India’s Coal Policy Ignores Zero Emission Target: But Little Choice

The ground reality is that India in all probability, may have to ignore the net zero emission target by the year 2070 with whatever consequences to the global climate scenario.

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Representative Image: Special Arrangement

During the Glasgow Climate Meet, the Indian Prime Minister announced with much fanfare that India would achieve zero net emission target by the year 2070.

The pre-condition to reach zero emission level is that the use of fossil fuel namely crude oil and coal and to some extent natural gas too (as it is known natural gas results in methane emission during handling and transportation) should be totally eliminated.

At present, India consumes more than 250 million tonne per annum of crude oil and around 80% of its requirement is met by import. In the case of natural gas, India imports around 35 billion cubic metre per annum, which is nearly half of India’s requirement.

India’s coal production hit a milestone of 892 million tonne during F Y 2023, which is an year on year growth of 14.7%. In addition to the domestic production of coal, India’s import of coal surged by 26.18% year on year to 237.93 million tonne during April,2022 to February,2023, with non coking coal accounting for 65% of the import.

The question is whether India can achieve the net zero emission target by the year 2070, considering the present usage level of fossil fuel and considering that the present pattern of energy mix would largely remain the same and that the usage level has to increase at the level of around 8 to 9% per annum in the coming years, if India were to maintain GDP growth rate of 6 to 7% per annum.

The ground reality is that India in all probability, may have to ignore the net zero emission target by the year 2070 with whatever consequences to global climate scenario.

Ground reality:

India and China account for about 80% of all active coal projects in the world, even as most nations take steps to reduce coal project capacity to meet climate targets. China plans to build some 100 new coal-fired power plants to back up wind and solar capacity, which goes against China’s stated intention to reduce the role of coal.

As of January 2023, only 20 countries have more than one coal project planned, according to E3G, an independent climate think tank.

India, whose proposed coal power capacity is the highest after China, has repeatedly refused to set a timeline to phase out coal, citing low per-capita emission and the need for inexpensive fuel sources.

India’s comparative emission level

India and China are the world’s two biggest CO2 emitters from coal.

However, Australia and South Korea lead the world in emissions from the world’s fossil fuel when adjusted for population size, according to energy and climate research organization Ember.

Data calculated since the Paris Agreement on climate in 2015 show that some of the richest countries in the world have the most work to do in moving away from coal to cleaner energy sources.

Coal power emissions in selected countries – per capita, G20

Name of the countryAnnual average from 2015-2020,
in tonne CO2
S Korea3.81
S. Africa3.19

World average                            1.06

India’s per capita average emission is much lower compared to developed countries ,. However, the fact is that India is one of the largest emitters in quantitative term. This is a weak argument to defend India stating that India’s per capita emission is lower than several other developed countries and perhaps implying that India should be considered less guilty with regard to emission level

India’s coal policy – Confusion galore

A number of pronouncements have been made in recent years by Govt. of India about India’s coal policy and utilisation of coal as fossil fuel. Several committees have been set up and a number of them appear to be providing what appear to be contradictory recommendations. It is not clear as to whether India’s coal policy has been finally arrived at and framed

In a draft proposal, which is India’s first attempt at revising its National Electricity Policy (NEP) enacted in 2005, it was recommended that the retirement of old coal-fired however plants should be delayed, until energy storage for renewable power would become financially viable.

In the first draft of the NEP in 2021, it was said that India might add new coal-fired capacity, though it proposed tighter technology standards to reduce pollution.

The Central Electricity Authority, an advisory body to the power ministry, had said last year that India might have to add as much as 28 GW of new coal-fired power in addition to the plants under construction to address surging power demand.

The report on Optimal Generation Capacity Mix for 2029-30, released by the Ministry in May 2023, also says that between 2023 and 2030, India will build 26.9 GW of coal power plants. The investment for that, at Rs.8.34 crore a MW, therefore, works out to Rs.2.25 lakh crore, or Rs.32,050 crore a year.

The report further says that essentially due to coal based power plants, India’s annual carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector are set to rise from 9.10 million tonne from 2,36,680 GW of coal power capacity today to 1.11 billion tonne in 2030. All this implies that coal power is both costly and harmful to the planet.

So far, old coal-fired power plants with a cumulative capacity of 13 GW have been earmarked for functioning post retirement deadline to meet high power demand

The latest news is that India plans to stop building new coal-fired power plants, apart from those already in the pipeline, by removing a key clause from the final draft of its National Electricity Policy (NEP). Obviously, the new policy, would not impact the 28 GW of coal-based power in various stages of construction.

However, the final draft of NEP, which will guide India’s policy making on energy over the next decade do not seem to have made reference to new coal fired power plants.

Will coal be the dominant fuel for all time to come in India?

Coal is expected to be the dominant fuel for generating electricity in India for decades.

Even as India has committed itself to achieve net zero emission by 2070, it has not made any efforts so far nor look like making any efforts in future to reduce steadily coal production in the country, which is a pre condition to reach zero emission target.

The Ministry of Coal has now announced that capacity for coal production would be increased by 885 million tonne per annum by the following coal projects and these projects are targeted to be completed by 2027 and India is expected to produce 1.3 billion tonne of coal by the year 2030.

Name of the companyNumber of  coal projects
Coal India Ltd          59
Singareni Colleries Company Ltd            5
NLC India Ltd (NLCL)            3
Total          67

Little choice for India: Likely fossil fuel-based energy mix in India Year 2023

CategoryInstalled generation capacity ( MW  )% of share in total
Total Fossil Fuel2,36,46957.4 %
Total Non-Fossil Fuel175,18042.5%
Total Installed Capacity(Fossil Fuel & Non-Fossil Fuel)4,11,649100%

The above figures clearly indicate that coal-based power projects would have the lion’s share of energy mix and the situation is unlikely to change anytime soon.

To reduce the dependence on import of fossil fuel and reduce the domestic consumption of fossil fuel , the Government of India has taken several steps, particularly keeping in view that the domestic production of crude oil and natural gas will not increase in India significantly and India has to depend heavily on domestic coal production for energy source.

Government strategy broadly consists of promoting electric vehicles , boosting the production of wind and solar power , blending of ethanol with petrol and promoting green hydrogen economy. Solar and wind power production depend on seasonal factors and capacity utilisation would be low. Green hydrogen technology for large scale commercial production at economic level is still in development stage. Whatever work that has been done so far to develop green hydrogen economy is in experimental stage and, at the present juncture, it would be difficult to predict about the ultimate development of green hydrogen economy at required level and economy of scale.

Obviously, the above strategies would not be adequate to reach the net zero emission target of Government of India and at best , these strategies can only contribute to reduce the growth rate in the consumption of fossil fuel in India.

Under the circumstances, achieving the zero net emission target by India can be justifiably termed as Utopian expectation.


N. S. Venkataraman is a trustee with the "Nandini Voice for the Deprived," a not-for-profit organization that aims to highlight the problems of downtrodden and deprived people and support their cause and to promote probity and ethical values in private and public life and to deliberate on socio-economic issues in a dispassionate and objective manner.

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