The Black Gold(s)

Climate Stalemate: Uncle-Twinkle Dialogue on Planetary Politics – Part 6

coal mine worker

Uncle: You know, Twinkle, it was Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist, who pointed out more than a hundred years ago that the emission of carbon dioxide (CO2) from fossil fuel burning could result in global warming. But the issue remained academic until the middle of the 20th century. Only after 1950 did we realize that the composition of the atmosphere had been changing since the dawn of the industrial age and that the pace was quickening.[1]

Twinkle: Thanks uncle, that’s a useful piece of information. Did he use the same language that we are using today to describe the issue, uncle?

Uncle: Not really. He wrote in the Philosophical Magazine in 1896 “On the influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature on the Ground.”

Twinkle: So, fossil fuels became suspects so long ago.

Uncle: Yes, particularly the so-called Black Gold, coal. Though humanity had known coal for thousands of years, coal consumption peaked only after the industrial revolution and the invention of steam engine.

Twinkle: So coal came to be known as Black Gold because of its commercial value?

Uncle: Yes, coal replaced wood as the major resource of the industrial revolution and powered the British Empire. Sometimes petroleum is also referred to as Black Gold.

Twinkle: So it’s the solid, liquid and gaseous forms of hydrocarbons that cause all the problems. But focusing on coal alone could deflect our attention from other fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas, isn’t it? Why this coal fixation?

Uncle: Coal is the cheapest and most reliable way to meet our rising energy needs, and it is domestically available in many countries. And we cannot get rid of this so easily. If you take, India, for instance, we are the second largest producer of coal with reserves that could last up to 100 years.

Coal is the mainstay of power across India accounting for almost 70 percent of the electricity supplied. Most of the coal comes from domestic mines. The Indian coal ministry informed that India’s coal production increased by 17.13 percent to 524.20million tons during April – November 2022 from 447.54 million tons during the same period of the previous year (The Hindu, December 5, 2022).

The domestic production of coal stagnated between FY18 and FY21, but revived in FY 22. In a press release dated May 27, 2022, the Indian Ministry of Power noted that “despite efforts to increase the supply of domestic coal, there is still a gap between the requirement of coal and the supply of coal.”[2]

Twinkle: I remember, uncle, in April 2022 coal stocks in more than 100 thermal power plants in India fell below the 25% required stock level and below 10% stock level in over 50 plants. The Indian Minister for Coal and Mines, Prahlad Joshi, assured the country: “There is sufficient coal availability in the country, to last over a month, which is being replenished daily with record production.”[3]

Even as the coal minister Prahlad Joshi claimed that there was no shortage of coal in India, states were asked to import 10 percent of their coal needs. Coal India Ltd. was asked to import at least 8 million tons of coal. So India’s net coal import went up from Rs.782.6 billion in 2011-12 to Rs.1,155.0 billion in 2020-21 and India was among the largest importers of coal in the world. [4]

It was not clear in the beginning why India should import coal from abroad when we were self-sufficient locally and why we had to pay ten times more for the imported coal. When the local coal cost Rs.1,700 to Rs.2,000 for one ton, imported coal cost Rs.17,000 to Rs.20,000. The secret was that Adani had 1731 million ton coal and he had to be supported and promoted at the cost of the Indian people (Pudiya Vidiyal, September 16-30, 2022).

Uncle: You got the coal politics right, Twinkle. Coal is not going to go away anytime soon. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that despite the shock from Covid-19, India’s demand for coal is expected to grow by almost 5% a year till 2040.[5] Tens of coal blocks are being unlocked for commercial mining and the Indian government plans to invest Rs. 50,000 crores to jack up India’s coal output to 1 billion tons.

Twinkle: According to World Bank data of 2018, India produces 1.8 metric tons of carbon emissions per capita against 15.2 metric tons produced by the US. Still the Indian government has promised to reduce carbon emissions by 1 billion tons and that means the carbon output should be reduced by 22 percent by 2030. [6] The Indian prime minister committed publicly at the COP26 Glasgow summit to turning India carbon neutral by 2070. But the Indian minister for environment, Bhupender Yadav, promised only to “phase down” rather than “phase out” the use of coal. What do we want: carbon emission reduction or uncontrolled use of coal? You can’t have the cake and eat it, as they say?

Uncle: You are absolutely right, Twinkle. We are not quite clear about what we want. You may know that the use of coal as fuel in industrial and domestic units was banned in the National Capital Region (NCR) from January 2023 but the ban did not cover thermal power plants. Currently some 1.7 million tons of coal is consumed annually for industrial application in NCR alone (The Hindu, June 9, 2022). Both governmental agencies and private parties continue to build brand new mega thermal power plants all over the country.

Coal lobbyists argue that India has neither historically emitted nor currently emits carbon anywhere close to what the global North has, or does, in per capita terms. So India has no reason to commit to declining dependence on coal. They argue that India should ask for a higher and fairer share in the global carbon budget. This carbon budget framework can be a good tool to understand global injustice but to interpret it as a “right to burn” entitlement sounds so ludicrous. It’s like saying, India was colonized then and hence we have the right to do the same now.[7]

Twinkle: My young engineer friends put forward a technical solution for the coal predicament, uncle. They say we need to enhance the combustion efficiency of coal-fired boilers. The heart of a power plant is the boiler and that is where pollutants from fuel are generated and emitted into the atmosphere. We need to reduce these emissions either by burning less coal per unit of electricity generated or by using technologies to capture pollutants. Efficiency increase with less coal and more power output can be achieved by raising the temperature and pressure of steam in the boiler. But it causes stresses and corrosion in the boiler and so we must use austenitic steel with high chromium content and nickel-based alloys to withstand all that. My friends say India can take the lead in developing such technologies.[8]

They also talk about separating oxygen from the air and injecting only oxygen into the boiler in order to avoid forming nitrous oxides. Besides this oxy-firing, they suggest integration of a renewable energy project with a coal-based project to offset cost and efficiency factors. According to them, India can enhance fluidized bed combustion (FBC) technology, pressurized fluid bed gasification technology etc. and become a global leader. The relevant ministries, steel companies, power equipment manufacturers and power utility companies should join hands for collaborative research into areas such as metallurgy and emissions.[9]

Then there are others who propose a carbon tax to ensure that the price of coal reflects the cost of the damage it causes to the environment. If coal is priced at $2, experts believe that it should be priced in the range of $30 to $70 to reflect its true cost. But then there is the danger of causing a drastic fall in coal output and affecting the living standards of people.[10]

When all is said and done, uncle, we need to act here and now, swiftly and strategically!

The writer is a social and Green political activist from the southernmost tip of the South Asian peninsula, Email:

[1] Jose Goldemberg, “Science and the Climate Convention,” Science & Global Security (vol. 4), 1994.

[2] Jasmin Nihalani, “The problems plaguing thermal power generators,” The Hindu, June 24, 2022.

[3] Saptaparno Ghosh, “How quickly can India move away from coal?” The Hindu, April 24, 2022.

[4] Rohit Azad & Shouvik Chakraborty, “Does India have a right to burn fossil fuels?” The Hindu, November 11, 2021.

[5] Ghosh, 2022.

[6] Prashanth Perumal J., “Why is India’s coal usage under scrutiny?” The Hindu, November 21, 2021.

[7] Azad & Chakraborty, 2021.

[8] M. R. Ganesan, “Greening coal-fired power plants,” Business Line, November 11, 2009.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Perumal J, 2021.

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