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Tag Archives: health effects of coal production

Take your coal and shove it

Whilst Abbott, Hunt, Palmer and Newman regale us with their humanitarian effort to lift India out of poverty by selling them coal, the Indians recognise ill-informed self-serving greed when they see it. Far from embracing our colonial noblesse oblige, they view us as ignorant corporate lapdogs, and can you blame them.

The following is a letter from Shankar Sharma, an Indian Power Policy Analyst, to Campbell Newman.

Dear Mr. Newman,

Greetings from Mysore, India.

May I draw your team’s attention to a recent news item in “au.finance.yahoo.com” under the heading “Poor Indians need our coal: Qld premier”. ?

The statement attributed to you that “Those who say we can immediately change, I’m afraid, are condemning people in China, but particularly in India, who live in poverty, condemning them to that poverty,” has surprised many people here in India. This statement, if reported correctly, indicates to me that you did not have the benefit of effective briefing by your officers.

The following facts should assist your officers to provide correct briefing on all the related issues.

  • “To take 1.3 billion people in India out of poverty is going to require significant energy, and coal particularly is what they’re after.”

It is highly irrational to assume that everyone in 1.3 billion is poor.

About 30% of the population is reported to be poor and also without access to electricity. It is also equally irrational to assume that coal power is the only way of providing electricity to those who have no access to electricity, and to assume that it is the only way of lifting the poor from the clutches of poverty.

It should be noted that between 1990 & 2013 (as per Central Electricity Authority publication “Growth of Electricity in India” ) the installed electricity generating capacity in India increased from about 64,000 MW to 223,000 MW, and during the same period the national per capita electricity production increased from about 330 kWH to about 917 kWH. During this period Coal power capacity increased from about 41,000 MW to about 131,000 MW, and is at present 60% of the total power capacity in the country. But the number of people outside the purview of electricity network did not change considerably during this period. It should become amply clear that if much of the additional electricity produced in this period was used to provide electricity to un-electrified houses, there should have been no households un-electrified today. But the very characteristics of a grid based electricity infrastructure, wherein the coal power has been the king, cannot ensure equitable access to electricity for all, especially in a diverse country like India. Most of such additional power generation has gone to meet the escalating demand of people in urban areas and of the industries and commerce at the cost of rural poor.

In this context it should also be noted that the lack of access to electricity for the 30% population in India is basically because of the difficulties associated with integrated grid power. The issues of low density of loads in rural areas, the high cost of extension of grid supply to remote villages, inability of the villagers to pay for such grid power, poor economy of the coal power plants in small sizes etc. are all behind 30% of India’s population being denied electricity even after 6 decades of independence.

In view of the fact that the power sector in India is beset with huge inefficiencies (the sector is often termed as a leaking bucket, with the potential to save as much as 30 -40% of the demand on the integrated grid) the addition of new power production capacity, such as coal power plants, cannot be termed as rational investment from the perspective of the common man.

The development economists will even find it hilarious that about 400 Million poor in India should depend on imported coal from distant Australia to come out of poverty on a sustainable basis. The experience of two Ultra Mega Coal Power Plants on the West Coast of India, which were designed to depend entirely on imported coal, should be a lesson that the uncertainties associated with the supply and price of imported coal should not be associated with rational economic decision

A holistic view of the issues surrounding the coal power in a densely populated country like India clearly establishes the hollow claim of coal power lobbies. It is not surprising that coal advocacy groups are silent on the health and pollution issues associated with coal mining, coal burning and ash disposal activities.

Whereas your statement refers to lifting 1.3 Billion Indian from poverty, it is surprising that it seems that you have not been briefed on the social and environmental aspects of burning large quantities of coal in a densely populated and resource constrained country like India.

A study report “COAL KILLS” by three NGOs on the pollution impacts of coal in India has estimated that in 2011-2012, emissions from Indian coal plants resulted in 80,000 to 115,000 premature deaths and more than 20 million asthma cases from exposure to total PM10 pollution.

As per another report by Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention “The True Cost of Coal – Air Pollution and Public Health’, coal combustion in China is the source of 70% of the country’s soot emissions; 85% of its sulfur dioxide emissions; 67% of its nitrogen oxide emissions; and 80% of its carbon dioxide emissions. One has to question as to how such pollution statistics can be construed as contributing to the welfare of children, women, old aged, sick people amongst the vulnerable sections of our societies.

According to a report of January 2011 by Synapse Energy Economics, Inc., USA “Benefits of Beyond BAU” the death toll in a wealthy country such as USA was estimated to be between 8,000 and 34,000 premature deaths every year from inhaling fine particulate matter from coal combustion.

An authentic report on the major health effects of massive coal burning is a report of 2009 by the title “Coal’s Assault on Human Health” by Physicians for Social Responsibility. This report refers to coal combustion emissions such as sulfur dioxide, particulate matter (PM), nitric oxides, mercury, and a number of other hazardous substances, which damage the respiratory, cardiovascular and nervous systems of the human body. In particular, these emissions contribute to some of the most widespread diseases, including asthma, heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer, which can devastate the life of poor people who generally have to do even without basic healthcare facilities.

A media release on 13 February 2013, from a new collaborative network of health organizations in Australia has said: “The local and global effect of fossil fuel use on health and wellbeing is an immediate problem as well as an issue of intergenerational equity, with the exploitation of these resources causing irreversible harm to Earth’s systems, compromising the health and security of future generations.”

An article “The mining and burning of coal: effects on health and the environment” in Sept. 2011 issue of Medical Journal Australia has concluded that:

(i) “Communities in which coal mining or burning occurs have been shown to suffer significant health impacts;

(ii) The health and climate costs of coal are unseen, and when costs to health systems are included, coal is an expensive fuel.”

In view of all these health impacts it is sad that the coal power advocates continue to claim that the coal power will lead to real economic development and sustainable development; because in all such cases the people who are impacted most are the poor people.

While the health and the associated social issues of coal power should become crystal clear from a plethora of credible reports from around the world, the recent decision of the international financial institutions and many national governments from around the world on coal financing should demonstrate how the relevance of coal power in eradicating the poverty is being viewed at global level.

Earlier this year, two of the world’s largest IFIs, the World Bank and the European Investment Bank (EIB), announced their historic restrictions on coal financing. Since then governments from around the world — from the U.S. to Norway — have followed suit. There also was the U.K. government’s announcement that it too will end support for overseas coal plant construction. Recently the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) also announced its decision to move beyond coal.

While the coal power in a densely populate country like India has huge health costs, the increasing number of coal power plants are also putting unsustainable pressure on natural resources like land and fresh water.

Whereas India has been facing huge problems in these two resources for decades, the vast number of additional coal power plants will exacerbate the problems to the detriment of the poor and the vulnerable sections of the society, who are the worst affected sections by forced displacement and by the denial of access to adequate quantities of fresh water.

All these issues should establish that in a densely populated and resources constrained country like India, coal power should not be viewed as a savior for the poor, but as a perpetrator of injustice of all kinds for such vulnerable sections of our society, not only in India and China but all over the world.

Whereas the present Australian government has chosen not to acknowledge the urgent need to reduce the total GHG emissions at the global level, the majority of scientific communities, international institutions and governments around the world have no doubt about such a need. The recommendations from the latest Synthesis Report, AR5, from IPCC to minimise GHG emissions from the burning of coal cannot be ignored for the sake of very survival of human kind.

In summary, the Coal, which is a major source of GHG emissions and other pollutants, cannot be seen as necessary to address the twin issue of providing electricity to all and to pull the vast number of people from the clutches of poverty.

While the argument that poor Indians need Australian coal can be at best described as an effort to hide commercial interest behind the so called concern for the poor, Australia’s coal export is not only doing great damage to the legitimate interests of the poor in India, but also compromising the true interest of its own people by destroying its fragile environment.

It is worthy of notice what has been reported in The Australian on 4 Nov. 2014.

“TONY Abbott’s declaration that coal is good for humanity has been attacked by Australian National University academic Elizabeth Hanna, who warns thousands of people will be sentenced to death if Australia keeps exporting it.

Dr Hanna, whose research was included in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, predicted Australia faced days hotter than 50C within 10 or 15 years under continuing global warming and this would dramatically increase the number of heat-related deaths.

If that happens, “we are at risk of mass-death events in Australia, similar to the death tolls due to extreme heat overseas’’, she said.

“In 2003, 70,000 people died in Europe and 55,000 died in Russia in 2010 due to extreme heat.” ”

A rational analysis of all the related issues will reveal that Australia can contribute to the true interests of the poor in India by investing in and persuading the Indian authorities to undertake urgent improvement measures in the existing power infrastructure such as highest possible efficiencies and optimal levels of conservation in electricity sector, and in widespread usage of distributed type of renewable energy sources such as roof top SPV systems and community based bio-energy systems.


Shankar Sharma

Power Policy Analyst

# 1026, 5th Main Road, E&F Block, Ramakrishna Nagara Mysore, Karnataka, India – 570022