'Can't Compare India, China': Experts Slam TIME Story On India's Coal Transition

The latest TIME magazine's cover story puts the ball entirely in India's court to meet the world's climate goals.

Climate Change
4 min read
"While the frequency and intensity of climate extremes are breaching all thresholds, the age-long narrative of accosting developing countries like India to move away from coal is gaining new heights."
Abinash Mohanty, Sector Head of Climate Change and Sustainability, IPE Global

As TIME senior correspondent Justin Worland puts the ball entirely in India's court to meet the world's climate goals, Indian energy experts, such as Mohanty, point out issues with his arguments as well as highlight India's efforts to transition from coal and fossil fuels towards cleaner energy sources such as solar power and green hydrogen.

The cover story of TIME magazine's February 2023 issue – titled 'How India Became the Most Important Country For The Climate's Future' – speaks of India's rapidly growing energy demand, the need for coal, and its journey of transitioning from traditional sources of energy to renewables.

Worland travelled for 10 days "visiting coal communities, touring renewable-energy sites, and talking with leaders in the country’s political and financial hubs to understand India’s approach to the energy transition," focusing mostly on Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Maharashtra.

But experts point out that his story "isn't incorrect, but perhaps incomplete and loosely written."


‘India Could Simply Do What China Has Done’

Worland argues that India could simply follow China's path.

China developed its industries primarily on coal, became the world's second largest economy, and is now aggressively focused on expanding its renewable energy. "India, with its abundant coal resources, could simply do the same," writes Worland.

However, experts disagree with Worland's argument about India using coal as its primary source for economic and industrial development. "You have to compare apples to apples. China has 1,000 gigawatts of coal power installed capacity. India has 200 gigawatts of coal installed capacity for the same amount of people," says Aarti Khosla, Director, Climate Trends.

"The scale of expansion is totally different. The mindset is totally different. I don't think that India can do the same. China has also created this whole idea of industrialisation and modernisation, and domestic capacity, just to be able to provide jobs to its own people. And that's not India's growth policy anyway. So, I think it's also unfair to compare things which are not like each other."
Aarti Khosla, Director, Climate Trends

While India and China are both similar in the fact that they have substantially increasing populations – which will directly push the increase in demand for energy – India recognises the impact of climate change and the need for green energy, says Vibhuti Garg, South Asia Director, Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).

"Until a few years back, there was so much of climate denial. And I think that's why China just continued with the pace for fossil fuel development."
Vibhuti Garg, South Asia Director, IEEFA

She explains that the increasingly serious effects of climate change can easily be seen through frequent extreme weather events, and keeping these in mind, Indian policymakers do intend to phase down coal.

"But they still need to ensure that the demands of a growing population are met", she adds, disabling the possibility of a complete phase out right now.

"At the same time, India is also not averse to new technologies."
Vibhuti Garg, South Asia Director, IEEFA

Pressure Tactics Coming From the West?

India is already on the way to climate-proofing and greening its jobs, but "abrupt hounding of the Global North to phasing out of coal will lead to an unjust transition and tensions," says Mohanty.

India's stance on energy transition may seem aggressive, especially when one considers the push for coal phase down that has been coming from the West, adds Khosla. However, she believes that there is an understanding amongst people in the energy sector that energy transition is inevitable.

"Do we actually see this as pressure tactics coming from the West? Or do we see this as a moment where we also want to fix some of our social issues, find better ways of employment, and acknowledge that there will be losers? You cannot say that a million jobs will be created and everything will be green and hunky dory – people will lose jobs. "
Aarti Khosla, Director, Climate Trends

"India is in a sandwich position at the moment where it has a lot of legacy energy mix policies from decades ago. And it has a future in which it is looking to get a lot more from renewables," Khosla adds.

While the transition from coal to clean energy will create approximately half a million jobs, it also means that many will lose employment.

"Mine closure, land reclamation, compensation, everything should be done. That's an understanding, at least, among people who are thinking about energy transition. And there is also an understanding that you actually don't need more greenfield mining or you don't need more coal power plants, with all the stated ambitions on renewables."
Aarti Khosla, Director, Climate Trends

Need For Introducing Clean Energy in Systematic Manner

The demand for coal is steadily saturating in India, making establishing new coal mining sites and new coal powered plants a suboptimal utilisation of the country's money and resources, according to Sunil Dahiya, analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

However, if India introduces clean energy in a systematic manner, it could lead to India achieving a peak in coal power consumption within this decade, he adds.

"We shouldn't look at what the US has done or what the EU or China is doing. We should do what we can do best; and that's what has led to the situation where India is looked up to or it's seen as a major power which can push them in the right direction."
Sunil Dahiya, Analyst, Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air

In reference to the TIME article, Dahiya says that India will need to correct its course, and add clarity to the fact the country supports the transition towards clean energy.

Dahiya does, however, agree that completely shutting down coal cannot be taken lightly – and it may "agitate people".

Economics plays a large role in this, because renewable energy is steadily getting cheaper, he says. But he advises against letting the market dictate energy dependency patterns because it may do more harm than good to the economy.

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