Extract from Himal Southasian - written by Ananth Chikkatur & Sunita Dubey

With coal, we have light, strength, power, wealth, and civilization,” W J Nicolls, a 20th-century American writer, once marvelled. “Without Coal we have darkness, weakness, poverty, and barbarism.” A century later, civilisation itself seems to be threatened by the ‘black diamond’. Although breathing coal’s sulphurous smoke was once considered healthy in England, it soon became clear that inhaling these vapours was far from good for the human body. Moreover, it is not just the coal fumes that are dangerous to human health. It is the invisible, odourless carbon-dioxide (CO2) gas that results from burning coal that is now threatening the world – not just human beings, but the entire climatic system.

Coal, whose reserves are widespread across the globe, today provides about 40 percent of the globe’s electricity, but it has also become something of a black albatross. Similarly, refined crude oil has given us diesel and gasoline – the most energy-dense of liquid fuels – giving humanity the freedom to drive and fly across the globe. Yet, it has become increasingly obvious that our collective addiction to oil has become a geopolitical and environmental nightmare. While fossil fuels have irrefutably defined the modern way of life, countries around the world are now struggling to maintain a certain lifestyle – one made possible by fossil fuels – while not relying on the dirty sources.

One of the most significant problems today is the continued reliance on dirty coal-fired power plants, which dominate the Indian power sector. Direct impacts resulting from the construction and ongoing operation of coal power plants include emissions of particulates and hazardous chemicals, pollution of local waterways, and degradation of land used for storing the by-product of burned coal, known as fly ash. The indirect impacts result mainly from coal mining, which includes degradation and destruction of land, water, forests, habitats and societies in general.

Although there are air-pollution regulations in most of the countries of Southasia, the enforcement of these regulations remains problematic. For Indian coal plants, the emphasis has mainly been on particulate emissions. While assessment of environmental impacts and routine monitoring are expected of all power stations, there is little penalty for violating the stated norms. There are provisions in the law that allow for power plants to be closed down for not meeting environmental standards; but such plants have never been shuttered because, as the Central Electricity Authority notes, India “can hardly afford to close any unit in the power starved situation”.

In addition to air pollution, water quality and quantity is under serious duress, both locally and across national borders, and these issues are likewise negatively impacted by the continued dominance of coal. The total industrial water use in India is currently said to account for roughly 13 percent of the total freshwater ‘withdrawal’ in the country; and thermal power plants (which include coal) are some of the country’s highest industrial consumers of water, even as compared to their global counterparts. On average, for every 1000 kilowatt-hours (Kwh) of power, Indian thermal power plants consume as much as 80 cubic metres of water – compared to less than 10 cubic metres consumed by such plants in developed countries. As supply problems increase, estimates by the International Water Management Institute, based in Sri Lanka, indicate that India will enter a ‘stress zone’ by 2025, and Pakistan and Sri Lanka shortly thereafter. Water scarcity due to groundwater depletion is already a major problem in India.

This region, like the world in general, is quite literally being consumed by its insatiable desire for the energy required for accelerating economic growth. Meanwhile, our political leaders are unwilling to make the difficult, but necessary, changes; as such, politics continues to trump the environment, and economic growth remains king. At the same time, those who fervently demand that an economic system completely addicted to fossil fuels simply quit do not take economics and institutional inertia into account when promoting currently expensive technologies such as solar photovoltaic (PV) panels or wind turbines. As a result, even while politicians struggle to maintain the status quo in the midst of impending environmental crises, environmentalists, with few exceptions, seem to be holding little sway in Southasian policy debates.

Yet procuring an energy-secure future for Southasia will involve not only the ability to get access to energy resources. It will also require dealing with a whole spectrum of increasingly pressing environmental and ecological issues, including deforestation, soil erosion, desertification, air and water pollution, carbon emissions, water shortages in cities, and the impacts of climate change such as unpredictable monsoons, severe tropical storms, droughts and floods. Taking on such a range of issues will clearly require input from the full spectrum of stakeholders, large and small.

Resolving many of the contradictions and challenges in the energy sector will require the implementation of a range of new technologies and practices. These need to include more-efficient ‘conversion’ and use of energy, and the development and deployment of low-pollution and low greenhouse gas emitting technologies, especially renewable-energy technologies. In addition, better environmental practices in the energy sector, as well as improvements in land use and forestry practices, will be necessary.

Fortunately, many of the required technologies already exist. We also know about the practices that we need to implement, including energy efficiency, environmental-impact assessments and the like. The appropriate use of currently available technologies, coupled with better practices, could do much to help to resolve many of Southasia’s energy challenges. Moreover, with increased investment in research and development of new technologies – such as carbon capture and sequestration (ie, scrubbing CO2 from power plants, compressing it into a liquid, and then pumping it into saline aquifers underground), genetically altered biofuels, artificial photosynthesis, high storage batteries, etc – there is also the potential of doing more for the environment at less cost. In this, however, two critical questions remain: When will these technologies and practices actually be deployed? And who will take the political risk in changing the status quo?

In terms of ‘alternate’ technologies that exist today, there are several key options. In the power sector, these include small-scale versus large hydroelectric installations; advanced coal technologies versus inefficient coal-powered technologies; and increased use of nuclear, solar photovoltaic, thermal, wind and so-called advanced biomass technologies. In the transportation sector, these include more mass transport (rail and buses) versus personal transport (cars), more-efficient and hybrid-electric vehicles to replace inefficient and dirty diesel vehicles, and increased use of public urban transport and railways (as opposed to roads) for goods transport. In the household and building sector, these include highly efficient appliances (such as later model air conditioners, fans, televisions, refrigerators and microwaves), efficient lighting (such as CFL and LED light bulbs) versus incandescent bulbs, solar water heaters, more-efficient motors for household water-lifting, rainwater harvesting, and the use of trees and innovative landscaping to cool buildings. Greater penetration of such efficient technologies would clearly reduce energy consumption.

The world is today in the midst of an energy transition. The success of this transition is yet to be determined, but we now have a good sense of what the challenges are and what our new technologies need to do. More recently, we have even begun to acknowledge some lifestyle changes that we need to make. The transition is inevitable, but key questions remain regarding just how quickly and how willingly different regions of the world are going to embark on this transition. Although the path may not yet be apparent, the questions for the people of this region are perfectly clear: Will Southasia embrace the looming change and be a global leader, or will it resist and be a laggard? Will the path forward be led by democratic means, or will it be forced upon the countries of the region by events beyond their control?

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