Coal Mines of India: An Open Letter to Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change

coal mine

Dear Dr. Harsh Vardhan,

Greetings from Sagar, Western Ghats, Karnataka.

May I draw your kind attention and also the attention of the entire Cabinet of the Union govt. along with the Prime Minister to a recent Court ruling in Australia, wherein a NSW judge has cited climate change in a landmark ruling, blocking plans to develop an open-cut coal mine in the state’s Hunter Valley region?  The Chief Judge of the New South Wales Land and Environment Court in rejecting the proposed Rocky Hill mine, has said in his judgment: “The GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions of the coal mine and its coal product will increase global total concentrations of GHGs at a time when what is now urgently needed, in order to meet generally agreed climate targets, is a rapid and deep decrease in GHG emissions. These dire consequences should be avoided. The project should be refused,..”

He is also reported to have stated: “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we must phase out most coal globally by 2030. That’s now 11 years away. It’s time to choose between coal or a stable climate. Because we can’t have both.  The Project will be a material source of GHG emissions and contribute to climate change. Approval of the Project will not assist in achieving the rapid and deep reductions in GHG emissions that are needed now in order to balance emissions by sources with removals by sinks of GHGs in the second half of this century and achieve the generally agreed goal of limiting the increase in global average temperature to well below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels. “

This development on the coal power sector in Australia, which is a very large producer, exporter  and consumer of coal all these years, can be said to be very significant, and should of huge relevance to India. The reasons given by the  New South Wales Land and Environment Court in rejecting the proposed Rocky Hill coal mine are of critical importance to India too at a time when there is a sort of Climate Emergency.

Two related news links are as below:

Australian court rejects proposed Rocky Hill mine on climate change grounds

The win to stop the Rocky Hill coalmine happened in the right place and just in time

This 700 paragraph judgment has carefully analysed the facts and evidence provided before it, and is said to have applied orthodox legal reasoning to the findings. Ultimately, the court concludes that the Rocky Hill coalmine is in the “wrong place at the wrong time.” The “wrong place” because of its impact on the Gloucester Valley.  And the “wrong time” because the mine will increase global greenhouse gas emissions “at a time when what is now urgently needed … is a rapid and deep decrease in emissions.”   Emeritus professor Will Steffen was reported to have told the court: “Step number 1, if you’re really serious about the Paris targets, is no new fossil fuel developments. I mean, it doesn’t take an Einstein to work that out, that you cannot reduce emissions by increasing them.” If India is serious about its global obligations and is determined to uphold the spirit of Paris agreement, it must not keep on adding coal power capacity, when there are very many benign options to meet the legitimate need for electricity of our communities.

This landmark ruling has the potential to impact additional coal power plants around the world, and hence can be seen as of enormous relevance to India.  At a time when a global Climate Emergency is being sensed by scientific community, this ruling should resonate in India too.  On 10 September 2018, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is reported to have said in a speech he gave in New York, “Climate change is the defining issue of our time. We face a direct existential threat. If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change, with disastrous consequences for people and all the natural systems that sustain us. I have spoken of the emergency we face.”

India, having officially sought to take a global leadership role in combating the threats of Climate Change, can only appreciate what UN Secretary General has said.  But sadly, there has been no indication so far that the number of coal power plants, which are the major source of GHG emissions, and which have been devastating the lives of the communities around the coal mines and coal power plants, is coming down in India. On the contrary, their numbers can only be seen as increasing in the near future, with devastating consequences to our country, as indicated by many govt. reports and policies, and as highlighted by few news links below.

52 coal mines opened in 5 years to fuel power drive


CEA study finds 200 new sites for thermal power plants of 428.9GW

Whereas, one would expect that all ministries and agencies of the govt. work in unison towards a common principle, it is highly deplorable that some ministries, such as that of coal and power, seem to be completely unaware of the need to minimize the GHG emissions from coal power.  Even if these ministries take recourse to dubiously argue that the onus of addressing the threats of Climate Change lie with MoEF&CC, can we say that MOEF&CC has been covering itself with glory on all the related issues?

Permitting 52 coal mines in the last 5 years cannot be associated with any responsible governance, especially since the UNFCCC through IPCC reports has been warning the unacceptable threats of Climate Change for more than 10 year now. The diversion of large tracts of forest/agricultural lands for these coal mines, coal power plants, ash ponds, associated transmission lines, vast amounts of fresh water for the associated activities, resultant pollution of air, water and soil cannot be in the interests of any community, while continuing to mock at the international efforts on combating the Climate Change.

The fact that the mandarins at CEA continue to show scant regard to the imperatives of Climate Change, and also continue to take a lot of pride in deplorable activities such as identifying 200 new sites for thermal power plants of additional capacity 428.9 GW should be seen as clear indication of the wrong direction of the concerned ministry, and may even indicate the dichotomy of the purpose of the govt.  CEA, having been given the tag as the apex body in the development of power sector, should have been utilizing much of its resources in advising the Union govt. as to how to move away from the over-reliance on conventional power technologies.

It will be a sort of criminal act of negligence for the concerned authorities to continue to ignore the fact that the thermal power companies account for about 80% of all industrial emissions of particulate matter, sulphur and nitrous oxides in India, as per many credible reports.

It speaks volumes about the lack of due diligence adopted by our authorities in energy related planning, when many study reports have come to the conclusion that immediate fossil fuel phase-out could minimise the impacts of Climate Change.  It is highly deplorable that the concerned authorities seem to view the phenomenon of Climate Change as happening in a distant planet, and that it has nothing to do with India or themselves or their families.

The latest UN report (IPCC of 2018) has warned that there were 12 years remaining to avoid the worst effects of global warming, from record-breaking droughts and heat waves to warming oceans and melting ice sheets.  Such a scenario of global emergency demands immediate action to reduce the coal burning all over the world so as to make the total global GHG emissions net zero by 2030.  But Indian scenario has been one of continuing to identify more coal power plant sites even in late 2018 and to encourage opening up of additional coal mines, which is to abhorrent to say the least.  It is a disservice to the whole country, if our authorities continue to ignore the credible projections that India will be one of the worst affected countries from the impacts of Climate Change.

Immediate fossil fuel phase-out could arrest climate change – study

When we take into objective account the fact that the direct subsidies alone to coal industry is said to be about 400 times the annual budget of the MoEF&CC, as in the news analysis below, the horrific picture of the completely misplaced priorities in our governance or even of corruption at high levels may become evidently clear. If we also take into account the various indirect subsidies or societal costs associated with coal industry (such as pollution, health issues, reduced agricultural production etc.), the deeply entrenched lobby of a few corporate houses or influential individuals in our governance structure should become evident.

Any responsible govt. should find it impossible to ignore the fact that over 100 major global financial institutions have introduced policies restricting coal funding. As per a recent report by Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), since 2013, coal exit announcements have occurred at a rate of over one per month from globally significant banks and insurers holding more than US$10bn worth of assets under management. This report found that since the start of 2018, there have been 34 new or significantly improved announcements from global financial institutions restricting coal.

Government Subsidies For Coal Nearly 400 Times More Than Environment Ministry Budget


Over 100 Global Financial Institutions Are Exiting Coal, With More to Come

There have been numerous reports/studies like these, which have unambiguously stated that for environmental, reputational and financial reasons, thermal coal has become a toxic asset for global investors, who have been increasingly announcing new and improved policies responding to climate change.  For the Indian scenario coal power plants have become not only financially and economically toxic assets, but socially and environmentally devastating too.

The fact that govt. has been clearly aware of the massive societal costs of continuing to prop up the coal power sector should also become clear by the recent development that there are proposals to assist the coal power companies to the tune of more than $12 billions in installing pollution reducing devices.  The deeply troubling question in this regard is why the authorities have not considered to spend the same amount in increasing the renewable energy capacity (and the associated infrastructure), and thereby completely eliminating all the associated social costs and risks of coal power plants by shutting them down gradually but on a priority basis.   It is even more shocking that the govt. is continuing its dubious policy of investing in coal power sector despite being aware of the scenario of economic irrelevance of the coal power plants for the future, as revealed in a news article below, that about 50 GW capacity of coal based power projects may get cancelled.

India proposes more than $12 billion of pollution-reducing incentives

Govt may cancel 50 GW coal-based power projects: S&P Global Platts

The cause for overall societal concern will further escalate when we realize that our country is projected to need about 600 GW of additional power capacity by 2050 to meet the Air-conditioning load alone, for which the coal industry will a direct contributor.  Rocky Mountain Institute, US has calculated that India may have to spend nearly Rs. 38 trillion on the 600 GW of additional power generation capacity that will be needed to serve the additional power demand on account of Air-conditioning alone due to urbanization and a warming planet by 2050.  Such a massive additional power demand due to Air-conditioning alone will pose enormous problems to the country, and will be a consequence of the utter neglect of our natural resources, for which the massive coal power capacity will be a major contributing factor in reducing the forest cover, in increasing the local as well as global temperature, and putting unbearable pressure on land, water and air pollution.

Heated Budget debates and cold air: Air-conditioning’s profound implications on India

The picture of a failed/un-substantiated energy policy of the Union govt. should become even more evident when we care to acknowledge that the cost of electricity (and the net price for the society) from the renewable energy sources (REs) is plunging with the passage of each year, and that there are many credible studies from around the world to indicate that these renewable energy sources are techno-economically suitable to meet the entire electricity demand of our communities, provided there are suitable policy interventions, and that these REs  are available at lowest societal costs. Whereas the price of REs will go down further, the costs associated with coal power can only keep increasing forever.

Solar power cost will fall to Rs 1.9 per unit in India by 2030: TERI study

Whereas many people like me have been trying to persuade the officials in CEA and Power Ministry to diligently consider how India’s power needs can be techno-economically and sustainably met by REs, these authorities seem to continue to take an Ostrich like approach of conveniently ignoring the associated developments from around the world. You may like to persuade/force them to objectively consider a number of related simulation studies on how 100 percent of electricity needs of the planet can be met by  Renewable Wind, Water, and Solar (WWS) Power.

You may like to ask them to diligently look into two simulation studies by Prof. Mark Z. Jacobson, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Stanford University, US:  (i) A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables; (ii) Roadmaps for 139 Countries and the 50 United States to Transition to 100% Clean, Renewable Wind, Water, and Solar (WWS) Power for all Purposes by 2050 and 80% by 2030. The fact that Prof. Jacobson, was invited to make a Written Testimony to the United States House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce Democratic Forum on Climate Change November 19, 2015 is a clear testimony to the importance of these simulation studies to the global community.

All these developments will undoubtedly devastate our communities and have the potential to take our natural resources to a point of no return, unless the govt. takes urgent and clearly unambiguous policy to do away with coal power in the near future, say by 2040.

Finance Minister Piyush Goyal’s recent articulation for a vision for a “pollution-free nation (driving) on electric vehicles with renewables becoming a major source of energy supply, bringing down import-dependence and ensuring energy security for our people” can only be termed as just a rhetoric statement, unless the policies of the govt. do not reduce or completely eliminate the reliance on coal power in particular and fossil fuels in general.

In this context, what has become imperative is a clear, un-ambiguous, and time bound policy to quickly minimize the dependence on coal power in the country so as to make it almost zero by 2035/40.  It is very disturbing that the govt. has not even deemed it necessary to identify a target year for the peak coal capacity, whereas many countries from around the world have already declared the target year to completely stop coal power before 2040.

In summary, may I state that it will be disastrous for the country to continue to adopt a business as usual policy in the energy and environment sector, and will also be deemed by its own people to be totally irresponsible if the govt. continues to persist with the coal reliant energy policy.  Unless there are urgent and effective policies to arrest the scenario of run away Climate Change, the global community will hold India as an international villain than as a leader.


Shankar Sharma, Power Policy Analyst


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