In India’s Long-Term Strategy to Cut Emissions, Coal Continues to Find a Place

India's forest and climate change minister Bhupender Yadav / Credit: The Morning Context.
The Morning Context
Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt

In India’s Long-Term Strategy to Cut Emissions, Coal Continues to Find a Place

On Monday, environment, forest and climate change minister Bhupender Yadav unveiled India’s long-term strategy for pursuing low-emission development, on the sidelines of the ongoing COP27 climate conference at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. This is the first such plan developed by India and has been prepared in compliance with a requirement under the the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. 

The 121-page document covers four focus areas for decarbonization: electricity, industries, urban design and transport. It also has a chapter on financing and another on forests.  It is, in effect, the first comprehensive strategy document of a nation of 1.3 billion people to deal with the biggest threat to mankind. 

From that point of view, the document falls short of expectations. It reads like a compilation of existing policies of the central government, with a number of broad ideas—like “introduce biodiesel at a commercial scale”—that do not set out timelines, milestones or pathways on how such goals could be achieved.

That said, the document does provide insights into the government’s evolving position on several contentious issues such as the use of coal and fossil fuels. 

At the COP27 summit, India has taken the position that all fossil fuels need to be phased out, not just coal. At the previous conference in Glasgow, the final decision document mentioned a gradual phasedown of coal. India’s new position is seen as a response to the rising use of natural gas by developed countries in response to the energy crisis triggered by Russia’s war with Ukraine.

The strategy document points out that India’s per capita coal consumption is half the global average and that global oil and gas emissions are 25% higher than those of coal. “It is inconsistent to focus disproportionally on lower coal use instead of lower total emissions,” it states.

There are close to two dozen references to coal in the document, and most of them are to justify India’s continued use of coal for the foreseeable future. An early reference to coal is, interestingly, in a section on renewable energy. It comes in the context of having a stable source of power as a backup when solar or wind don’t work. “India will have to substantially rely on coal-based plants” to support renewable energy, the document says, adding that “flexible operation of thermal power plants (TPPs) to accommodate RE power needs to be developed as a potential strategy”.

The plan says that while the role of coal in the energy mix will reduce from the current 75%, it will be a gradual process. “India needs to guard against a lack of adequate and reliable energy to meet its economic and developmental needs. This could only be achieved through a judicious mix of supply resources, including reliance on coal-based generation,” it points out.

“The [strategy] acknowledges that in the short term, there is a significant role for coal,” says Aman Srivastava, fellow at the non-profit Centre for Policy Research. “This is partly given India’s own energy security needs and that energy storage technologies aren’t viable at scale.” A phasedown of coal would have implications on energy security, employment, rail freight and fiscal revenues. “The government is mindful that in the medium to long term there will be a diminished role of fossil fuels, but they will have to frame that transition strategy over time,” Srivastava adds.

Balancing act

The plan says that India’s share of coal will be “carefully managed” in the lead-up to the net-zero target in 2070. It will deploy “ultra super-critical” power plants (that use less coal per unit of electricity produced) and ensure that new coal-based power plants do not lock in carbon emissions beyond 2070. 

The plan also says that coal use by industries and low-heat applications would be phased out and replaced with sources like electricity and biofuels. The plan pitches for using technologies like coal gasification (in which coal is heated and the resultant gases are used as fuel or raw material) and integrated gasification combined cycle technology, which it calls a “zero emission coal technology”. It says that pilot projects “may be taken up” for coal-based methane, carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS), and development of coal-to-gas and coal-to-liquid technologies.

The continued reliance on coal will not affect India’s larger strategy of calling for a complete phaseout of fossil fuels, said Vaibhav Chaturvedi, fellow at the Centre for Environment, Energy and Water, a non-profit research organization. After the net-zero announcement last year and the revised commitment under the Paris Agreement to have 50% of installed electricity capacity in non-fossil fuels, renewable energy additions and a mission on hydrogen, India is “coming from a position of strength,” Chaturvedi told a briefing for reporters on Tuesday. “India is showing a bunch of achievements. Now adding to them, it is saying that coal-fired power plants will also be phased out.” The transition, according to him, will take at least 5-6 years.

Srivastava of the Centre for Policy Research says that the government should evolve a long-term strategy in the coming years based on ground reality. “Future iterations of the [strategy] will hopefully focus a little bit more on quantified estimates and interim milestones and timelines. In the meantime, the document is an important first step towards outlining a vision, direction and key overarching actions that are salient in each sector and towards decarbonizing that sector.” 

This story was produced as part of the 2022 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security. It was first published in The Morning Context on 16 November 2022 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: India's forest and climate change minister Bhupender Yadav / Credit: The Morning Context.

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