In the previous article, we saw what happens when you burn coal and other fossil fuels; it leads to global warming and climate change, which will have devastating effects if left unchecked. In this article let us see what India’s coal situation is.
As stated earlier, India had 92,445 million tonnes (mt) of proven, recoverable coal reserves at the end of 2006. Its consumption in 2006 was around 540 mt. Assuming that coal consumption will grow in the future at the historical growth rate of around 5.5%, the reserves will last for only another 45 years as per my calculations! However, in all likelihood, the future growth rate will be higher than the historical growth rate because of two factors:
1. Increase in customer base: There are 300 million in India today who do not have access to electricity, believe it or not. They will be connected to the grid at some point of time thus increasing the customer base. Also, our population will increase which will further increase the customer base.
2. Increase in per capita consumption (PCC): As countries develop, its people start demanding more electricity. This is a very natural phenomenon which has played out in the developed countries and will play out in India as well. India’s average PCC today is around 800 units per person per year, whereas the world average is around 3,000. So in the next few decades, India’s PCC will rise, inch closer towards the world average, cross it at some point, and then start inching towards the PCC of developed countries, which is anywhere from 2 to 5 times the world average.
Therefore, our future growth rate will be higher than 5.5% in all likelihood; it could be anywhere from 6.5% to 8%, and even as high as 10%. For those 3 numbers, our coal reserves will last for only 40, 35, and 30 years respectively as per my calculations! Even if these numbers are off by a little bit, we are certainly down to the last 50 years. If we cut down on our consumption, the reserves will last for 100 years at most, but not more than that. So the time to use our coal reserves judiciously is already upon us!
As far as CO2 emissions are concerned, India is 3rd on the list of the highest emitters in the world, behind only China and USA. These top 3 countries account for more than 46% of the total CO2 emissions in the world! Russia, Japan, Germany, Iran, South Korea, Canada, and UK are the remaining countries in the top 10 list, and account for another 17% of the total emissions. Together, the top 10 countries account for more than 64% of the world’s CO2 emissions!
So how does one cut emissions? Using low-carbon energy sources instead of coal and diesel is one way. Natural gas is one such energy source. Biomass is another. However, the extent to which it can be considered a low-carbon energy source depends on the type of biomass used and the process by which it is converted to energy; if the type is right and the process is optimum, it can be very close to being carbon-free. Carbon capture and sequestration is yet another way of reducing carbon emissions. However, the most effective way of reducing CO2 emissions is by using renewable energy sources like solar (thermal as well as photovoltaic), wind, geothermal, hydro, tidal, and nuclear. But renewable energy sources are not for all; you can’t have a hydroelectric power plant unless you have a big river or wind power unless you have a lot of wind, can you? And they are almost always expensive.
A lot of action has been happening on the climate change front since the early 1990s. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international environmental treaty and currently the only international climate policy venue with broad legitimacy due in part to its virtually universal membership, was negotiated at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), informally known as the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro from 3rd to 14th June 1992. The objective of the treaty is to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. UNFCCC itself is “legally non-binding” which means that it sets no binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual countries and contains no enforcement mechanisms. Instead, it provides a framework for negotiating specific international treaties (called “protocols”) that may set binding limits on greenhouse gases.
The most famous of these protocols is of course the Kyoto Protocol which commits State Parties to reduce greenhouse gases emissions. The Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in Kyoto, Japan, on 11th December 1997 and entered into force on 16th February 2005, is based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities; it puts the obligation to reduce current emissions on developed countries on the basis that they are historically responsible for the current levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period started in 2008 and ended in 2012. A second commitment period, known as the Doha Amendment, was proposed in 2012, and imposed binding targets on 37 countries have: Australia, the European Union (and its 28 member states), Belarus, Iceland, Kazakhstan, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland, and Ukraine. However, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine have stated that they may withdraw from the Protocol or not put into legal force the Amendment with second round targets. Japan, New Zealand, and Russia participated in Kyoto’s first-round but did not take on new targets in the second commitment period. Other developed countries without second-round targets are Canada (which withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2012) and the United States (which has not ratified the Protocol). Only certain European states have committed to further CO2 reductions than in the first period. These targets add up to an average five percent emissions reduction compared to 1990 levels over the five-year period 2008 to 2012.
Negotiations were held in Lima in 2014 to agree on a post-Kyoto legal framework that would obligate all major polluters to pay for CO2 emissions. But USA, China, and India – the three largest polluters in the world – have all signalled that they will not ratify any treaty that will commit them legally to reduce CO2 emissions. USA says, “We will reduce our carbon emissions but so should China and India.” China and India counter that by saying, “We are still developing, and just don’t have the financial resources to go for expensive renewable energy sources. Besides, the USA and other developed countries of today polluted the world when they were developing. So shouldn’t we get to do it too?” While both these arguments are valid in their own way, the fact remains that CO2 emissions are more than what they should be and need to be reduced to mitigate the effects of global warming and climate change; it is in everybody’s interests to do so. If a country reduces its CO2 emissions (by deploying whatever method it can), who gets to breathe fresher air? If a country becomes self-reliant as far as its energy needs are concerned, who benefits? This is for each country to decide, but as far as I am concerned, the answers to such questions are obvious.
India has been importing more than 100 million tonnes of coal since 2010. It is forced to do so since Coal India Limited (CIL), which has a near monopoly on coal production in India, can’t produce enough to meet our requirement. And apparently, CIL’s mining technology is out-dated and efficiency much less compared to the best coal mining companies in the world, which only adds to its and India’s woes. Now why CIL didn’t update its technology or production capacity fast enough is for them to answer. But that forces India to import huge quantities of coal, which is a big drain on its forex reserves to say the least, since imported coal is almost always more expensive than that produced locally. But the question that I wish to ask is: how prudent is it to import coal all the way from Australia, which is almost 8,000 kms away, to light up homes in India? Isn’t using solar energy, which is there in such great abundance in India, a much better and wiser option?
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