Saturday, June 06, 2015

King coal's final battle will be in ... India?

First, some good news about coal, before we get into bad news ;)
The biggest surprise is the slowdown in consumption in China, which burns half the world’s coal. Last year’s fall in demand no longer looks like a blip. In the first four months of 2015 it fell 8% year-on-year (and imports dropped by a stonking 38%). Environmental worries are spurring China to increase energy efficiency and boost its use of natural gas and renewables, particularly wind power.
Now, before you run out into the street rejoicing that coal is dead, that same report ends with this:
Coal may be unpopular, but it is not doomed. Its share of world primary-energy use is falling from a peak of 30% in 2010, but only to a likely 25% in 2035, according to BP’s annual energy forecast. For poor countries which prize growth over greenery, coal seems indispensable: cheap, abundant and reliable. India in particular is betting heavily on it.
India is betting on coal. Big time.

Ok, you sat up.  Good.

Think about the complex web of industries whose business is to manufacture equipment to use coal. If China is thinking twice about coal, then what would you do?
Just because momentum is shifting away from coal in China does not mean that the country is no longer part of the global coal boom. A glut in coal power equipment among Chinese manufacturers has led to China becoming a leading exporter — buoyed by state-affiliated banks and export-credits — with important implications for India’s power sector portfolio.
Yes, the coal train gets routed to India.
Over 60 per cent of India’s coal power equipment ordered by private developers in the past decade has come from Chinese vendors, commonly with the financial backing of Chinese state banks, amounting to over 100 GW of coal power installed or in the pipeline involving Chinese firms.
 With the world worried about coal, and with even China deeply concerned about using coal, you might wonder why India is betting so much on coal.  It is simple:
People living without electricity don’t just want to see in the dark, they want to live in light as others do.
And how many such people live in India without electricity?  More than the entire population of the United States!  If you want a taste of such a life, go completely off the grid for an entire day: nothing that involves electricity.  Nah, don't try that--I am worried you will go insane.  Instead, try to understand the coal situation in India before you get all high and mighty about banning coal and about divestment--especially when your money comes from selling fossil fuels!

So, back to India ... 
 If the coal power sector overcomes the current procedural and judicial barriers, growth could proceed quickly, aided by inexpensive imports from China. China and India’s coal power sectors are intertwined. How it plays out will have important climate impactions.
The world will increasingly note India's coal consumption.  In the fall, as scientists, reporters, and activists, gear up for the climate conference in Paris, expect to read and hear quite a bit about India's coal consumption.  
To many western environmentalists, who are determined to see a binding global deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the UN climate change conference in Paris later this year, India’s rising coal use is anathema. However, across a broad range of Delhi politicians and policymakers there is near unanimity. There is, they say, simply no possibility that at this stage in its development India will agree to any form of emissions cap, let alone a cut.
When 400 million-plus people have no electricity, and when environment-friendly alternatives like solar and wind simply cannot be scaled up to meet that kind of a demand with the current technological capabilities, India will turn to coal a lot more.  Especially when coal prices start plunging, thanks to countries like Australia having placed their bets on China buying coal.   
[Navroz] Dubash, a lead author of the IPCC’s reports, is personally in no doubt as to the need to reduce global emissions. ... In India, he added, the number of people who consume as much energy as anyone deemed to be above the official poverty line in the developed world is, at most, a few tens of millions. Everyone else consumes less. “From a global perspective, you have to give India carbon headroom.”
Which means:
“By 2030, coal use is projected … to be 2.5-three times current levels,” the report says. Even with stringent policy action to increase the deployment of renewables and increase energy efficiency, “coal use is projected by all but one study to be more than two times current levels”.
With the result:
The consequence is that if, as the projections suggest, India’s emissions grow between two and three times by 2030, “India could be the second largest global emitter within the next decade.” Its projected output – between 4bn and 5.7bn tonnes of carbon dioxide each year – will surpass that of the US, which in 2011 was 5.3bn tonnes and falling, and be smaller only than China’s.
This projected emissions from India will be a big reason why there will be a lot of emphasis on the country that by 2028 will have a population that will exceed China's.  India's politicians and analysts are gearing up for the conference:
Nitin Desai is a retired UN diplomat, who organised the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and later represented the UN secretary-general at international climate conferences. He is now a member of a small expert panel advising Modi in the lead-up to Paris. “In a country with blackouts and so many people without access to electricity, can I really manage without developing more coal?” he asked. “Why should we be accountable? The pressure should be on the countries whose per capita emissions are much higher. If you try to force India to adopt emissions targets, you will fail.”
Let's face it--the only way we can avoid the coal train wreck is if the developed, richer, countries--beginning with the US--make developing cheaper and scalable alternatives as important as, if not more important than, the mission to send humans to the moon and bring them back.  If we don't--and it looks like we don't care a shit about the urgency of developing alternatives--then we have to accept dramatic increases in coal consumption, and in GHG emissions, in India--even if it chokes the life out of people there :(

Caption at the source:
Mining overburden in the Singrauli coalfield. Photograph: Greenpeace/Sudhanshu Malhotra 

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