The coal controversy at Glasgow summit

The proposal to phase out coal was introduced by the UK presidency (and host) of the conference quite early into the meeting. It was backed by small island and least developed countries, and supported by the EU.

India countered it by demanding that all fossil fuels be phased out, not just coal. And that this should be done, as the Paris Agreement and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change require, with rich countries leading the way. This was not agreed upon by developing countries as it would impact them.

Then the UK presidency presented the option of phasing out only coal without providing developing countries a longer time-frame than rich ones to do so. This proposal was also defeated due to strong objections from India and China.

Before the adoption of the Glasgow Climate Pact, India and China both managed to get the changes inserted to reflect their national circumstances in the final pact.

Instead of a ‘phase out‘ of unabated coal power and phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, India asked the text to be reworded to ‘phase down‘ of the unabated coal power and phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.

Phase-down means progressively reducing the use of coal, whereas phaseout means altogether eliminating its use over a period of time. Thus, a country will have to first phase down its coal use and ultimately phase it out. So, phaseout is the end of phase-down.

By changing the word to phase-down, India accepted that coal power must be reduced but did not agree to completely end it. In the eyes of developed countries, this change has resulted in a weakened climate pact.

Why India’s stand was right?

India did what was right, keeping in mind its national imperatives of growth and development.

Moreover, all fossil fuels are bad for the environment. Singling out coal without talking about other fossil fuels like natural gas  and oil etc. is not ideal. Further, coal is the most abundant energy source, essential for base load in electrification, and the production of steel and cement. Also, its use declines after the saturation level of infrastructure is reached.

And, even phasing down will not be without cost. At least 21 million livelihoods, many of which are in the relatively deprived parts of eastern India, depend on the coal economy. This number may grow as the recently auctioned coal blocks move to production.

As a rapidly growing economy with a low level of per capita energy consumption, India requires a lot of energy. By 2030, India’s total energy requirement will be at least double of today. So, both renewable and non-renewable energy need to be scaled up. The recent shortage of coal only reiterated the need to continue to invest in coal exploration. Moreover, India has rich untapped reserves.

However, by projecting itself as a coal champion and forcing the modification at the last moment, India’s image has undoubtedly taken a hit.

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