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, 350.org'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 350.org.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.