“We find dirt and dust on everything,” states Ramji Basor, a struggling farmer living in the shadow of one of India’s many coal power plants (Bengail). Much of the Indian population is getting used to this daily occurrence. Winds blow coal dust over numerous crops and drinking wells, and heavy rains rush mass amounts of soil into villages that consist of dirty, cracked homes from mine blasting. The country is engulfed in a thick air that not only coats its surroundings, but also making it very hard to breath. The desire to industrialize an economy around coal power has left the people and environment of India suffering, in addition to contribution of global climate change.
Of India’s 1.25 billion people, only 300 million have electricity, making demand for energy extremely high. While trying to bring electricity to the rest of the population, India has ignored the international push to reduce carbon emissions. Currently, India consumes 800 million tons of coal yearly to produce a whopping 70% of its energy. Only 17% of India’s power comes from hydropower, while 10% comes from renewable sources such as wind, and 2% from nuclear power (Martain). India relies heavily on their domestic coal resources because it is the cheapest way to create energy and continue their recent economic growth (Cropper). Regardless of this fact, using the domestic resource has weighed a rather heavy cost, as the burning of coal to produce energy has left its mark on not only the environment, but also human health.
Anywhere that coal is burned the surrounding environment suffers. Like many forms of energy, coal burned energy is created through the boiling of water that creates steam, which rises to spins large turbines. Coal combustion releases emissions of CO2, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and various trace metals like mercury over large areas of land (Guttikunda). As theses pollutants enter the atmosphere, smog, acid rain, and toxic air pollution begins to create a chain of environmental destruction. Effects such as smog and acid rain contaminate the water cycles allowing rivers, lakes, drinking water sources, and soil to become contaminated (Guttikunda). As the environment around the plant becomes effected, enormous amounts of health effects are placed on residents within the area. Lung cancer, respiratory illnesses, and heart diseases all have been ruled into relation with coal burned energy. And in 2010, Global Disease Studies noted India’s air pollution among the top ten health risks of the country, with an estimated 695,000 premature deaths from respiratory illnesses (Guttikunda).
While the rest of the world tries to reduce the CO2 emissions they emit, India does little to regulate the amounts they release. Ranking first in world percent increase of carbon emission in the past year, India’s emissions jumped 5.1%; the biggest jump ever recorded by a country. Compared to the United States who only rose 2.9 %, and the European Union, which fell by 1.8 %. India’s total emission is ranked fourth according to World Bank, while China, US, and Russia all currently lead. But, if India’s economy continues to produce the amount of greenhouse gasses like the past year, they could soon move up in rankings and further putting the world at risk of climate change destruction (Oskin).
Traditionally, the use and effect of coal has been seen mostly in the United States. The electrification of America began 1882 when Thomas Edison developed the first coal-fired power plant (Steinberg). By the end of the century the United States produced more coal than any other nation and had an economy that functioned under the use of primarily coal powered railroads (Steinberg). As rail- roads began to expand across the United States the demand for coal, similar to India’s for energy, became evident. More recently we have seen more demand for the coal industry when president George W. Bush was elected in 2000. According to Steinberg, under President Bush about half of the United States energy came from coal plants, and was responsible for 39% of the nation’s carbon emission. Furthermore in 2007, President Bush, powering his energy policy around coal, called for 150 new coal-fired power plants to be built in the US (Steinberg). Under Bush the nation was unaware of the implications of using coal until the realization in Martin County, West Virginia when Massey Coal Energy Company found that its wastewater pond had been contaminated with volumes of black sludge that contaminated the drinking water of 27,000 people (Steinberg).
Though economically coal seems to be the best option because it is the cheapest form of energy and is abundant, it does have many negative externalities. When looking back in the United States history it is clear that coal powered economies are unsafe and pose major threats to the environment. India in the future should look to cleaner forms of energy to power their economy like solar or wind. If India does not change the way they are operating they will harm their residents, their beautiful country, and catalyze global climate change.
For more information, see:
Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History, 3rd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013): chapter 16.
Atmospheric Emissions and Pollution From The coal-fired thermal power plants in India: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S135223101400329X?np=y
The Hidden Costs: Health Effects of Coal Electricity Generation in India :
Coal-fueled Economy taking a toll on environment
Climate Change Takes A Backseat to Coal powered Development: