Coal train in India. Photo: Smeet Chowdhury/Flickr

India, coal, and carbon

Julio Friedmann


India, Coal, and Carbon

Two fundamental viewpoints frame my thinking as a Carbon Wrangler. The first is arithmetic. As I’ve said before in several blogs (here here and here), the arithmetic of climate change drives an agenda focused on rapid and profound CO2 reductions. This arithmetic is unforgiving and reveals important conclusions (i.e., industrial heat is a big deal).

The second viewpoint is that people make choices for understandable reasons, even choices against their interests. Progress in clean energy, sustainability and climate requires that people make choices that deliver those outcomes. However, they may very well choose otherwise for reasons they deem valid. Understanding this is essential to the work of climate and energy and requires both generosity and humility.

I found myself grappling with these countervailing viewpoints while reading a new piece on coal in India, Land of Contradictions. This excellent deep-dive, written by Akshat Rathi and Kuwar Singh of Quartz, lays out the realities of who, how and why India consumes nearly 1 billion tons of coal each year.

Feel free to pause reading this blog and read this journalistic masterpiece — I’ll wait.

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India is slated to be the world’s most populous nation in 2040. Although the country reports 99.4% electrification, it also reports that ~300 million people lack access to electricity (meaning reliable supply). Roughly 160 million Indians lack access to clean water. These issues are priorities for the Modi government, which has made astonishing progress to date.

While serving in the U.S. government, I had the good fortune to meet with high-level Indian officials as part of a US-India project. We met with Minister Goyal, the CEOs of National Thermal Power Company and other state companies, and with heads of Indian universities and National Labs. This was my second foray into India — my first was with an Australian flagship delegation in 2006.

Here’s what I learned:

· I don’t make policy in India. Neither does anyone else in the US or any other nation. It seems obvious, but it’s striking how many believe we can dictate what other countries do. There’s a word for that: colonialism (something India knows a bit about).

· Jobs and energy access matter. Fun facts: the coal sector is the second largest employer in India. The largest is the railways. The railways’ primary revenue comes from moving coal. These jobs are relatively secure, well paid and woven into regional and national politics. With this backdrop, Indian coal can’t be wished away.

Coal workers in India. Photo: IE (Financial Express)

· It’s not always about cost or price. Government officials and politician never ask “What’s the thermodynamic and economic optimum?” around energy policy. World-wide, they generally support policies they think serve their nation and their constituents (and sometimes, their party). For example, supporting domestic industry can serve to create self-sufficiency, robust supply chains, help disadvantaged communities, preserve public health, or maintain important sectors. While obvious, it means that in some cases inefficient sectors will be propped up even when other approaches are cheaper.

· India’s government is India’s government: The world’s largest democracy charts its own path. The wide number of parties, specific aspects of the Constitution, and the nature of the Parliament of India make dealing with complex issues like energy markets and fuels fraught. As complex as politics may be in the UK or US, it’s fair to say one can expect more complexity in India at the National and Provincial level.

· Access and alternatives: The defining energy issue in India is energy access, not energy transition. Many Indian’s primary energy comes from “traditional biomass” (aka dung) with enormous costs to health and economy. Many Indian citizens lack access to electricity. Solar can (and does) provide a solution to this challenge. So can large hydro. So can coal.

These facts underscore the contradictions in balancing the two viewpoints. Climate arithmetic demands that India cease using coal substantively at once. It’s also pretty clear that won’t happen, because Indians have valid reasons to keep using coal and few alternatives that scale and provide accessibility.

I honestly don’t know how to reduce coal emissions in India now or in the future. I do believe carbon wrangling will prove important, especially carbon capture and storage (CCS) on India’s current coal fleet. Leaders in India know CCS is inevitable and will save jobs, create jobs, improve health, add flexibility, and locally spare money.

That said, it’s obscene to ask a country like India to deploy CCUS today. The added cost of CCS can’t be justified today in a nation working furiously to provide electricity and clean water to its citizens and which emits 1/6th of the US per capita.

So what’s useful now? I’m not sure, but a few ideas suggest themselves:

· Prepare: If India knows it will eventually deploy CCS, it can direct its geological survey to assess CO2 storage resources in key regions, identify potential early low-cost projects, and seek global partners in the work.

· Innovate: Indian universities stand among the best in the world, with great capabilities in engineering, computing, and sustainability. As part of a clean energy initiative, the Indian Govt. could fund Indian Institute of Technology and other schools to develop indigenous technologies in CO2 capture, conversion and use that suit India’s markets and needs.

· Partner: Many nations around the world would welcome the chance to join India to solve vexing climate and energy issues as an equal. In the carbon wrangling arena, Australia, Canada, Norway, the UK, and the US have much to offer if they could be generous and respectful of India’s needs, history, and political exigencies.

· Amend its Paris commitments: India could add carbon management demonstrations to its Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Accord, as over 10 nations have already done. This might provide a timeline for action to 2030, teeing up international support and possible financing options and creating incentives for action in country.

Ultimately, India will have to chart its own course on these issues. The world is messy, and people have complex, contradictory needs. We should focus on what can be done today and chart a course for what must be done soon.

That takes determination, patience, and humility. God give us all those qualities — the work will be with us for a long time.



Julio Friedmann

I’ve spent my career trying to keep CO2 out of the air and oceans, and more recently trying to remove CO2 from them. Carbon Wrangling full time.