India’s coal plans could ‘single-handedly jeopardize’ Paris Agreement

A night view of a thermal power plant in india (Credit: Vikramdeep Sidhu / Flickr)

As President Donald Trump decides in the next few weeks if he will pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, India and China have said the world can look to them to uphold the pact. Although India has been making impressive strides to cut pollution and increase solar capacity in particular, a recent study says the country’s coal plans could “single-handedly jeopardize” the Paris Agreement.

“India is facing a dilemma of its own making,” Steven Davis, associate professor of Earth system science at the University of California, Irvine, and co-author of the study published last week, said in a press release. “The country has vowed to curtail its use of fossil fuels in electricity generation, but it has also put itself on a path to building hundreds of coal-burning power plants to feed its growing industrial economy.”

Just yesterday, India’s Power Minister Piyush Goyal announced that by 2030 “not a single petrol or diesel car should be sold in the country,” only electric. Authorities are also trying, with mixed success, to crack down on farmers burning crop stubble – one of the country’s biggest sources of air pollution. But for years, its most aggressive green push has been to expand solar capacity to 100 gigawatts (GW) by 2022.

Despite stunning success growing capacity and interest from investors, the country is currently also developing 243 GW of coal-fired generating capacity, according to the study. As of mid-2016, 65 GW were under construction with another 178 GW proposed.

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According to the study, the 243 GW under development would not only increase India’s coal capacity by 123 percent, but it would also exceed the country’s projected future electricity demand if combined with its goal to produce at least 40 percent of its power from non-fossil sources by 2030.

The excess therefore would either force coal plants to retire early or operate at a very low capacity – 40 percent, if climate goals are to be met – or it would “lock out” new low-carbon energy infrastructure, guaranteeing that climate goals will not be achieved.

The 2015 Paris Agreement aims to limit the increase of the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Each of the 144 signatories that have ratified or acceded to the agreement also have a set of Nationally Determined Contributions.

Instead of committing to an absolute carbon emission reduction, India pledged to reduce its emission intensity – or emissions per unit of economic output – by 33 percent to 35 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. The Natural Resources Defense Council explained it this way: While GDP may be projected to increase by five to seven times by 2030, absolute carbon emissions will only increase three times over 2005 levels.

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India also pledged to increase its share of non-fossil fuel energy generation capacity to 40 percent of the total installed capacity by 2030.

“In looking closely at all of India’s active coal plant proposals, we found they are already incompatible with the country’s international climate commitments and are simply unneeded,” lead author of the study and senior researcher with CoalSwarm Christine Shearer said in the press release.

Not only that, air pollution – whether from coal plants, crop burning, vehicles or another source – can reduce the energy yield of solar plants by 17 percent to 25 percent annually, according to another recent study in north India, the Times of India reported.

Even if India took the financial loss of operating the new coal plants only 40 percent of the time to meet its climate commitments, Davis said there would be a “huge incentive” to run the plants more once they were built, especially considering India’s massive coal reserves. About 70 percent of India’s power currently comes from coal-fired plants.

“India’s proposed coal plants will almost single-handedly jeopardize the internationally agreed-upon climate target of avoiding more than 1.5 degrees Celsius of mean global warming,” Davis said in the press release.

That is, if Trump’s anticipated withdrawal from the Paris Agreement doesn’t do so first.

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.