New Report Zeroes in on the Grim Cost of India’s Fondness for Coal Power

According to the report, Kolkata is expected to have more premature deaths due to "air pollution from coal" than Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai by 2030.

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Bengaluru: A global consortium led by the mayors of major cities has produced a report indicting coal-based power for its devastating environmental and health consequences, including its potential to render ineffective commitments to the Paris Agreement.

The consortium, called C40 Cities, released the ‘Coal-free cities: the health and economic case for a clean energy revolution’ report in September 2021. Its principal points are about coal’s effects on cities’ public-health goals, economies and productivity, alternatives to coal energy, and achieving a just transition to ‘green’ power.

The report’s predictions for the future are exemplified by an ‘ambition gap’. This is the gap between a specific outcome as it would evolve if the world committed fully to the Paris Agreement’s terms and if the world continues operating as it currently does, a.k.a. the ‘business as usual’ scenario.

The Paris Agreement requires its signatories to commit to limiting global average surface temperature warming to 2º C – and if possible to 1.5º C. The report uses the stricter 1.5º C limit.

According to the report that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published on August 7, Earth’s surface will warm by at least 1.4º (over the pre-industrial era) anyway.

The heart of the ambition gap is illustrated by the following chart, from the report:

Source: C40 Cities

(Note: The y-axis is logarithmic.)

India has the world’s second-highest number of operating and planned coal power plants (combined, in shades of grey) and no such plants scheduled to be retired by 2030 (blue). According to the report, “The C40 cities that will experience the most significant increases in coal capacity within 500 km (and resultant increases in air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions) are in China, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam.”

Worse yet, while India, China and the US have the most coal plants in operation, India is expected to retire the fewest plants by 2030.

Based on this data, the report offers the following ambition-gap projection for multiple countries:

Source: C40 Cities

The city-level implications are more grim. According to the report, Kolkata is expected to have the most premature deaths due to “air pollution from coal” among all C40 cities in India and the world.

In fact, despite its ill reputation for foul air, New Delhi it is fourth in terms of the projected number of premature deaths in India due to coal use, after Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai. The only other Indian city on the list is Bengaluru.

Based on these findings, Deccan Herald reported on September 30, “Bengaluru’s air pollution, already three times above the WHO guidelines, will double within the next 10 years if the Union government goes ahead with the planned expansion of coal fleet by 28%”.

The 500-km figure comes from the following assumption: “We selected an area of 500 km because emissions from coal plants travel long distances, across jurisdictional borders, and because electricity used within a given city can be produced up to several hundred kilometres from the city.”

The report concludes that the coal plans of “not one of the 10 nations that together account for 86% of the world’s total coal capacity” – including India – are not in line with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5º C limit.

This is not entirely surprising vis-à-vis Asia. In July this year, a think-tank called Carbon Tracker reported that only five countries on the continent will be building 80% of the world’s new coal power plants: China, India, Indonesia, Japan and Vietnam.

As for India itself: Reuters has reported that a draft of the National Energy Policy 2021, accessed in February this year, outlined a policy to continue building coal power plants because they provide the cheapest power.

The draft document also reportedly recommended tightening pollution-control norms, but this make just be a token statement. Earlier this year, the Indian government extended the deadline for coal power plants to adopt new emissions norms by three years. Environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta has also pointed out on multiple occasions, India has become enamoured of the ‘polluter pays’ principle, allowing originators of different kinds of pollution to pay a fine and continue polluting.

In 2015, India introduced new norms that required all power plants commissioned from 2003 to 2016 to cap their NOx emissions at 300 mg/m3. In late 2020, the government increased the cap to 450 mg/m3 and pushed the adoption deadline from 2017 to 2022. The influential non-profit IEA Clean Coal Centre has already asked India to reconsider the cap increase.

According to the C40 report, “The impact of air pollution on urban health has economic consequences through associated healthcare costs, and the economic losses from disability and premature death. Air pollution also impacts urban economies through a reduction in labour productivity and an increase in work absence.”

(There is also a significant class skew in India: at least one study has found that air pollution could be up to nine-times as likely to result in the death of a poorer person than a richer one.)

In December 2020, an inquest in the UK concluded that the death of a young girl named Ella Kissi-Debrah in 2013, by a fatal asthma attack, was was the consequence of air pollution.

Analysing the landmark finding, air-pollution experts Santosh Harish and Bhargav Krishna wrote in The Wire Science:

Ella’s story highlights two important aspects of this crisis for us in India. One, air pollution exposure is a serious risk factor for children with lifelong consequences, and which requires prioritising policies targeting children and pregnant women. Two, policymakers, researchers and advocates need to give special attention to pollution hotspots in parallel with air quality at aggregate levels.

One important kind of hotspot are coal power plants. In July this year, journalist Seema Sharma reported on a study by an international group of researchers, who found that “the deaths of 1.05 million people in 2017 could have been averted if we had eliminated fossil fuels everywhere – and as many as half of them just by not burning coal.”

Thus, the C40 report says, “The world needs to reduce its coal-use needs … by 61% within 500 km of C40 cities by 2030” as well as that the planet “cannot afford a continued coal expansion between now and 2026 in major coal-using countries.”

Additional charts from the report pertaining to Indian cities follow.

Source: C40 Cities

Source: C40 Cities

Source: C40 Cities

Source: C40 Cities