India's Planet-Destroying Coal Plans Should Worry You
But not for the reasons you might think.
There is a reason Santa gives naughty kids a lump of coal. Despite its use, it is not a symbol of power and prosperity. Instead, it is known for its dirty, inefficient and deadly nature, as well as its morally corrupt and poverty-causing tendencies. In recent years, we have also discovered its devastating impacts on the environment and global climate, as it is, by far, the most polluting energy source we humans have ever invented. With the current geopolitical landscape, you’d think that every nation on Earth would be rapidly moving away from it. But, no. India is doubling down on coal and expeditiously expanding its consumption and mining of the foul stuff. But, the reason for this is not what you’d expect and actually highlights the West’s failed geopolitics and climate inaction.
India recently announced its plans to triple its underground coal mining capacity to meet its rapidly growing energy demand. India has some of the world’s largest coal reserves, but 70% is buried deep underground. However, underground coal mining is both hazardous and expensive. As such, only 5% of India’s coal production comes from underground mines.
So, why are they looking to triple this type of mining?
Well, India is heavily dependent on coal. In 2021, 73% of their energy came from coal, making them one of the world’s largest coal consumers. This consumption is also rapidly growing. From 2022 to 2023, their coal consumption rose a massive 14%! As such, India’s coal production is skyrocketing to keep pace with demand.
Quite simply, the safer and far cheaper surface mines are struggling to produce enough to power this ever-growing demand. So, they are having to turn to this more costly source of coal to top up supplies. In short, India doesn’t want to have to rely on underground coal mines, but the fact it is, is showing just how much coal they are devouring.
All of this wouldn’t be a problem if coal wasn’t so devastating.
Per kWh, coal energy emits around a kilo of carbon dioxide. That is twice that of natural gas and roughly 166 times more than renewables and nuclear power. In fact, coal is the most polluting form of energy we have.
As such, many recent studies have singled coal out as a main focus of climate action. The “State of Climate Action 2023” found that for the globe to meet its climate targets, coal power needs to be phased out worldwide 7 times faster than it currently is. Another seminal paper found that entirely phasing out coal worldwide over the next decade is enough to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.
In other words, climate change would be far less of a problem if we didn’t use coal. This shouldn’t be surprising, as 40% of global annual emissions come from coal power!
So, the question has to be asked, why is India using coal to meet its energy demand, rather than natural gas, renewables or nuclear power?
Well, India has no natural gas, so it has to import it, which is expensive; it also opens their energy infrastructure up to global markets and manipulation, which can be devastating for an emerging economy like India’s. Coal isn’t the cheapest form of energy per unit (per kWh), but it is the most inexpensive energy infrastructure to build (cost per power plant). So, for economies experiencing rapidly growing energy demands, like India and China, coal is the “obvious” form of energy to invest in, as you get the most grid capacity growth per dollar spent.
For example, India built 8 new coal power plants in 2021–22 for $3.14 billion with a combined capacity of 4,485 MW. That equates to $700,000 per MW of capacity. In comparison, solar power costs over $1 million per MW and nuclear costs over $10 million per MW!
But coal is superficially cheap. Firstly, renewables can be half the cost of coal per unit of energy! In the long run, renewables are more affordable for the consumer and better for the economy, even when the higher upfront costs are considered. Moreover, they are more profitable than coal and create more, better paying and safer jobs than coal. There is also a heavy death toll with coal. For every 1,000 TW hrs of coal power, 100,000 people die. Compare that to just 90 for nuclear, 440 for solar and 150 for wind. In 2019, India produced 1,160 TW hrs of coal power, meaning that at least 116,000 Indians died to produce it (especially as India’s lax safety legislation implies the figure is likely higher than the global average).
Basically, from an economic standpoint, coal is expensive. It might be cheap to set up, but the damage it does to the economy, the population’s health, and the environment is simply too high. However, as these costs come further down the line, many countries are willing to do the trade-off and build coal now to enable instant growth and pay the dreadful price later.
Many have pointed to India’s ever-growing demand for coal as threatening the global progress on climate change. As such, in recent years, many Western developed nations have piled on the pressure for India to give up its coal-loving ways. But is this really the correct stance to take?
There is one quick statistic that shows this geopolitical pressure is deeply hypocritical. India’s annual per capita emissions are only 1.91 tones, whereas the US’s annual per capita emissions are a whopping 14.44 tones! Pot kettle black much?
It also ignores the elementary fact that countries like India must rapidly grow their energy infrastructure to keep their economic growth going. If they prioritised renewables over coal, the added cost of building such infrastructure would limit how much they could build, risking demand outstripping supply and, in turn, kneecapping their economy as many businesses can only work with power. This would stifle their deeply needed growth, jeopardising the government’s democratic support and sending the country backwards.
In other words, the only way they can turn their back on coal is to have access to affordable credit to build renewables to mitigate the steep cost of building them. Guess who can provide these funds or lines of credit? Develop countries like those in the West or China. Guess who isn’t supplying them? That’s right, we aren’t.
You might think this is because it would cost too much. But no. In total, all developing nations need $2 trillion per year in funding until 2030 to enable them to shift to renewables at a fast enough rate to meet climate targets. That might sound like a lot, but it is $200 million less than what the US spends on its military each year. It is well within the scope of the world’s developed nations to supply such funding. This money also won’t be wasted, as it will be more than paid back in the future (more on that in a minute).
You might think that there is geopolitics at play here. After all, China produces most of the world’s renewables, and the West would rather not supply funding to developing nations that would be spent with China, further propping up their already US-threatening economy. But no. India, for example, is perfect for independent Thorium nuclear energy.
Thorium nuclear energy uses a different fuel than our current uranium-based reactors. Thorium itself can’t undergo fission (the atomic chain reaction that produces power), but if it is bombarded with a specific type of radiation, it can mutate into an element that can. This makes thorium reactors far safer than uranium reactors, as they can’t undergo nuclear meltdown, as this elemental mutation stops as soon as the reactor fails. Moreover, thorium is far more common than uranium and far more accessible to mine. India actually has the world’s largest thorium deposits in the form of thorium-rich sands. This ease of mining and refining makes thorium energy far cheaper at 1.4 cents/kWh than uranium energy at 9.7 cents/kWh. Moreover, thorium reactors produce less waste, and the waste they do create is far less toxic and radioactive than uranium reactors. The ease of mining and the reduced waste also means that thorium reactors produce less pollution per kWh than typical nuclear plants!
India already has a promising thorium nuclear power plant program. However, its development is slow and relatively expensive. If the West wanted to ensure India didn’t use coal or rely on China for renewable infrastructure, it could help fund this thorium program and get it fast-tracked. It would be an independent energy source for India, and the funds provided would stay within the Indian economy. And we in the West may even be able to use the technology they develop and utilise our own thorium deposits.
But why should the West fund developing nations’ transition to low-carbon energy?
Well, apart from the obvious moral argument, there are some solid pragmatic reasons. Nicholas Stern, a globally regarded climate economist, has stated that “Rich countries should recognise that it is in their vital self-interest, as well as a matter of justice given the severe impacts caused by their high levels of current and past emissions, to invest in climate action in emerging market and developing countries.” New economic studies play this point of view out. A recent study found that by 2100, global GDP will be 37% lower than it would be without the damages from climate change. Another study found that each tonne of carbon dioxide emitted costs the global economy $3,000 in damages! Yet another study found that the world may gain an estimated $78 trillion over the coming decades by making this energy transition through reduced environmental damage and better energy economics. These additional funds won’t just go to the top either, but they will enable developing nations to engage more in international trade.
In other words, if developed nations want their economies to thrive in the future and not be hampered or held back, they need to fund developing nations’ energy transition, as every dollar spent in helping them make this energy transition will be paid back to them many times over.
There is also the geopolitical argument for the West to lead this charge. You see, the US creates international ties with foreign countries through trade. This free-market approach enables these foreign countries to access parts of the lucrative US economy, but it also makes them subservient to the US, as they become dependent on this trade. This is how America uses its economy to become a global influencer and ensure vast swathes of the globe dance to its tune. However, China wants similar international sway, yet it can’t provide the same trade benefits to other countries. Luckily, its communist routes offered another method: debt. China is actively funding the growth of developing countries, from transport infrastructure to economic assistance and energy infrastructure. The governmental loans it offers are way more affordable than any provided by the West, but they often stipulate that Chinese contractors and companies must be used to build such projects. This not only bolsters the Chinese economy but also ensures these countries become loyal to China, as they can’t risk these loans being recalled or having their rates hiked.
Many developing countries want to avoid taking these Chinese loans. They understand that taking them will force them to comply with China’s often dangerous whims. But as international pressure mounts on them to turn green (which mainly comes from the US, which wants everyone else to reduce their emissions so that their oil-based economy can continue emitting), these developing countries may have no choice but to take them. As such, Western pressure on these nations will drive them to cosy up to China and undermine Western global influence, which is already waning.
So, to keep our international influence and keep these countries pro-West, or at the very least neutral, it makes sense for us to provide them with low-carbon energy funding or loans with better terms than China’s. In fact, this might be one of the few ways the West can keep its position above China in the current geopolitical scene.
So, the fact that India has to turn to mining more underground coal shows how our free-market ideology, ignorance of globalisation and short-term thinking are hampering not only our global climate action but also our economies and our global influence. What’s more, the fact that the wider media is leaning into the “isn’t India bad for doing this” stance is deeply worrying and shows just how much they feed the hypocritical Western climate propaganda that the East is to blame for emissions, not us. This is what should concern you. If we don’t change our approach to revelations like this, in terms of media coverage and international politics, we are doomed to let climate change bury us.
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Sources: FT, Washington Post, CNBC, Will Lockett, The Guardian, Statista, Statista, IMF, Live Mint, EIA, CNBC, Will Lockett, NCPA, Visual Capitalist, Energy-Reporters, Market Watch, C2ES, Reuters, Power Technology, SP Global