India has a coal problem, and the solution won’t come as quick as its government has promised. The country burns massive amounts of the fossil fuel because it’s one of the cheapest ways to provide power to the hundreds of millions that need it, but is now paying for that choice by having to contend with some truly dire pollution problems. In response, the government’s environment ministry directed its state-owned coal plants to significantly reduce the local air, soil, and water pollutants being emitted, but as the FT reports, these facilities are behind schedule in cleaning up their act:
The new rules, which affect stations differently depending on how old they are but require cuts of up to two-thirds in particulate matter, were intended to “minimise pollution”. But Piyush Goyal, the power minister, told the Financial Times that the country’s coal power stations, three-quarters of which are owned by the government, “will take some more time” to upgrade their technology and cut emissions.
That won’t be well received by the citizens of New Delhi, who have to endure some of the world’s worst air pollution as part of their daily urban lives as a direct result of the country’s heavy reliance on coal. Nor will it be well received by global greens, because this isn’t just a matter of local pollution—coal plants emit more CO2 than nearly any other power source, making this a climate change problem as well.
On that front, the Indian power minister sounded downright defiant, telling the FT that “India is not a polluter. It’s America and the western world that has to first stop polluting . . . India is doing its bit far more than we are responsible.” This was a major subtext at the Paris climate negotiations in December 2015: the developing world were holding the West responsible for the majority of the emissions to date, even as everyone knows that countries like India and China are going to make up the bulk of emissions going forward. How to divvy up responsibilities for climate change adaptation and mitigation in the face of all of that is complicated, to say the least.
That’s one of the reasons why the eventual agreement was non-binding, and therefore unenforceable: The West was unwilling to agree to anything that legally obligated it to sign on to what might be a blank check to the developing world to help with climate change issues, while the developing world itself was unwilling to pay for someone else’s actions at the cost of their own development.
For India, it’s clear that economic growth is a higher priority (the highest, you might say) than environmental stewardship. Case in point, from FT:
Priyavrat Bhati, head of the CSE’s energy unit, which tracks India’s power stations, says lack of government pressure means companies have taken no steps towards meeting the rules.
“None of the plants have done anything to improve anything,” he said. “Very few plants have even floated a tender that we need new technology — none of the plants have gone anywhere close to installation.”
New Delhi can do this because it knows the UN has no power to sanction it, just as each and every signatory of that so-called treaty has the ability to emit as much or as little CO2 as it so pleases.