These are the familiar statistics: the United States produces 16 percent of the world’s carbon emissions; China produces 23 percent. In turn, these are the countries that come to mind as the big players in global climate change conversations. But, if a meaningful global emissions reduction plan is to be agreed upon at the Paris climate talks this November, India must also be a key player.
Coal generates 59 percent of India’s electricity, and with electricity demand growing steeply, coal use is at risk of increasing. Although the “Group of 7” countries (G7) committed to phasing out global fossil fuel use by 2100, India, which is not included in the group, could undermine their goals. It is expected to become the largest coal importer by 2015 and the second-largest consumer by 2020.
One suggestion for India is that they look to the number one coal-consumer, China, for guidance on emissions reductions. Praised as ambitious, China’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), a document which outlines the country’s energy plans and which was released at the end of June, created three major goals to be achieved by 2030: reach peak carbon emissions, lower emissions per unit of GDP by 60-65 percent compared to the 2005 level, and increase the share of non-fossil fuels to 20 percent. To accomplish these objectives, China’s INDC promised it would “control total coal consumption.” It has already begun to do so; China’s coal consumption decreased for the first time this century in 2014 and fell another 8 percent from 2014 to 2015.
Where Coal Is Still King
Last October, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi told his government: “Recover the coal sector for me. The entire economy will rebound.” He also pledged to, by 2019, provide energy to the 400 million Indian citizens who are currently without it. His requests have been answered: the state-run monopoly Coal India Ltd., which currently produces 80 percent of India’s coal, plans to double its output to one billion metric tons by 2020. Anil Swarup, Secretary of the Ministry of Coal, said these goals mean that, “a new mine will be opened every month.”
Although India’s government has also recently announced ambitious wind and solar programs, these do not have the capability to counteract the massive planned expansion of coal. Emissions are expected to grow two to threefold by 2030, making India the second largest carbon emitter in the world. Worryingly, Modi’s government appears to be unconcerned with its carbon footprint. But if the dangers of climate change have not been enough to sway Modi, perhaps a more compelling argument might be India’s swelling pollution crisis.
The World’s Dirtiest Cities
Spending one day in New Delhi, India’s smoggy capital, takes two hours off your lifespan. Delhi is the most polluted city in the world because of industry emissions, vehicle boom, and the abundance of coal-fired power stations. And air there is only expected to worsen as a result of the new coal expansion. In 2011, coal-fired power plants alone were responsible for an estimated 100,000 premature deaths and 20 million asthma cases in India.
Coal-fired power plants emit particulate matter—dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets—into the air. Particulate less than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) poses the greatest health risk due to their potential to be lodged deeply in the lungs. High levels of PM2.5 are linked to heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the safe PM2.5 level is ten. New York City is slightly above at fourteen. Beijing is at roughly fifty-six. In New Delhi, the level is at an astounding 153, which translates to 1,500 percent above what’s considered safe. Nor is New Delhi an anomaly in India. Thirteen of the top twenty most polluted cities in the world are in India, and all except one of the others is in neighboring Pakistan or Bangladesh.
A Movement for Clean Air
Fortunately, there is hope. Beijing, which has dashed to shut down its coal power plants (the last man standing in the city will sputter its last particulates in 2016), has now reached a 40 percent reduction of its air pollution below 2000 levels.
The biggest driver of China’s decision to close coal plants was public pressure. Global and local attention on the country highlight its dirty city air. Frequent images in the media showing black clouds of smog and citizens sporting face masks have been a powerful source of influence. A documentary on pollution went viral in China in just a few days before it was banned there this spring. And Chinese anti-smog activists have increasingly engaged in protests across the country, with the number of environmental demonstrations growing 29 percent annually from 1996 to 2011 (even though organized protest is illegal).
In contrast, the political scene in India is still quiet on pollution. There have been few protests. Greenpeace India, one of the only groups organizing for clean air, is being forced to close after the government froze its bank accounts, claiming it was“anti-development.”
Much of the activism in China stems from the availability of information. An app allows Chinese citizens to gauge pollution levels before leaving their home, much like checking the weather. The Chinese government collects more air quality data than does India’s, although Modi has taken one important step by launching a new air quality index indicator in ten Indian cities, including New Delhi. The key now will be to publicize the data and raise awareness of the health risks associated with pollution. Activist groups will also have to continue to collect information that can supplement the government’s meager efforts, such as building an app like China’s or releasing supplemental air quality reports.
That information must also turn into action, with organized protests and solicited media attention forming the backbone of a campaign for change. Ultimately, for India to seriously address pollution, Indian citizens will have to get serious about demanding clean air.
At least there are some hints that India is looking in the right direction. With the announcement of the air quality index, Modi also proposed Sundays as “bicycle days” and advocated for cities to turn off their street lights during a full moon. But these measures are not enough to protect the health of over one billion. Instead, India must do what is sustainable and right and commit to decreasing its combustion of coal.