Does India have a right to burn fossil fuels?

Relevance: Why India doesn’t need to depend on coal for its future development?

News: In the backdrop of COP26, India’s dependence on coal has remained a much talked about issue. Fossil fuel sources like coal have contributed significantly to global carbon emissions.

But, neither India’s historical nor its current emissions come anywhere near to those by developed countries.

And as India needs energy for development, some experts have therefore argued for a fair share of the carbon budget framework for India.

Hence, the question is: Does this fair share entail a right to burn fossil fuels, and do the countries in the global South necessarily need to increase their share in the global carbon budget?

The answer is ‘no’ and it does not come at the cost of development, even in the limited sense as development is defined generally.

Must Read: Phasing out coal in India – Explained, pointwise
Why India doesn’t/shouldn’t need to depend on coal for its future energy requirements?

Alternative forms of energy: Normally the argument in favor of coal is on account of its cost, reliability, and domestic availability. But a deeper analysis reveals the truth.

– Cost: The recent data shows that the levelised cost of electricity from renewable energy sources like the solar (photovoltaic), hydro and onshore wind has been declining sharply over the last decade. It is already less than fossil fuel-based electricity generation.

– Reliability: With technological progress, the reliability issues are being addressed by the frontier renewable tech.

– Domestic availability: As for the easy domestic availability of coal, it is a myth. According to the Ministry of Coal, India’s net coal import went up from ₹782.6 billion in 2011-12 to ₹1,155.0 billion in 2020-21. India is among the largest importers of coal in the world.

The abundance of renewable natural resources in the tropical climate can give India a head start in this competitive world of technology.

South-South collaboration: This type of collaboration can help India avoid the usual patterns of trade between the North and the South, where the former controls technology and the latter merely provides inputs.

Benefits of a greener development path: The high-employment trajectory that the green path entails vis-à-vis the fossil fuel sector may help address the issue of surplus labor, even if partially. Such a path could provide decentralised access to clean energy to the poor and the marginalised, including in remote regions of India. So, it simultaneously addresses the issues of employment, technology, energy poverty, and self-reliance.

Arguing for burning more coal will make the situation worse for developing countries like India. Due to its tropical climate and high population density along the coastal lines, India remains vulnerable to climate change. Hence, burning more coal is not the solution.

Moral high ground: If the global south including India takes an independent and greener approach to development, then it affords it a moral high ground. This will allow developing countries to push for a more inclusive carbon budget framework, like South Africa at Glasgow. It’ll force the global north to come to the table for negotiations on climate finance.

Must Read: Coal crisis in India – Explained, pointwise
What is the way forward?

Current climate dialogue is stuck in a perennial deadlock. The global North justifies operating coal mines since the South continues to emit more, while the global South negotiates for a higher share in carbon budget based on the past emissions of the North.

The wrongs of the global injustice are captured rightfully by the carbon budget framework, but the need of the hour is a global progressive agenda that abstains from the dangerous model of competitive emissions.

Source: This post is based on the article “Does India have a right to burn fossil fuels?” published in
The Hindu on 11th Nov 2021.

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