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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle