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Not just coal and power, other ministries too 'ignore' timeline for net-zero carbon target

Counterview Desk 

Top power and climate policy analyst Shankar Sharma, in a representation to several Government of India ministries as well as the Niti Aayog and the Prime Minister*, has regretted that “the coal and power ministries are not only continuing to pursue a business as usual scenario of considering only the ever increasing demand-supply of electricity/ energy in various sectors, but also are refusing to provide any techno-economically credible justification for the same.”
Sharma says, one sees “continuing indifference towards various associated calamities, such as the alarming loss of forest and agricultural lands and biodiversity; unmanageable demand on fresh water sources; pollution/ contamination of air, water and soil; health impacts etc., which are all pushing the vulnerable sections of our communities to destitution…”

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The policies, practices, omissions and commissions in coal and power sectors, which have been generally seen as unsubstantiated, have also been the causes of major concern for decades to the rational observers of the energy sector in the country.
The lack of long term welfare perspective, the lack of cohesion/ consistency with the needs of other critical sectors of our economy, frequent and unsubstantiated changes in policies, obvious lack of consultations with stakeholders etc. have been a source of very serious concerns when we also take a diligent view of the holistic welfare of our communities.
It was only a few years ago that the Union government had stated that coal imports will be phased out soon. Few months ago about 100 new coal mine projects were approved, and the coal power companies were asked to mandatorily import coal to fill the shortage. Now again, there is a statement on completely stopping coal import by 2024-25. The underutilised capacity in the existing mines and the conflict of new coal mines with net zero target have never been mentioned in the official circles.
All these issues should be critically viewed in the context that the National Electricity Plan (for the years 2022- 2027/32) has projected massive increase not only in coal power capacity, but also in other conventional power generation technologies such as gas power, hydro power and nuclear power.
Even the ambitious plans to add massively to the RE capacity, through large size solar/wind power parks, also have many serious concerns to our society. The news items, as in the links below, have highlighted the associated serious concerns to our people:
Whereas, the economics of coal power sector, when we also take into an objective account the massive subsidies which go with all fossil fuel consumption, has been a major source of concern for the economists, what is also mind boggling is the obvious indifference being shown by these two sectors towards the growing and calamitous threats of global climate emergency in the form of climate change.
Even if we assume that the concerned ministries have no intention of respecting the carefully considered demand of the global scientific community to reduce CO2 emissions by more than half by 2030 in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change (Paris Agreement), what is shocking is the continuing indifference towards various associated calamities, such as the alarming loss of forest and agricultural lands and biodiversity; unmanageable demand on fresh water sources; pollution/ contamination of air, water and soil; health impacts etc., which are all pushing the vulnerable sections of our communities to destitution, as a recent report on global hunger index may indicate.
Even if this global hunger index ranking (107 out of 121) for India is not correct, and even if the correct ranking is deemed as 80 or 70, what we cannot ignore is the fact that such associated policies/ practices in coal and power sectors are certainly exacerbating the ecological concerns and, hence, the multi-dimensional poverty issues for our communities.
The specific case of The National Electricity Plan (Draft) Generation Vol- I for years 2022-27, released by the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) in September 2022 for public comments, can be quoted as the latest example of the indifference of our authorities to the compliance of many of such associated policies with the letter and spirit of many provisions of our Constitution, and of many other Acts of our Parliament.
Whereas, this draft plan has miserably failed to provide any supporting data, or policy provisions, or credible arguments to continue to heavily rely/ invest in conventional technology power generation sources and the associated infrastructure (such as coal mines, nuclear ore mines, hydro reservoirs, waste management sites, power transmission lines etc.), the same plan, interestingly, has quoted that the cost of power plants based on coal, gas and nuclear are clearly much more than that of renewable energy sources.
As a high level analysis of the National Electricity Plan (Draft) indicates, there are no credible arguments for our govt. to continue to heavily invest in conventional technology power generation sources and the associated infrastructure. Various statistics and statements in the draft itself should unambiguously indicate that diligent planning and adequate investments in RE sources is most beneficial to our country.
In this context, it is deplorable that the coal and power ministries are not only continuing to pursue a business as usual (BAU) scenario of considering only the ever increasing demand-supply of electricity/ energy in various sectors, but also are refusing to provide any techno-economically credible justification for the same.
Whereas, some of the rational observers may see a sort of vested interests of the coal and power ministries in the clearly questionable plans/ proposals in the National Electricity Plan (Draft), what is even more deplorable is that other impacted ministries such as the ministry of new & renewable energy, environment, forest and climate change, water resources, rural development and finance do not appear to have effectively contributed to the associated discussions on the draft proposal in this plan.
Whereas, the serious omissions and commissions of the coal and power sector should be obvious in the above paragraphs, please permit me to indicate similar issues for other ministries also. These ministries should have taken effective participation in the associated deliberations in developing the National Electricity Plan (Draft), and should have adequately protected the legitimate interests of our communities, as per the Constitutional mandate for the respective ministries.
Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change: Whereas MoEF&CC must have played a critical role to have a positive influence on the entire draft plan proposals, it is very hard to visualise its very presence in the associated meetings, if any. Whereas, Climate Change is hardly mentioned in the plan document, even the basics like the continued loss of enormous areas of thick, natural forests (even within the wild life sanctuaries) and biodiversity; destruction of wildlife habitats due to transmission lines in ecologically important areas of Rajasthan and Gujarat; pollution/ contamination of air, water and soil; health implications etc. must have been major issues for diligent consideration. But not even a mention of these and many other concerns could be noticed in the draft plan.
Ministry of Water Resources: Whereas the loss of forest cover itself should have been a major concern, the demand for enormous quantity of fresh water for coal, nuclear, gas power plants (and also for solar power parks); their pollution/ contamination; denial of the same for drinking and agriculture purposes should have been critical issues, if this ministry were to have participated in the associated deliberations.
Ministry of Finance: The massive subsidies associated with fossil fuels; huge capital costs of conventional technology power generation sources and the associated infrastructure; direct and indirect societal level costs due to loss of forests and agricultural lands; associated health issues; the obvious cost disadvantage of conventional technology power generation sources as compared to renewable energy sources (as mentioned in the plan document itself); the financial benefits of distributed type of renewable energy sources such as roof top solar photovoltaic (SPV) systems, where the individual consumers can take major share of installation costs; the continued burden of subsidies to the agricultural pump sets; the societal costs of AT&C losses etc. should have been the stumbling blocks for the finalisation of the plan document from the perspective of the finance ministry.
There is critical need for various ministries, NITI Aayog and PMO to take a diligent look at the draft National Electricity Plan
The foreign exchange burden of costs/ risks associated with the import of coal, natural gas, nuclear fuels/ technology, cannot be ignored. The threat of negative growth in GDP because of the accelerated depletion of the environment (as highlighted by the World Bank report of 2015 on India), and the associated impacts on our communities seem to have been completely lost on our authorities.
The ministry seems to be completely oblivious of the unimaginable costs to the entire country which is associated with any unfortunate nuclear accident of the kind witnessed in Chernobyl and Fukushima, and the definitive perpetual and recurring costs associated with the safe storage of nuclear wastes for centuries.
Ministry of Rural Development: The never ending diversion (or forced acquisition) of agricultural lands for mines, power plants, dams/ canals, waste management facilities, solar power parks, transmission lines etc; loss of sustainable employment opportunities; loss of livelihoods due to various industrial activities including coal and power sector, etc. have been devastating for the rural population for many decades, and the very idea of continuation of the same should have been unacceptable to this ministry.
Since independence, few million acres of rural lands might have been acquired, and thousands of families are reported to have been forcibly displaced (many times in a single generation for hundreds of families) because of conventional technology power plants. In such a continuing scenario, what kind of rural development can we expect for our people?
Ministry of New and Renewable Energy: Although there is an ambitious target for the increase of RE capacity, the enormous potential with distributed kinds of REs such as rooftop SPVs, small size wind turbines, and mini/micro/ smart grids have not been adequately factored in.
NITI Aayog and PMO: The impact on the goal of self-reliance (Atma Nirbharta) due to the import of coal, natural gas, nuclear fuels/ technology; the threat of negative growth in GDP due to ecological reasons alone; the global pressure to comply with the needs of Climate Change action plan; SDGs; poverty/ hunger index etc. to which the coal/ power sectors are major contributors cannot be ignored.
The absence of any initiative to take the power sector towards the timeline required to reach the net-zero carbon target by 2070 (even though this target is too vague and too far away to be of much use) should have been a real concern to PMO. The obvious lack of true relevance of the draft plan w.r.t the much repeated slogans: (i) sub ke saath; sub ka vikaas, sub ka vishwaas, sub ka prayas; (ii) moving towards becoming a Vishwa Guru; (iii) Atma Nirbhar Bharat; (iv) aspiration to be a global leader in climate action plan etc. cannot be ignored.
All such concerns could well have been addressed, if this draft plan were to be seen as an effective part of the National Energy Policy. But it is deplorable that we do not have such a strategic policy on energy at all, although a draft National Energy Policy was released by NITI Aayog in 2017.
These and many other associated concerns to our people; causative factors and societal levels costs of environmental degradation and climate change; vast potential for early transition to RE based scenario; and humongous magnitude of societal benefits of the same etc. can be further corroborated by a few recent reports/ news items as below:
In the context of so many glaring concerns, omissions and commissions in the draft National Electricity Plan, there is a critical need for various associated ministries, NITI Aayog and PMO to take a diligent look at the draft, and apply the much needed course corrections so as to put our country on a green and sustainable developmental pathway. In this regard the critical role of effective public consultations with the concerned civil society groups and domain experts should become obvious in all such major policy initiatives.
It is unfortunate that various associated ministries seem to have distanced themselves from such a critical planning document of a critical sector of our economy. Particularly, the absence of credible input by the ministry of Finance and MoEF&CC, PMO and NITI Aayog, which could have provided a national welfare perspective to this plan document, seem obvious to any discernible reader of the document.
My detailed feedback to CEA/ Ministry of Power on the draft National Electricity Plan is enclosed for your ready reference.
May I hope that unlike in the past, the feedback from civil society is diligently considered with the seriousness they deserve?
---
*The Minister of Coal, Minister of Power and Renewable Energy, and Vice-Chairperson and Members, NITI Aayog. Copies to: Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Minister for Water Resources, Minister for Finance, and he Prime Minister, New Delhi

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