India Needs To Wean Away From Its Reliance On Coal Before It’s Too Late

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Coal is a non-renewable fossil fuel and is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to global warming. The coal industry is highly polluting and contributes to air, soil, water, and many other kinds of pollution. Coal mining has also directly caused the deaths of 377 Indians in the last 3 years alone. When it comes to coal not only is its environmental impact disregarded, but the impact on human health goes unaddressed.

Main Types Of Economically-Valuable Coal Based On Their Carbon Content

Anthracite which is considered to be the best ‘type’ has a high percentage of fixed carbon (80-90%). It is lustrous and brittle and is mainly used for domestic fuel purposes, hand-fired stoves, automatic stoker furnaces, and charcoal briquettes. It ignites slowly with a blue flame and has high calorific value. Its found in small quantities in Jammu and Kashmir.

Bituminous coal ranks between sub-bituminous and anthracite and have about 60-80% carbon. Its mainly used for power generation, smithing coal, and coking coal and is found in Jharkhand, West Bengal, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh.
Subbitumionous coal has a higher heating value than lignite. Its mainly used in steam-electric power generation.

Lignite coal also called brown coal. It has 40-55% of coal with the least amount of carbon and it is mainly used in fertilizers. It is found in Rajasthan, Lakhimpur (Assam), and Tamil Nadu.

Peat has less than 40% carbon content and has low calorific value and burns like wood.

Coal mining began in India in 1774 in the Raniganj coalfield with John Sumner and Suetonius Grant Heatly of the East India Company at the helm. Initially, the demand for coal was quite low which caused the industry to grow very slowly. However, after the rise of steam locomotives in 1853, the demand for coal rose drastically and by 1946 India was producing up to 30 million metric tons per year.

This number has only been increasing with India producing 554.14 million tonnes of raw in 2016-17 alone. A majority of India’s coal reserves, about 98% are from the Gondwana period. The main states that are rich in coal reserves are:

Jharkhand

The Jharia coalfield while is found south of Dhanbad and is one of the oldest and richest coalfields found in India. The coal used for metallurgy is found here.

Odisha

The second-largest coalfield is found in Odisha and produces about 15% of India’s coal and houses about 24% of India’s coal reserves. Most coal deposits in Odisha are found in Sambalpur, Dhenkanal, and Sundargarh districts.

Talchar coalfield covers the districts of Dhenkanal and Sambalpur. It spans an area of 500 sq kms. Some other coalfields found in the area are Rampur-Himgir and Ib river.

Chattisgarh

The third coal reserves, containing about 17% of India’s coal are found in Chattisgarh however this state has the number one production of coal in India. Other coalfields of the state include Hasdo-Arand, Jhimli, Korba, Chirmiri, and Johilla.

Other major coalfields can be seen in the map below:

Image credit: Researchgate

In the year 2017-18, India consumed 896.34 MT of raw coal. India main consumes coal for electricity, the steel and washery industry, the cement industry and the sponge iron industry. Due to the high demand for good quality coal, India is forced to import large amounts to sustain it’s current demand, consuming about 576.19MT just for electricity.

Coal is the main source of 70.69% of electricity produced by India. A large part of Indian coal reserve is similar to Gondwana coal which is of low calorific value and high-ash content. The carbon content is low in India’s coal, and the toxic trace element concentrations are very small. The natural fuel value of Indian coal is relatively poor.

On an average, Indian power plants using India’s coal supply consume about 0.7 kg of coal to generate one kWh, whereas United States thermal power plants consume about 0.45 kg of coal per kWh. This is because of the difference in the quality of the coal, as measured by the Gross Calorific Value (GCV). On average, Indian coal has a GCV of about 4500 Kcal/kg, whereas the quality elsewhere in the world is much better. This makes mining in India less economical.

Image credit: Tanmoy Bhaduri

Coal Mining, Consumption, Production Cause Many Kinds Of Devastation To The Environment

Strip mining largely destroys the natural habitat of a large variety of flora and fauna as well as the soil profile, and can even permanently change the topography of the land. Removal of soil to reach coal can damage the top-soil causing the land to be infertile and barren for many years to come.

Surface mining also affects the flow and deposition of groundwater and can even cause the drainage of shallow aquifers. Lowering of the water table and runoff from mining reducing the quality of freshwater are two major problems. Exposed coal beds also present the risk of fires.

Over 70 fires have sprung up in the Jharia coalfields, with the first fire breaking out in 1916. Many of the fires are believed to have been started through spontaneous combustion or self-heating, because of oxidation of minerals in the exposed coal. These fires have had a severe impact on the lives of the local residents as they release noxious fumes into the air causing several health problems.

A study conducted by IndiaSpend near the Raigarh Coalmines found that 9 out of every 10 of the inhabitants reported health problems such as dry cough, hair loss, and bone and skin problems caused directly due to coal mining.India’s push for coal has also disproportionately affected Adivasi communities who have a strong connection to their land, and are being displaced due to India’s race to meet rising coal demands.
Source: IndiaSpend

Coal-burning produces large amounts of fly ash which contains substances like arsenic, lead, mercury, nickel, vanadium, beryllium, cadmium, barium, chromium, copper, molybdenum, zinc, selenium, and radium, which are very dangerous if released into the environment.

Although they are present in trace amounts when a significantly large amount of coal is burnt, they can be severely polluting and have a devastating effect on human health. When coal is burnt, the sulfur in it can combine with SO2 and become SO3 which, on reaction with water, forms sulphuric acid which causes acid rain. This can severely affect water bodies, soil fertility and cause leaching of aluminum from the soil.

In northern China, air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels, principal coal, is causing people to die on average 5.5 years sooner than they otherwise might,” said Tim Flannery in his book “Atmosphere of Hope.”

Coal is also a large contributor to global warming due to the formation of large amounts of carbon dioxide while it is burnt since coal is made mostly out of carbon which reacts with the oxygen in the air to form Carbon dioxide. Coal mining also releases methane, a portion of which is absorbed by coal, forming ‘coal seam‘.

All these gasses are responsible for the greenhouse effect. Pollution due to the coal industry in India is significantly worse due to the usage of poor grades of coal such as lignite that are more abundant in India than the high-quality variety. Also, India’s pollution control standards lag far behind the global norm.

India’s growing use for coal may also negate much of the progress made by the climate change movement. India’s coal-fired power plants have even been dubbed as the ‘unhealthiest ‘ in the world.

Local villagers carry coal from illegal pits near Jharia, India. As the world’s power needs have increased, so has the total global production of coal, nearly doubling over the last 20 years according to the World Coal Association. Photo by Daniel Berehulak /Getty Images

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, an average 500-megawatt coal plant each year emits:

  • 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide. Sulfur dioxide (SOx) is the main cause of acid rain, which damages forests, lakes, and buildings. …
  • 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main greenhouse gas and is the leading cause of global warming. There are no regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. …
  • 225 pounds of arsenic, 114 pounds of lead, 4 pounds of cadmium, and many other toxic heavy metals. Mercury emissions from coal plants are suspected of contaminating lakes and rivers in northern and northeast states and Canada.

Health officials warn against eating fish caught in these waters since mercury can cause birth defects, brain damage, and other ailments.

The first study of the health impact of India’s rush for coal, conducted by a former World Bank head of pollution, stated that the plants cost hospitals $3.3 to $4.6 billion a year — a figure certain to rise as the coal industry struggles to keep up with the demand for electricity.

Hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved, and millions of asthma attacks, heart attacks, hospitalizations, lost workdays and associated costs to society could be avoided, with the use of cleaner fuels, [and] stricter emission standards and the installation and use of the technologies required to achieve substantial reductions in these pollutants,” said the report as cited in The Guardian. “There is a conspicuous lack of regulations for power plant stack emissions. Enforcement of what standards [which] do exist, is nearly non-existent,” it said.

In a way, we all contribute to India’s increasing need for coal and coal byproducts as it is used in electricity generation, steel manufacturing, cement manufacturing, nylon and other materials. We all need to be aware of our individual carbon footprint, and also petition for a future in which our energy sources are sustainable.

The coal-fuel cycle is severely destructive to the environment and India relies very heavily on it. If we want to move towards a greener future, we need to make the move to cleaner energy sources before its too late.

Featured image credit: Getty Images
This post has been written by a YKA Climate Correspondent as part of #WhyOnEarth. Join the conversation by adding a post here.
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