Sustainable Energy

Why India and Pakistan Are Renewing Their Love Affair with Coal

One nation is shirking emissions targets and the other is investing in more coal plants—but with America as a role model, that’s hardly surprising.

Much of the world agrees: burning coal is bad, and we ought to do less of it.

But not everyone sings from that sheet, including Pakistan’s Water and Power Ministry. As part of a large infrastructure investment project with China, it’s committed to spending $15 billion on as many as 12 new coal power plants over the next 15 years. Reuters reports that the figure is almost half of the $33 billion being invested into energy projects as part of the initiative, and that around 75 percent of the extra generation capacity will come from new coal plants.

The government insists that the new plants will use technology to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. But the nation’s minister for planning, development and reform, Ahsan Iqbal, sounds downright Trumpian in his view of the nation's future energy policy: “Pakistan must tap [its] vast underground reserves of 175 billion tonnes of coal, adequate to meet the country’s energy needs for several decades, for powering the country’s economic wheel, creating new jobs, and fighting spiking unemployment and poverty.”

Meanwhile, the Financial Times reports (paywall) that India will fail to meet its own targets to reduce emissions from its coal power plants. India’s struggle to clean up its energy act is well-known. But it’s currently unable to meet its own power demands, so it’s not really that practical to shut down plants—and given that no penalties will be imposed for failing to reduce emissions, there’s little incentive to do so.

To anyone who would criticize the move, Piyush Goyal, India’s power minister, had this to say: “India is not a polluter," he told the Financial Times. "It’s America and the western world that has to first stop polluting.” There’s a grain of truth to that: America and Europe did a lot of coal burning during their development, and now have strong economies to leverage in order to clean up their acts. Developing countries aren’t so lucky. And developed countries still emit far more greenhouse gases per citizen than India and Pakistan. As of 2013 the annual per capita CO2 emissions of India and Pakistan were 1.59 and 0.85 metric tons respectively. In the U.S., the figure is 16.39 metric tons. 

The recent trend has been for that figure to fall year-on-year in the U.S., but the Trump administration certainly isn’t making its continuation a priority. Yesterday, Bloomberg reported that the U.S. coal industry was enjoying an uptick thanks to Trump’s relaxed regulations and reduced production in China. While coal is unlikely to come roaring back in America, there is still scope for the industry to rebound modestly over the coming years.

Indeed, the White House appears to be readying itself to disregard the emissions targets the Obama administration committed to as part of the Paris climate agreement in 2015. Trump’s aides are reported to be increasingly inclined toward quitting the pact—a shift from previous thinking. The New York Times says a decision could rest on a single phrase in the agreement: whether a country’s ability to “adjust” emissions targets can allow for weakening, as well as strengthening, commitments.

That plays directly into Goyal's hands. If the supposed leader of the free world doesn’t think that drastic emissions reduction is a priority, why should India and Pakistan—or any country that believes burning more fossil fuels will enhance economic growth?

(Read more: Reuters,  Financial Times, BloombergNew York Times, “India’s Energy Crisis,” “Trump’s Rollback Paves the Way for a New Climate Leader,” “Here’s Why Trump’s Plan to Save the Coal Industry Is Doomed”)

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