Right now in India, the heat is literally causing roads to melt. The country is in the midst of a crippling heat wave, having experienced its highest temperature ever recorded last week and conditions have only continued. Extreme events like this—drought, rising temperatures, flooding and more storms—are becoming the new norm for countries like India thanks to climate change. While India—and countries like it—bears the brunt of the impacts, it is also increasingly becoming a major source of the problem. India is the fastest growing emitter in the world and still has 300 million people left in the dark.
The traditional path for lighting up those millions more would be coal. Cheap coal powered the development of Europe, the U.S., and so many other countries. But recognizing the climate costs—combined with consistently low natural gas prices and the falling costs of renewables—much of the world is now turning against coal. Americans are using 29% less coal to power electricity than they were less than a decade ago. Britain—the birthplace of the coal-fired power station—has started going coal-free for the first time since 1882. Even China, in the midst of a “war on pollution” and committed to confronting climate change, is closing more than a thousand coal mines this year, and halting the construction of new mines and most new coal plants.
As the world’s current largest emitters switch off many of their coal-fired power plants, will coal supplies shift to poorer, emerging economies looking to grow using the same well-worn path? Or, in an age of increased awareness of coal’s trade-offs, will these countries choose to leave more and more of those coal resources in the ground? There is an immense opportunity for emerging economies to choose the latter—carving out a new, sustainable development pathway the world has yet to experience. And, India will be a key test case. (Learn more on how in EPIC’s Off the Charts podcast)
The Indian government has repeatedly said that coal must be the foundation of its energy system in order to get electricity to the hundreds of millions who still need it. That is, unless it receives significant financial help and technological support from other countries (More on the role wealthy nations could play in a future post, so stay tuned). These officials are following the pattern of growth used up to this point. It goes something like this: Countries need cheap energy to grow and increase the well-being of their population. So they burn coal, coal helps build industries, and with them a growing economy that also fosters a healthier community.
Indeed, India currently meets more than 77% of its electricity demand by burning coal. And, a close look at the country’s commitment from Paris reflects that coal will remain a substantial portion of India’s energy mix. India has agreed to cut carbon intensity—not carbon levels—by 30%. That means that as the economy continues to grow to triple or even five times what it is today, carbon emissions and other forms of pollution will grow with it.
This poses a major problem for India, and for other countries looking to grow who are experiencing what the world has now discovered are the trade-offs to coal-powered growth. For one, coal leads to severe pollution that shortens lifespans and can even hold back progress. Coal use has already caused severe pollution in India, with it now containing 13 of the 20 most polluted cities measured in the world and pollution there cutting lives short by three years.
Another problem: Emissions from burning coal drives climate change, and climate change is already impacting India and countries like it. In India, the heat and little rain has inflicted a drought that is affecting 330 million people and severely impacting the country’s agricultural sector—which supports more than 50% of India’s population—leading to news of debts, deaths and even farmer suicides. The same deadly heat wave is affecting millions across South Asia, shattering records.
There are signs Indian leaders have learned that more coal use will only make this situation grimmer, so they are trying not to repeat the mistakes of the past by basing their growth on coal. Earlier this month, India announced that it plans to shut down 37 gigawatts of power coming from aging coal-fired power plants citing effort to cut pollution, water usage and emissions. That’s only 12% of the country’s total capacity, but it might be just the beginning.
The country has found that there may be a different model for growth. One that could be just as cheap, and maybe even cheaper, than coal. That’s solar. India set an ambitious goal to get 175 gigawatts of its energy from renewables—mostly from solar—by 2022, and has required utilities to offer solar power to drive down costs. That effort, combined with other factors, seems to be working. Indian officials have now claimed that solar prices in the country have dropped to around parity with coal at about 6 cents a kilowatt-hour, compared to around 5 to 8 cents for coal. If true, and this price trend continues, solar could be as much as 10% cheaper than coal by 2020. Whether these projections are realized, remains to be seen. If they are, solar would certainly be a game changer.
India is clearly at a crossroads, and many other fast growing countries with low energy access, like Nigeria or Zambia, are not far behind. Relying on a development model with coal at its foundation will only exacerbate the deadly pollution and crippling climate side effects that are holding back progress in their countries. India has the potential to blaze a new path—one that will improve their people’s health and welfare while maintaining strong growth. Emerging economies are watching closely. And, they’re waiting to follow.