By Somini Sengupta, Jacqueline Williams and Aruna Chandrasekhar
The vast, untapped coal reserve in northeastern Australia had for years been the object of desire for the Indian industrial giant Adani.
In June, when the Australian authorities granted the company approval to extract coal from the reserve, they weren’t just rewarding its lobbying and politicking, they were also opening the door for Adani to realize its grand plan for a coal supply chain that stretches across three countries.
Coal from the Australian operation, known as the Carmichael project, would be transported to India, where the company is building a new power plant for nearly $2 billion to produce electricity. That power would be sold next door in Bangladesh.
Adani’s victory in Australia helped to ensure that coal will remain woven into the economy and lives of those three countries, which together have a quarter of the planet’s population, for years, if not decades. This, despite warnings by scientists that reducing coal burning is key to staving off the most disastrous effects of climate change.
The story of Adani and its Australian project illustrates why the world keeps burning coal despite its profound danger — and despite falling prices for options like natural gas, wind and solar.
At the global level, coal faces powerful headwinds. Renewable energy is getting cheaper as it expands. Private investors around the world are shying away from new projects. At the same time, public health officials are increasingly alarmed that air pollution, including the dangerous particles that come from coal plants, is shaving years off people’s lives.
“If you just looked at the social costs of air pollution, coal is so bad that, if those are added in as a tax, no coal plant would make economic sense,” said Anant Sudarshan, an economist at the University of Chicago who studies energy policy.