India's Quandary: Climate Change And Coal Coal is king in India. Some say there's little alternative. So how can this country, the world's third-largest polluter, provide energy and lift millions from poverty while trying to become "greener"?
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India's Quandary: Climate Change And Coal

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India's Quandary: Climate Change And Coal

India's Quandary: Climate Change And Coal

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We are looking ahead to the big climate change summit in Paris next week. And this morning, we're hearing from the world's third biggest producer of emissions that cause climate change, India. The carbon footprint of individual Indians is actually quite small. But with 1.2 billion people, the country is very polluting, a lot of those emissions coming from burning coal. NPR's Julie McCarthy begins her story from the coal rich Indian state of Jharkhand.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: I'm standing in the pitch darkness in India's vast Jharia coalfields in the east of the country. The ground beneath me is black, but the earth before me in this open pit mine is on fire, coal seams burning at night, setting off a ghostly glow and emitting toxic gases such as CO2 into the atmosphere. India intends to triple its production of coal by 2030, extracting rich seams of black gold from cavernous pits like this one. Coal burning power plants account for 65 percent of India's energy today, and a ramped up reliance on the most carbon intensive fossil fuel presents a profound dilemma. A third of the world's poor live in India. Indians need massive energy to fuel new industries and jobs to pull millions out of poverty. Three hundred million more Indians need basic electricity. But coal and its byproducts are hazardous to public health. Even a brief stay in the cities of this Jharia coal mining area takes a toll. A smoky film from its many coal fires burns the eyes and stings the throat. Soot covers homes and clings to forlorn-looking animals, all while India is opening a mine a month. Coal India, a government behemoth, mined 500 million tons of coal last year. We watch as operators at this open pit coal project dynamite the side of a terraced canyon that's so deep, the chalks below look like Tonka toys. Charan Singh, the general manager of this mine, leads us to an area of the Coal India subsidiary, where blasting is not necessary. India has virtually no oil or gas, but we crunch over row upon row of neatly piled deposits of coal that stretch across the land like a farm at harvest.

We're standing on seams of coal.

CHARAN SINGH: Seams of coal.

MCCARTHY: It looks like crops in a field.

SINGH: Yeah, yes, we are cropping coal here. This is a coalfield.

MCCARTHY: Machines cut away surface rock to expose the coal seam that is then pummeled into slate-shaped chips. Singh says the crushing on-site saves electricity and shrinks the carbon footprint here. In one year, he's reduced the footprint of two mines by 5 percent and 7 percent. I ask if that progress isn't too modest for a world anxious about India's pollution. World, he says, be patient.

SINGH: Be patient because you have progressed, but we still require time. We are increasing the production and reducing the footprint. You can't say that we are not taking action. We are taking action.

MCCARTHY: Anil Swarup, the secretary of India's Coal Ministry, says India is committed to switching to cleaner energy as part of its pledge to the U.N. climate convention. India set an ambitious target of 100 gigawatts of solar energy by 2022, a nearly 25-fold increase. Swarup says by 2030, coal will make up just 45 percent of India's power generation. But until renewables are more widely available, Swarup says coal must be king.

ANIL SWARUP: No one would want coal to happen. Coal is happening because that's the only alternative available with us at this point in time. Until there is an answer available, how do you suddenly stop mining coal? You can't.

MCCARTHY: The affirmed goal for negotiators in Paris is to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. But, India opposes efforts to obligate countries, especially developing economies, to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Coal secretary Swarup says per capita, India releases one-twelfth of the heat-trapping gases the United States does and that forcing Indians to cut emissions would unfairly penalize them.

SWARUP: Per capita consumption of energy in this country is of the levels of 19th century U.S. And yet everyone is looking at India as if India is trying to not accept their responsibility. We are indeed accepting a responsibility. But what has to be understood very clearly is the requirement for development of this country.

MCCARTHY: The need to develop appears to have eclipsed the imperative to preserve the environment. Much of India's air is foul, the water undrinkable. According to the World Health Organization, 13 of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in India. New Delhi's air registers the worst in the world, says the WHO. Before, during and after the recent festival of lights known as Diwali, small particulate pollution, much of it from cars, reached lethal levels beyond anything seen here previously. Meanwhile, India's Himalayan glaciers are melting, its farmland becoming arid. Sunita Narain of the Center for Science and Environment says climate change has already arrived in India.

SUNITA NARAIN: We are getting unseasonal rain. We are getting hailstorms. We are getting frightening developments which is impacting our farmers. This is happening not even at 2 degrees. It should scare us.

MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.

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