Coal is no cure for energy poverty
Posted Fri 11 Apr 2014, 2:20pm AEST
Coal is mired in deep social inequities, and the need of the hour is a decentralised, democratically-owned renewable energy deployment to fight energy poverty, writes Chaitanya Kumar.
Coal does not alleviate poverty, it aggravates it. We of course rarely ask the poor what poverty means to them and what it will take to move them out of it. But Brendon Pearson, the chief executive of the Minerals Council of Australia, says we need coal-fired power to pull the world’s poor out of energy poverty.
But to be fair on Mr Pearson, you could arrive at that conclusion too if you deliberately ignored the social and economic contexts of coal in India or the developing world at large.
A recent study has shown that coal pollution in India results in 80,000 to 115,000 premature deaths every year and this statistic is expected to rise to 1.5 million if we continue on our current path.
Coal remains the single biggest contributor to climate change, the devastating impacts of which are already being suffered by the poor and most vulnerable. In fact, the International Energy Agency itself has called for a massive overhaul of existing fossil fuel plants and mines, suggesting that if we are to contain global warming to a two-degree rise, no new energy intensive infrastructure can go online post 2017.
Coal is mired in deep social inequities. Travel to any major coal belt in India and the people living around a coal plant face regular power outages. This cruel irony is explained by the fact that the power generated is often for the cities, the energy guzzlers, while the negative residual impacts of coal are to be borne by those living next to it. The industry is often set up on the pretext of providing jobs, greater compensation for land and adequate rehabilitation and resettlement for displaced communities. None of these promises have ever been satisfied and the coal belts of India stand testimony to that fact.
Coal and corruption are synonymous. Take the recent case of the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) of India, the largest coal power generator of the country. It received clearance from the federal environment ministry to set up a 2400 MW coal plant in southern India. The clearance was recently revoked when it was found, through images from Google Earth submitted by a local petitioner, that the proposed site was prime agricultural land as opposed to a barren land that the company had claimed it to be. Such is the haste of the Government to approve projects that not a single visit to the site was undertaken to verify the company’s claims. If you believe such corruption could never happen in Australia, look to the recent ICAC findings concerning Eddie Obeid.
Decentralised renewable energy is a safer, cleaner and viable source of energy for the rapidly evolving societies of the coming decades.
Various grassroots groups that have taken shape over the last decade are struggling to curtail the coal industry’s expansion. Millions of people now recognise the myth that coal equals development and are putting up a tough front against it. Why would they do so when, according to Mr Pearson, they need it for becoming poverty-free?
The answer of course lies in the simple adage that you can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it. With 40 per cent transmission and distribution losses across the grid, a heavily nationalised process of mining and generating power and the recent rise in consumer tariffs, coal is not the solution but in fact the reason that 300 million-odd Indians continue to live in darkness.
The need of the hour therefore is a decentralised, democratically-owned renewable energy deployment to fight energy poverty. Glimpses of its success and reliability are already being felt across the world. Decentralised renewable energy is a safer, cleaner and viable source of energy for the rapidly evolving societies of the coming decades.
The banks and financial institutions are increasingly wary of investing in coal and rightly so. The fossil fuel divestment movement in Australia, North America and Europe coupled with local community struggles are a force to reckon with. It is no longer a debate that only the so-called environmentalists are engaging in with the coal industry but everyone from boardrooms to the common people are in it too.
Pearson and his colleagues are clearly making a last ditch effort to revive an obsolete and dangerous industry and we would do our future generations and ourselves a favour by giving coal the boot.