India Leads Asia's Dash for Coal  

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  • Coal shipment illustration. Tempo/Tony Hartawan

    Coal shipment illustration. Tempo/Tony Hartawan

    TEMPO.CO, Magadh, India-Deep in the thickly forested hills in its east, India last month started production at what it hopes will in five years be Asia's biggest coal mine.

    At the open-cast mine, which involves the clearing of more than 18,000 hectares (44,500 acres) of land, noisy excavators are busy digging for coal that will feed a huge power plant being built nearby to fuel India's energy-hungry economy.

    India is opening a mine a month as it races to double coal output by 2020, putting the world's third-largest polluter at the forefront of a pan-Asian dash to burn more of the dirty fossil fuel that environmentalists fear will upend international efforts to contain global warming.

    Close to 200 nations are set to meet at a United Nations summit from Nov. 30-Dec. 11 to hammer out a deal to slow man-made climate change by weaning countries off fossil fuels.

    China has promised to restrict public funding for coal and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trumpeting investment in renewable energy, but in Asia's biggest economies the reality is that coal is still regarded as the easiest source of energy.

    "Environment is non-negotiable but we can't live without coal. You can't wish away coal," said Anil Swarup, the top official in India's coal ministry, who is leading the push to open new mines like Magadh, in poor but resource-rich Jharkhand state.

    "There is a temporary drop in demand, but no question of reducing coal output. We are well short of coal required in the country."

    China, India and Indonesia now burn 71 percent of the world's newly mined coal according to the World Coal Association, with new European and North American consumption negligible as their countries turn to cleaner energy.

    Other Asian nations are increasingly looking to coal to power their economies too, with Pakistan, the Philippines and Vietnam opening new plants, pushing the Asia/Pacific region to 80 percent of new coal plants.

    "Coal is still the most cost competitive power generation fuel, and in the end that's what matters most for emerging markets," said Frederic Neumann, Co-Head Of Asian Economic Research at HSBC in Hong Kong.

    Asia's developed nations, too, are finding it hard to kick the coal habit.

    Japan's use has reached a record after shrinking its nuclear industry and it plans to build another 41 new coal-fired units over the next decade.

    Australia's exports of thermal coal rose 5 percent to 205 million tonnes in the last financial year and are to increase by a further 1 million tonnes this year, driven by increased demand from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

    The rush to burn more coal comes as the world's major economies, including leading emitters China and the United States, have agreed to start cutting greenhouse gases over the next 15 years ahead of the U.N. climate change summit in Paris.

    India has rejected any absolute cuts, arguing that its per capita emissions are far below the world average and that it needs to emit more as it grows to beat poverty.

    In a climate-change policy statement released last week, New Delhi promised to slow the rate at which its greenhouse gas emissions rise by a third by 2030.

    Coal will remain the dominant source of its energy for decades, India said, but it pledged to invest in cleaner coal technology, modernise old power stations and plant trees to absorb up to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

    REUTERS