In a move at odds with calls from the United Nations, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the wider global audience that has its sights trained on the environmental status quo, draft electricity policy documents viewed by Reuters have shown that India is open to the possibility of further developing its fleet of coal-fired power plants as they generate the cheapest power.
This 28-page policy draft – which has not been made public – showed India may add new coal-fired capacity. Despite claims it would do so with ‘ultra super critical’ less polluting technologies, this potential shift would be a move made in opposition to current trends.
“While India is committed to add more capacity through non-fossil sources of generation, coal-based generation capacity may still be required to be added in the country as it continues to be the cheapest source of generation,” the NEP draft read.
Coal power and the health of the Indian population
Yet beyond the face-value economics, warnings have been cast over the potential outcomes that will arrive alongside a continued scaling-up of and investment into coal power infrastructure.
“Investing in fossil fuels means more deaths and illness and rising healthcare costs. It is, simply put, a human disaster and bad economics,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a virtual address to the Energy and Resources Institute, a New Delhi-based environment think-tank, in August 2020.
A study published in SN Applied Sciences showed that individuals living near coal-fired thermal power plants were more susceptible to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, including upper respiratory tract infection and asthma. Those living within a 5km radius of the coal-fired thermal power plants were said to feel a definite ‘health impact’. Findings also detailed how increases in coal consumption between 2014 have correlated with an increased amount of particulate matter (PM 2.5) which has led to an increase in asthma attacks, and premature mortality. In line with this increase, estimations across India suggest that asthma attacks increased by 23.4 million in the year 2017, 28.4 million in 2020, and are projected to hit 42.7 million in the year 2030.
Further to these fallouts, India also has to contend with immense levels of air pollution, with coal acting as a major contributor to the issue. This extends far beyond the headline-trapping New Delhi, the world’s most polluted capital city. A recent study on air pollution published in IATSS Research showed that most residents of India endure air pollution levels exceeding the safety limits set by national and international standards. It is unsurprising, therefore, that India is home to 21 of the world’s thirty most polluted cities according to IQAir AirVisual’s 2019 World Air Quality Report.
As The Wire reported, amongst the various reasons why Indian cities continue to top the world’s ‘most polluted’ lists, “there is no denying that chronic exposure to air pollution shortens our life and everything we burn contributes to this problem: coal, diesel, petrol, gas, wood, cow dung, plastics, waste, crackers, crop-residue. Studies conducted by the WHO and Indian institutions have documented this many times and still we ignore the gravity of the problem.”
The broader economic implications
Such levels of air pollution – which bring a range of health challenges – also introduce far-ranging economic burdens. As Health Issues India previously reported, a study conducted by researchers from the Global Observatory on Pollution and Health at Boston College, the Indian Council of Medical Research, and the Public Health Foundation of India, found that air pollution accounted for $36.8 billion worth of economic damage to India, an impact translating to 1.36 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
Others now estimate it goes further than this. A recent study published by industry group CII; Clean Air Fund, a charity; and consulting firm Dalberg estimates that air pollution costs Indian businesses US$95 billion every year, and cuts annual consumer spending by US$22 billion. Coal is clearly damaging the environment, but the far-reaching impacts on the economy and health underline the severity of reusing to divest.
A commitment to non-fossil sources of energy
Beyond arguments on health and economy, there is another crux – India’s nationally determined contributions that are at the heart of its long-term climate goals agreed upon at the Paris Agreement.
Commitments to reducing emissions intensity and increasing the share of non-fossil-based energy feel a jarring contradiction to the possibility of India increasing its coal-fired power capacity. For a country where coal-fired power remains the biggest single contributor to emissions, and where about half of the world’s fifty most polluted cities, umbilical-like ties to coal must be cut.
Such changes matter for India more than most.