transitions

At the same time, the coal industry is a vital source of livelihood for millions in India. Data collected on coal and peoples’ dependence on the fossil fuel by Pai indicated that 284 of India’s 736 districts depended on coal in several ways.

This is not just through jobs alone – the coal industry provides 3.6 million direct and indirect jobs in 159 districts – but through pensions, funds collected under the District Mineral Foundation and benefits accrued by local communities through Corporate Social Responsibility programmes.

“India should phase down coal, as it has rightfully agreed to do,” said Pai. “But going into the future, the country needs a justice-based transition to make sure that people who have suffered historically from coal extraction and who are still suffering – including coal workers and communities – have better means in the future. This is a big undertaking that needs to start now.”

The Glasgow Climate Pact highlights the importance of such just transitions. How can India achieve this?

One way is to explore incentivising alternate sources of income, such as tourism, which will require some state and national investments. The Centre will also need to draft more policy regulations, including requiring distribution companies to buy more energy derived from renewable sources and reforming the energy pricing system, Pai said.

Transitioning to renewables

Moving away from coal will have to be done with renewable energy and maybe green hydrogen, Rashmi said. “Renewables are within our reach due to the falling costs of solar power but it is still not enough to supply as a grid-based energy – that can come only from nuclear, hydro or coal at the moment.”

Referring to India’s “phasing down” over “phasing out” stand on coal, Duyck said a one-word change wouldn’t change the fact that coal remains incompatible with the need to preserve health and the planet, and that the necessary transition to renewable energy is accelerating.

“The Western media … has focused on the one-word change, while failing to report on the obstructive role played by our governments with regard to issues related to climate justice, such as loss and damage,” he added.

“If this action by the Indian government should be condemned, Western media should also condemn the failure of developed countries to provide adequate support for loss and damage.”

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