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Decision to Phase Out Coal in Delhi-NCR a Significant Beginning, But It Needs to be Applicable Across India

By: Sayantan Ghosh

Last Updated: June 11, 2022, 14:59 IST

The burning of fossil fuels, particularly coal, is the major source of particulate matter emissions that cause air pollution. (Representative image/Reuters)

The burning of fossil fuels, particularly coal, is the major source of particulate matter emissions that cause air pollution. (Representative image/Reuters)

The recent climate crisis has also demonstrated that the impact of climate change in India is not limited to Delhi-NCR, but is a pan-India emergency

This year’s heatwave has jolted the country, bringing the issue of climate change to the forefront. Extraordinary times deserve extraordinary and stringent policy measures. India’s Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM) decision to ban coal use in industrial, domestic, and other miscellaneous applications in the Delhi-NCR region beginning January 1, 2023, is a much-awaited and welcome development.

However, this should not be a decision restricted to only Delhi-NCR. The recent climate crisis has also demonstrated that the impact of climate change in India is not limited to Delhi-NCR, but is a pan-India emergency.

Each year, air pollution from fossil fuels kills millions of people, causes strokes, lung cancer, and asthma attacks, and costs a great deal of money. As a result, the country is experiencing a massive climate crisis. There is an urgent need to take into account the real cost of fossil fuels, not only for the rapidly warming planet but also for the health of its inhabitants.

Coal Emission is the Major Player Behind India’s Climate Crisis

According to studies, extreme heat gripped a significant number of areas in India this year, and climate change made these events 30 times more likely. Along with this devastating heatwave, India is now also witnessing a monsoon without rain for the past 11 days since the official declaration of its arrival.

The climate crisis has become an emergency in the country, as evidenced by these issues. The burning of fossil fuels, particularly coal, is the major source of particulate matter (PM) emissions that cause air pollution.

A study published in the Journal of the Union of Concerned Scientists noted, “When coal is burned, it releases a number of airborne toxins and pollutants. They include mercury, lead, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates, and various other heavy metals. Climate change is coal’s most serious long-term global impact. Chemically, coal is mostly carbon, which, when burned, reacts with oxygen in the air to produce carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas. When released into the atmosphere, carbon dioxide works like a blanket, warming the earth above normal limits. “

Why Phasing Out Coal Will Mark A New Beginning

India is considered the world’s third-largest emitter of fossil fuels. At the 26th session of The Conference Of The Parties, or COP26 India opted to “phase down” coal rather than “phase out”. The reason for this is India’s dependence on coal.

Developing countries like India cannot switch over from coal overnight due to their massive population, limited infrastructure and growing inequality.

As per a Brookings Institutions report, the coal industry in India, directly and indirectly, employs more than 4 million people. It is in the east – the coal belt – in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha that the majority of coal reserves are located. Coal is also the economic backbone of these areas. The industry is vital to the local economy.

The entire world is now walking towards phasing out coal. Two years ago, the German parliament adopted a significant law to ensure the phasing out of coal power by 2038. Similarly, countries like the United States, Spain, Japan, and others are also planning to phase out the use of coal.

Meanwhile, India has pledged to bring down the total projected carbon emissions by 1 billion tonnes by 2030. The country has also decided that 50% of its energy requirements should come from renewable energy by 2030.

In the backdrop of these developments, the decision to phase out coal in the Delhi-NCR region marks a welcome beginning. The CAQM has ordered the phasing out of coal in the Delhi-NCR region from October 1 this year, where piped natural gas (PNG) infrastructure and supply are already available.

The independent statutory body has ordered that at the places where PNG supply is not available, the ban will come into effect from January 1, 2023.

Implementation Should Be The Key

While this decision marks an important beginning, a sustainable plan is required to phase out coal across India. The need is that in the coming years, coal as a fuel should be phased out of every sector, including the transportation sector. Five-year plans are needed for this short-term goal.

Another important aspect of this decision should be a proper plan of implementation. The CAQM is not the implementing authority of these decisions, and the states of the Delhi NCR region are the implementing authorities. In several decisions, earlier delays and non-compliance from the states were observed.

If the same thing happens this time, then not only will the goal of this decision be lost, but India will suffer from having to fight the climate emergency.

For example, when the Supreme Court-mandated panel, Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority, or EPCA ordered the shutting down of thermal power plants in Delhi, many power plants did not follow the timeline.

Many of these power-plants even move the courts to delay the order. Eventually, the whole process was delayed for over five years. This has caused havoc in the Delhi-NCR region. The CAQM has not barred thermal power plants from using coal. It is understandable that this will take a long time. But the authorities must also put forward a plan for this transformation.

This decision is restricted to Delhi NCR, but this opens up a new path. Every state in India must look into these steps and formulate its own plan for phasing out coal. The future and the alternatives are biomass and natural gas. The climate crisis in India is real and it is in front of everyone.

With a massive heatwave, drought, floods, and delayed monsoon, the country has from the beginning of 2022, been witnessing every adverse effect of climate change. This is a warning bell not only in north India but for the entire country that coal must be phased out.

Without every state coming forward and joining hands to fight the climate emergency by phasing out coal, it is impossible to fight this emergency. The CAQM has shown that there is a beginning, but implementation and replication are dependent on the will of the lawmakers of India. A path can be shown, but the will can only come from accepting the reality, and the reality is that the climate crisis in India has reached a point of emergency. Every delay will affect each and every person in the country.

The author is an independent journalist based in Kolkata and a former policy research fellow at the Delhi Assembly Research Center. He tweets as @sayantan_gh. Views expressed are personal.

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first published:June 11, 2022, 14:59 IST
last updated:June 11, 2022, 14:59 IST