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India’s proposed coal power plants a hurdle to meeting Paris treaty targets

Emissions from coal-fuelled power plants in India may possibly jeopardise the world’s ambitious goal of keeping global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels.

india Updated: Apr 26, 2017 17:33 IST
Paris climate treaty

(IHT PhotoIndia’s plan to build 370 coal-fired power plants may dim its chances of meeting its Paris climate treaty commitments)

Emissions from coal-fuelled power plants may hinder meeting the targets and possibly jeopardise the ambitious goal of keeping global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels.

India’s plan to build 370 coal-fired power plants may dim its chances of meeting its Paris climate treaty commitments, a new study released this week by the researchers at the University of California, Irvine and CoalSwarm, a non-governmental organisation, found.

The Modi- government has consistently highlighted its solar programme to underline its commitment to climate change mitigation. The Paris climate treaty allowed countries to come up with their own roadmap for curbing emissions. India has committed to reducing emissions intensity per unit of growth, in order to reconcile its goal of growth with its pledge of relying on cleaner fuels.

“India is facing a dilemma of its own making,” Steven Davis, a scientist at UCI and co-author of the study published in Earth’s Future. “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.”

By 2030, India has vowed to reduce its emissions intensity by 35% of 2005 levels and to spectacularly expand its renewable energy capacity. The nation aims to have 100 GW of installed solar capacity by 2022. The National Electricity Plan released in 2016 said that 56.5% of India’s installed power capacity will be from renewables within the 10 years to 2027, including from hydropower.

Currently, the coal and other fossil fuels meet about 70% of India’s power demand. In recent years the country has installed some high-visibility solar power projects.

A report from TERI, a policy think tank based in Delhi, found that new investments in coal be phased out by as early as 2026. The country has enough installed capacity to meet its power demand till 2026 and by then renewable energy could become competitive compared to coal, the report argues.

The new research echoed these findings. “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,” said the study’s lead author, Christine Shearer, a researcher with CoalSwarm explained.”These plants, therefore, risk either locking out the country’s renewable electricity goals or becoming stranded assets operating well below optimal rates and leading to financial losses.”

“We’ve done calculations to figure out that India’s Paris pledges might be met if it built these plants and only ran them 40 percent of the time, but that’d be a colossal waste of money, and once built, there’d be huge incentives to run the plants more despite the nation’s contrary climate goals.”

Power minister Piyush Goyal’s comments at the launch of the TERI report in February suggested India is not quite ready to wean away from coal. “Coal is essential to maintain the country’s base load,” said Goyal, referring to the goal of meeting the minimum power demand consistently.

Installing emissions-capturing technology at coal plants or installing ones that are more efficient will push up the price of coal-generated power. On the other hand, the prices of renewables are dropping because of technological innovation.

The real question is whether the price of renewable energy will drop fast enough and to the levels that will make it more attractive than coal-fired power. “If we are able to get to the price of renewables down to R. 5/ kilowatt hour (kwh), there might not be any need for new coal power stations in India,” Ajay Mathur, director general of TERI said.

The World Coal Association reacted to TERI’s report saying that “it is not credible to suggest that India can achieve universal energy access and develop its economy without coal in the next 10 years, regardless of the country’s investment in renewables.”

The power minister seems to agree. He rebuked critics of coal power plants saying they should be sensitive and recognise the right of poor to power. However, what has troubled environmentalists is that there is the lax implementation of emission norms that are in place for old thermal power plants and the proposal to extend the deadline to meet norms.

“With more than 250 million people in the country without access to power, any government they will be judged on energy access that’s why it’s important for them to fire on all cylinders, coal and renewables,” Arunabha Ghosh, founder-CEO of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, said.

With India being the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases ( though it has one of the lowest per capita emissions) and U.S. President Donald Trump threatening to pull out of the treaty, the path India chooses will have a bearing on the future of the planet.

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