Cheap coal poses climate and health dilemma for India

Experts warn coal use is growing unsustainably, in the absence of effective regulation or support for low carbon development

Indian coal miner (Pic: Biswarup Ganguly  [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Indian coal miner (Pic: Biswarup Ganguly [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

By Megan Darby

Coal prices are likely to stay low over the next five years, according to the International Energy Agency.

Its medium-term market report, published on Monday, forecast rising demand for the cheap fuel from India and other Asian countries.

That threatens to cause needless deaths and rampant greenhouse gas emissions unless the international community backs low carbon development, experts warned.

“We have heard many pledges and policies aimed at mitigating climate change, but over the next five years they will mostly fail to arrest the growth in coal demand,” said IEA chief Maria van der Hoeven.

Despite efforts to diversify its energy supply, China is set to remain the world’s biggest coal consumer, with demand unlikely to peak this decade.

Its neighbours will follow, with India overtaking the US to second place in the consumption table.

Report: Pressure rising on Delhi to target ambitious carbon cuts 

Ramping up power generation is a priority in India, where some 300 million people lack access to electricity. Planned coal power plants would triple capacity to 450GW by 2030.

“India wants everyone to have electricity, and coal is the cheapest form of electricity,” Chandra Bhushan, deputy director of the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi, told RTCC.

That comes at a cost to the climate. Coal plants emit roughly twice the carbon dioxide of gas-fired plants for the same electricity output.

Van der Hoeven stressed that despite its “undeniable” contribution to energy access, coal use was “simply unsustainable” in its current form.

“For this to change, we need to radically accelerate deployment of carbon capture and sequestration.”

Health risks

Burning coal also emits soot, mercury, sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxides – pollutants that are associated with lung and heart disease.

The Conservation Action Trust warned that this could kill up to 229,500 Indians in 2030, in the absence of emissions regulations – three times the current figure.

At a side event of climate talks in Lima last week, climate economist Nicholas Stern called for regulations to curb unabated coal power generation.

“The cost from particulates from burning fossil fuels is immense,” he said. “We should not be allowed to poison people now from unabated coal-fired power stations.”

Regulations had a role to play, he said, alongside carbon pricing and investment in carbon capture and storage.

Bushan said the international community should offer India technology and cash to steer clear of coal.

“If we can transform India to low carbon development, think about the scale of avoided emissions that is there,” he said.

“It’s in the interest of the world that there is a cooperative mechanism which allows India to meet its developmental needs in a low carbon way.”

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