Conquering coal – A tale in two countries

It's not just the west which is fighting investment in coal – grassroots campaigns in India are also calling for cleaner energy, write Guppi Bola and Chaitanya Kumar.

The recent national day of action in India under the campaign India beyond coal, provided a strong reminder to UK activists that coal remains as much a threat to our clean energy future as it does in the East. When Friends of the Earth announced the passage of the UK Climate Act on 28th October 2008, the green movement gushed with pride as their legislative pipedream became a reality. No one thought transitioning to a green economy would be easy, but firm commitments from the government allowed them to call out political failure and put the UK on a pathway to a clean energy future. Kingsnorth was one campaigning success against king coal, but the past four years have seen disruptive and uncompromising events divert our attention from that dirty enemy.

The reality is that our climate targets are at serious risk of being dismantled by self-interested and misguided politiciansEnergy-gate, uncovered this week by Greenpeace activists and exposed in the Guardian, shows the Conservative party prepared to work against their own parliamentary candidates in order to cull progress on the Climate Act. Right now, the renewable energy sector is quivering as fracking throws tremors further than the landscape of Lancashire, and a £700mn deal with Hitachi has left the nuclear industry radiating over its low-carbon counterparts. Wind turbines have been dealt blow after blow from unsympathetic media and antagonistic MPs, and with UK solar subsidies slashed – the dream of a green economy boom looks set to bust.

News of a coal renaissance should have everyone concerned. The World Coal Association claims the dramatic rise in shale gas use in the US has left European markets flooded with cheap coal – raising its consumption, and with it, rocketing carbon emissions. The largest consumer of this 3.3 per cent rise is Germany, compensating for its nuclear phase out by opting for coal over renewables. For the UK, slacking on our renewable energy commitments will make meeting our 2020 climate targets that much less likely; our “greenest government ever” gone a muddy brown and any leadership we wished to show left to smoulder.

In emerging economies, this fossil fueled honeymoon is only beginning. Just as the industrial revolution powered up the lives of millions of British people a hundred years ago, today coal provides energy to the all consuming middle classes of developing nations. Here lies the progression of an illicit and lustful affair with coal, a dangerous obsession in the times of a climate crisis. But in an industry driven by social and environmental degradation, how long will this love-in last? And how much heartache can the renewable market take along the way?


Indian labourers pile coal at a coal field on the outskirts of Hyderabad on September 5, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Half way across the world our government’s laissez-faire approach to the re-emergence of coal is doing nothing to shape positively the attitudes and behaviour of decision makers in India. Politicians are in cahoots with the fossil fuel industry, being propped up by the wrong international incentives and so responding to the expectation of affordable and accessible power  by locking the country into a system where 66 per cent of its electricity and 50 per cent of its primary energy comes from coal. As energy demand grows, the industry prospers under the gloss of economic and social development while in reality, India has wrapped herself in a straight jacket of environmental destruction, health deterioration and political corruption, the results of which have been felt viscerally over the past six months.

Two of the most heavily reported issues in national media this year demonstrate just how corrosive coal is to Indian society. After a summer of record-breaking temperatures, a delayed monsoon and crippling crop failures, severe blackouts cut over 700 million people from power during two long hot days. The blackouts were blamed on rising energy demands, inefficient centralized grids, critically low coal buffer reserves at power plants and the inability of coal plants to meet peak load demands. Public anger towards the energy industry was at its peak but nothing could prepare India for a political coal scandal to the tune of $33bn. Coal-Gate landed itself on the front pages of newspapers the world over, propelling anti-corruption campaigners like Arvind Kejriwal to international acclaim. Evidence released to the media showed how government officials had created a windfall for private companies to secure rock bottom prices on coal mine development sites, completely dismissing the tender process and passing it off under the guise of “public interest”.

One wonders what kind of interest the public will be paying when the industry that is responsible for premature deaths of over 70,000 a year, forced displacement and dispossession, and the destruction of thousands of hectares of fragile forest ecosystems, is put at the centre of mass financial corruption. When eminent climate scientist, Professor James Hanson classed coal-fired power stations as death factories, he was laughed off as a fanatic. His comments were aimed at highlighting the imbalance in our climatic systems resulting from increased carbon emissions. Just as Hanson predicted, torrential rains in China, widespread droughts in the US, landslides in Bangladesh, record summer temperatures in India, Hurricane Sandy and other deadly extreme weather events of 2012 are all evidence that the climate is changing. But who needs to validate climate predictions when in India, coal is already a killer?

Besides the negative impact on lives, livelihoods and livestock, for India, coal is neither cheap nor accessible. The fall in demand for coal in the U.S. has not halted the rising coal prices of the majority of exports to India that come from Indonesia, Australia and South Africa. Coal prices have thus remained high and continue to give power generators a tough time. Thermal plants rely heavily on bank loans but as was the recent case of the TATA Mundra, India’s first ultra mega power project, inaccurate forecasts of coal prices has now forced the company to plead for higher power tariffs as opposed to the tariffs that bagged them the project during the tender process. Witnessing an energy giant like the TATA’s face heat is a sure shot way to unnerve banks. Strong arguments in favor of renewable energy thus prevail, especially given the recent reverse auctions in India resulted in power producers willing to sell solar power almost in parity with coal. It’s only a matter of time that the economies of scale kicks in for solar and drive prices further down.  

A dog relaxes on a heap of coal at the Kankaria Railway Yard in Ahmedabad on September 5, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

So here comes the good news. An exciting number of examples of decentralized renewable energy have sprung up across India where social entrepreneurs are bringing energy to thousands of poor households, setting a precedent for the immense potential of solar as a clean, sustainable and rapidly-turning-cheap source of energy. A particularly unique approach has been adopted by organizers in the remote village of Sompeta in the state of Andhra Pradesh. The locals have been fighting a proposed thermal power plant (2,640 MW) over the last three years. Relay hunger strikes for over 1000 days and the loss of 3 innocent lives has galvanized the community to fight the plant tooth and nail. But over the last six months, the villagers have turned to the sun to answer their energy needs. Defeating the logic that coal is a necessary evil, solar energy has come as a boon to the villagers. One hundred and sixty families have adopted it and after witnessing a dramatic drop in their electricity bills, nearly 2,000 families are signed up to go solar in the coming few months. With banks offering loans and small subsidies from the state government, locals are accepting this change at a remarkable pace.

It may be for these reasons that coal has become the central issue for environmental and social campaign groups across South Asia. Following the Greenpeace Junglistan campaign earlier this year, India saw one of its largest displays of national action against coal. On November 10th,'s "India Beyond Coal" campaign saw over 60 actions registered in 23 states across the country. From thousands surrounding a thermal plant in Chattisgarh to street artists coming together in Kolkata, various forms of protests by ordinary citizens raised a much needed alarm against India’s addiction to coal. The campaign was supported by solidarity actions in South Africa, Australia, France and right here in the UK, aiming to connect the dots of our global fossil fuel addiction at home and abroad. Mass action on this scale is a heavy reminder to us in the UK that we risk losing the battle over our government's commitments under the prized Climate Act. We can and must fight for this Act, a groundbreaking piece of legislation put in place to provide clean air, safe energy, and a stable climate for present and future generations. Climate change puts a lot at stake in India, the UK and the rest of the world. Though our policies and methods to tackle them might be different, weaning away from coal for both nations is an inescapable option.

Local villagers work to scavenge coal illegally from an open-cast coal mine in the village of Jina Gora on February 11, 2012 near Jharia, India. Photograph: Getty Images

Guppi Bola is a UK climate campaigner and Chaitanya Kumar is South Asia Co-ordinator for

Getty Images.
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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.