Coals before goals: India’s dubious contribution to the COP21
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Coals before goals: India’s dubious contribution to the COP21

THE COP21 summit in Paris, so far, doesn’t seem to be quite as much of a disaster as previous iterations were. This time, CO2 targets were more or less agreed before the summit took place, and scepticism over anthropogenic climate change seems to be firmly consigned to the past. Or, at least, that was the prevailing attitude before the opening ceremony. India’s mid-summit snub regarding carbon emission reduction targets sent a dark signal that this nation seems to somehow believe that its economic health is more worthy of attention than the collective fortunes of the world’s future generations – including its own.

Indeed, it is odd that India seems so unwilling to tackle climate change and pollution caused by carbon emissions emanating primarily from fossil fuels; unlike its counterpart on the eastern extremes of the Asian mainland. China, formerly one of the most significant obstacles in talks on climate change, has had a very profound change of heart and is already the world’s biggest current investor in renewables. That comes on top of announcing a carbon cap and trade scheme, due to go live in 2017, and a five-year plan to produce 300 gigawatts of wind and solar capacity.

China, formerly one of the most significant obstacles in talks on climate change, has had a very profound change of heart and is already the world’s biggest current investor in renewables.

Why the change of heart then? Has China awoken to its global responsibilities? Well, its rhetoric should be taken with a grain of salt. Its growth has poisoned large swathes of Southeast Asia. Coal is still dominant in its energy mix and is the prime suspect behind Beijing’s CO2 emissions. Its industry is still heavily reliant on coal to maintain its competitiveness on world markets, making a quick transition to renewables very expensive. China’s production of steel and nickel has been driving down world prices thanks in big part to Beijing’s low energy costs. China’s aluminium industry, for example, boomed because its companies shunned more expensive hydropower (the industry standard in Russia or Iceland) using instead dirty but cheap coal. It now controls 60% of world production, generating a cash windfall that significantly raises the costs of renewables.

However, despite its industrial coal addiction, there is a far more domestic issue driving China’s policy on tackling carbon emissions, and that is the issue of pollution – a problem that India shares but choses to ignore.

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Power plants in Fuyuan, China. Copyright: Mingjia Zhou

Pollution has become so critical in China that earlier in the week Beijing issued its first ever pollution “red alert”; the number of harmful PM2.5 particles climbing above 300 micrograms per cubic meter. To put this into perspective, the WHO has recommended 25 micrograms per cubic meter as the maximum safe level. The figures are startling. Around 4400 people die daily in China from air pollution alone. And yet, with research behind such devastating figures pointing the finger firmly at coal usage, India’s answer has been to shock the world with plans which will see coal maintained as its primary source of energy, with a consequent threefold increase in carbon emissions over the next 15 years and surpass the US to become the world’s second largest emitter by 2030.

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The rhetoric justifying India’s continued reliance on coal for its energy needs is old and tried; the kind that the US and China have respectively left gathering dust in their political basements. Coal is essential for development, the story goes, in a nation where 300 million still have no access to electricity. In this line of argument, carbon emissions are a necessary evil in lifting a significant section of India’s populace out of poverty, effectively trumping climate change issues on the milk-of-human-kindness scale. Renewable energy is also too expensive to produce, with solar energy approximately twice the cost of coal for instance, and capital investments to initiate these alternative energy sources utterly unaffordable. Additionally, why should India foot the bill of restructuring its energy industry when other nations currently use far more coal than they themselves, and who have built their own economic successes upon a historical exploitation of fossil fuels? Every time India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, pulls these arguments out of his hat, delivered in the most emotively appealing terms, it is difficult not to believe him. That aside, it should be remembered that COP21’s main aim is to lock rising temperatures to a maximum of 2C or lower, with even a 1.5C rise carrying the potential for ecological devastation and not to change the past.

The rhetoric justifying India’s continued reliance on coal for its energy needs is old and tried; the kind that the US and China have respectively left gathering dust in their political basements.

In a well-rehearsed attempt at conciliation, a senior Indian diplomat offered to cut back on coal usage if cash was made readily available to invest in renewables. So desperate have certain sections of the media and diplomatic community become to force a deal at any cost, that India’s patent attempt to hold the planet’s future to ransom has been largely welcomed. Hence the ire that has been leveled at the reluctance of developed nations to extend current funding levels, with India amongst the first to accuse the developed nations of shirking from their historical responsibilities.

But in practice such reluctance is entirely understandable, since there is little guarantee that the money in question will reach the places for which it is intended, and not end up being funneled away by kleptocratic elites. Just a few years ago, Indian politicians were accused of stealing billions of dollars worth of food from the nation’s poor. And any efforts to implement some kind of control on the outflow of this funding, to compensate for the sinkhole-like nature of many developing economies, has so far been squarely opposed. Opposition to official recognition of south-south flows of climate financing is just one such example; documenting, as it does, the fact that many formerly developing nations, those to whom eco-funding is extended, are in many cases now richer than the nations that are being asked to do the funding. India’s insistence on handouts does not take into account the fact that many developing nations enjoy healthier balance sheets than the crisis-ridden European Union or the US.

China’s arguments about intergenerational and intergenerational equity have fallen by the wayside in light of the stark realities of pollution’s ill-effects upon human health. The US has likewise realized that it is within its own interests to tackle carbon emissions whilst the transition from traditional energy sources to renewables is still manageable.  It shows a remarkable lack of foresight then for a nation to risk having the rug pulled from underneath it, rather than making the gradual but insistent changes that the world seems committed to. Perhaps even more remarkable, for those who point to India’s less than satisfactory plans to introduce some renewable energies alongside its increasing coal usage, is that any nation would be willing to continue to allow the pollution related deaths of its own citizens to this extent.

Indeed, if India continues in its plans to triple coal usage over the next 15 years, China’s current tally of 4’400 deaths per day may not only be eclipsed but left seeming relatively insignificant.