As It Happens·Q&A

India can still eliminate coal power despite watered-down COP26 pledge, says environmentalist

China and India have agreed to the COP26 deal — with a slight change in language that is sending shockwaves around the world. But Indian environmentalist Srestha Banerjee says there really isn't that much of a difference between "phase out" and "phase down" on the ground, and now it's time to get to work.

Srestha Banerjee says there isn't much difference on the ground between 'phase out' and 'phase down'

Mining is in progress at an open-cast mine near Dhanbad, an eastern Indian city in Jharkhand state, on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. Efforts to fight climate change are being held back in part because coal, the biggest single source of climate-changing gases, provides cheap electricity and supports millions of jobs. (Altaf Qadri/The Associated Press)

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Story Transcript

Renewable energy is powering parts of India, but the country is not quite ready to get out of the coal mines. Environmentalist Srestha Banerjee has seen it herself while working to transition coal mining communities.

China and India sent shockwaves around the world when they made a slight change in the language around coal power, agreeing to "phase down" rather than "phase out" the energy source in a deal made at this year's United Nations climate summit (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland.

The Conference of Parties (COP), as it's known, meets every year and is the global decision-making body set up in the early 1990s to implement the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and subsequent climate agreements.

"China initiated this entire argument," Banerjee, director of the independent non-profit environmental group India Just Transition Centre, told As It Happens host Carol Off.  "Then India just picked up on it and India pushed for it, whereas in 10 years time anyway, India will probably phase it out."

In the end, the summit broke ground by setting the rules for international trading of carbon credits and by telling big polluters to return next year with improved pledges for cutting emissions.

  • Have questions about COP26 or climate science, policy or politics? Email us: ask@cbc.ca. Your input helps inform our coverage.

Banerjee spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about how exactly India continues to use coal as an energy source. Here is part of their conversation.

Srestha, we just heard [COP26 president Alok Sharma] talking about how deeply sorry he is. He's apologizing basically for the last-minute changes that India made to the deal. What do you say to him? Is the deal a deep disappointment because of those changes?

I would say it is. 

Having a word of "phase out" might have given better confidence on doing away with coal. But from India's standpoint, I don't think that "phase down" is also such a huge disappointment, particularly if we see the way renewable energy is becoming competitive. 

The entire idea of India having coal was because coal was cheaper. But right now that logic is not holding ground so firmly anymore. So here is the opportunity for India to move on from coal.- Srestha Banerjee, India Just Transition Centre

Let's talk a bit about why India wanted this change in language.

The entire thing to do away with coal is an extremely controversial issue in India. 

More than 70 per cent of electricity comes from coal. And while India is making the progress on renewable energy, at the same time there are still issues with how well our grids are [working]. Do we have the battery storage?

In fact, grid and storage are the two main barriers right now for reliable renewable energy supply, so there is kind of a sense of discomfort around whether we can commit to a coal phase-out. And automatically, coal power phase-out will also have a huge bearing on coal mining itself.

Srestha Banerjee is the director of India Just Transition Centre, an independent non-profit environmental organization. (Submitted by Srestha Banerjee)

Can I ask you about the coal mining? So we're talking about a largely unregulated mining industry that employs lots of people in rather precarious jobs.... What does that sector of the workforce in India face if they even phase down coal?

The challenge today in India is that the coal sector employs a lot of people and largely the informal sector is much, much higher than both the formal sectors, [coal power and coal mining, by] at least three times. 

Now, India does not have a clear position on [reducing coal mining] yet because of this employment. 

Some of these coal regions are mono-coal districts. So basically, coal is the only industry, and the industry which has grown around it, [the] jobs provided, … are very coal-centric. So essentially, a coal phase-down or phase-out will entail a systemic transition of not just the energy system, but also of people's livelihood, providing jobs [and] redesigning the economy.

Murti Devi, who scavenges coal for living, prepares a hearth fueled by coal at a village near Dhanbad. (Altaf Qadri/The Associated Press)

India needs more time, right? That's the issue, that this "phase out" or "phase down" has a timeline to it that India cannot meet. Is that what you're saying?

India has to start on a phase-down.

Last year ... there [were] much more investments in renewable energy than in coal power. This shift is already happening if the market is speaking for it. In fact ... there are predictions there will be practically no investments in new coal power [after 2030]. So even without India spelling it out of a coal phase-out, a coal power phase-out will happen. 

I think right now the battle is about terminology, but I don't think it will in any way shift what we will be arriving at in 2030.

But at the same time, you know, delegates to the COP26, the island nations spoke of being doomed because of what China and India have decided with coal. They spoke of the monumental failure, and that they believe with a lot of evidence that they are in a lot of trouble if they can't get to the 1.5 degree [C] target much more quickly.... India is regarded as a kind of pariah at this point for this decision among those nations. What do you say to them? What do you say to people in the Marshall Islands right now?

India had put a fantastic net-zero target ... a very, very ambitious RE [renewable energy] target at the beginning of the COP. But at the end, yes, this was unfortunate that it had to say that.

I feel the main challenge with this is right now the symbolism of it and the confidence it has given, no? It has given out the sense that we are not comfortable with phasing out coal, which is definitely disappointing for people. 

I would say it is more challenging for the people of India, even the poorer people, because they are some of the people who will be worst impacted by climate change. We already have floods. We are having a drought. We are even having wildfires. We are suffering from all of this. So it is also in India's own interest to phase it out.

A child and a parent await the school bus as another parent sees off her child in the morning fog in Greater Noida, near New Delhi, India, on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019. (R.S. Iyer/The Associated Press)

India is facing the same climate change disasters as other places.... At the same time, huge parts of your country don't have electricity or stable electricity, so development is very slow. Where do you see India finding the balance between those two, with the world also being angry with India for letting them down at this point?

Energy access has been there [as] a long-standing issue and we are working in the coal regions.... Particularly the electricity supply in schools, hospitals and all of that. 

If India makes investments in renewable energy and distributed renewable energy, which also is a huge job creator, then India can also do the energy transition, create jobs, as well as secure energy access without relying on coal. Energy does not necessarily have to come from coal as long as RE is becoming competitive. 

The entire idea of India having coal was because coal was cheaper. But right now that logic is not holding ground so firmly anymore. So here is the opportunity for India to move on from coal.


Written by Mehek Mazhar with files from CBC News. Produced by Sarah Jackson. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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