India's energy dilemma: Coal-powered growth vs climatic disaster
By Siddhartha Kumar Apr 26, 2007, 9:26 GMT
New Delhi - With its economy on the fast track, India is increasingly turning to coal to fuel its tremendous growth in the coming decades - but the government is doing so at its own peril, warn the growing chorus of climatic experts.
India, which has become a leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, will also be the hardest hit by climate change.
The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its recent findings on Asia, pinpointed the Indian subcontinent as the region that will suffer the most from global warming.
The panel's nightmarish predictions have caused some unease among policy-makers who have been arguing that India must rely heavily on coal power for the next three decades to sustain an economic growth of up to 10 per cent and lift millions out of poverty.
Coal is the dominant fuel in India's energy mix. More than half of the country's energy needs are met by coal which also fuels 78 per cent of the electricity generation.
However coal-based plants also account for about 55 per cent of India's emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.
The Indian government places great reliance on coal energy as it is the country's only fossil fuel available in abundant quantities.
Gas and oil imports are neither stable nor assured, nuclear energy is prohibitively expensive, an anti-dam movement prevents the building of new hydro projects. Renewable energy projects are still in the nascent phase.
With nearly 200 coal power plants planned over the next decade and the country's demand for coal will reach 2.5 billion tons by 2031, up from the 460 million tons currently.
According to the government's own data, annual emissions of carbon dioxide will rise from 1 billion tons at present to 5.5 billion tons per year by 2031, meaning India will overtake Japan and Russia to become the world's third largest carbon dioxide emitter after the US and China by 2030, said Srinivas Krishnaswamy, Head of the Climate and Energy Unit, Greenpeace India.
Even now, as its coal plants spew carbon dioxide and fly-ash into the atmosphere, Indians are bearing the brunt of climate change.
Over the last few years, thousands have died and millions others have suffered from floods driven by unusually heavy rains that have hit the desert state of Rajasthan, northern Jammu and Kashmir and the financial capital of Mumbai. Meanwhile, eastern Orissa state has suffered droughts.
According to the IPCC study, sea levels will rise 40 centimetres higher over the next century exposing 50 million people living in coastal areas to the dangers of flooding. In the plains, winter precipitation would decline, shrinking grasslands and triggering water and food scarcity.
'Big cities like Kolkata and Mumbai are especially vulnerable. Millions could be displaced as the sea would make inroads and submerge land in Mumbai, leading to salinity in water levels and problems in drainage,' IPCC chairman Dr Rajendra Pachauri told the Deutsche Presse-Agentur, dpa.
The report warns that Himalayan glaciers are also melting rapidly and would disappear by 2035 which will cause floods followed by a decrease in river-flow and damage the region's ecology.
Availability of water in India is expected to decline by 30 per cent by 2050, affecting over half the country's 1 billion plus population.
The IPCC also predicts that the change in weather could lead to a 30 per cent drop in food-grain production, particularly wheat, over the next three decades, devastating its agriculture-led rural economy and leading to food insecurity and loss of livelihood.
Besides, deaths from diarrhoeal diseases due to floods and droughts, the change in weather would make it conducive for mosquitoes to thrive, causing vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue to spread rapidly.
With such a dire forecast, environment and energy experts stress it is high time for India to change its energy paradigm.
'India faces a formidable challenge but one it could turn into a big opportunity,' said Krishnaswamy. 'It could take a lead role to cut energy consumption and increase the use of renewable energy for power generation from the current 4 per cent to 60 per cent and decrease coal consumption by the same margin,' he said advocating measures like ban on inefficient lighting and fuel-guzzling vehicles to cut emissions.
India's stand is that the onus to reduce greenhouse emissions is on developed countries like the US which are responsible for the 'mess.' It has asked developed countries to hasten transfer of clean-coal technologies for improving efficiency of coal energy conversion and limiting emissions.
There are signs that the government recognizes climate change as an important issue in formulating its energy policy.
Although India is not required to contain its greenhouse gas emissions as a signatory to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change it has actively proposed Clean Development Mechanism projects. By May 2006, a total of 297 projects comprising 240 million tons of carbon-dioxide reduction were approved by the government.
SK Chand with the Delhi-based environmental think-tank The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) said India lags behind China developing renewable energy sources and setting up efficient coal plants.
'India has put itself in such a bind by placing heavy reliance on coal which has also hindered the development of renewable energy, like wind, solar and biomass,' he said.
TERI estimates India's coal reserves will run out in the next 30 years because of over-exploitation.
'The next 10 years are the last window of opportunity for the power sector to decide how the new energy demand is met, either by finite fossil fuels or abundant renewable energy. We must aggressively go for cleaner fuels. Time is running out.'© 2007 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur