Coal is fast becoming a part of the problem for larger masses. What is obviously surprising is that it was never a complete solution for development in itself.
The World Commission on Environment and Development, in 1987 gave us the definition of sustainable development that has ever since become the first premise on which one can get an understanding of such a seemingly simple yet complex term. The World Commission defined sustainable development as “development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
This definition, despite being open to interpretations, does challenge the conventional idea of development, including all its stages. The basic notion that there are certain well defined steps that poor countries need to follow in order to be join ranks with developed ones, which largely gained prominence during the period of cold war, took a beating from the idea of sustainability. In fact, it has become clearer with time that development is not permanent and sustaining it is equally important as attaining it.
However, despite widespread acceptance of the idea of sustainability and among the ever-growing talks around it, implementation remains a distant reality and a major challenge. Further increasing this challenge are myths like coal is essential for India’s energy security and that it has the ultimate role in ensuring energy for all.
It has forever been argued that coal is the cheapest source of energy and that it is essential to ensure energy security in the developing countries. Despite being widely accepted, this argument can be challenged on many accounts. First of all, with rapid technological development in last few years, coal is no more the undisputed and cheapest source of energy available. According to United States Information Administration (EIA), the cost for producing 1MWh energy is $76.4 for conventional coal plants, just a dollar less than solar PV. The amount is just $70.8 for an onshore wind energy plant. The market trend says that this balance will only get better for renewable sources with improvement in technology and with the depletion of coal reserves and that of other fossil fuels.
Then, there are also hidden costs involved. It is a widely accepted fact that coal causes more pollution than any other source of energy. More than just carbon emissions, coal plants also release mercury and sulphur dioxide. There are no concrete estimates of the losses caused by coal pollution that result in health hazards. However, with non-communicable diseases accounting for about two thirds of deaths worldwide, the pollution being caused cannot be ignored.
The other important question which needs to be talked about is where does coal come from and who gets the ultimate benefit from it. The top four coal countries including United States, Russia, China and Australia have about 70 percent of the total coal reserves. India comes fifth and while we like to believe that we are coal rich, it only means that we as a nation have about seven percent of total global reserves for about 20 percent of the total global population! It is hard to imagine how most of the coal lying in already energy rich countries will eventually help third world countries become energy secure at a time when competition for energy sources is at an all-time high. On the other hand, the cost of not switching to cleaner sources will have to be paid mostly by poor and energy insecure countries.
Last year, Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that climate change can largely be considered to be manmade. The people living in lowland countries and depending on rain-fed agriculture are expected to be worst hit by climate change. Use of coal adds to climate change in two ways. Coal is the most polluting source of energy and coal mining is responsible for massive destruction of forests in many countries including India. And just to put things in perspective, energy supply and deforestation are first and third biggest sources of carbon emission accounting for 26 and 17 percent of total emissions respectively.
Energy security is still just one of the many factors of development. Development cannot be true if it fails to eradicate various social disparities. Unfortunately, the way coal has been extracted and used conventionally has created severe exploitation and has added to further disparity rather than eliminating it. This disparity is both at international and local levels. The coal rich states in India (Orissa, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal) are also among the poorest and most energy insecure states of the country. While the local communities —mostly tribals — have faced the brunt of pollution from coal mining and thermal power production, they have been deprived of its resulting fortunes. These fortunes have always gone to the corporates and the rich, making them richer and more resourceful. This model of development cannot be termed ideal or ethical.
It has become more and more apparent that there is no golden formula for development. Coal fired development might have resulted in affluence in western societies but it has also meant disaster in many ways. In fact after the recent global economic slowdown, even that notion of development has looked shaky and uncertain. Development is a subjective idea and it may mean differently in different parts of the world. Therefore, it cannot be complete or sustainable without taking local factors and environmental and human constraints into account.
Note: This article was originally published here.