Burning coal is both a proven way to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and the most dangerous fuel driving global warming. The United Nations has set itself the goal of reconciling these two things, and the results are shaky at best.
Energy ministries from more than 30 nations are meeting at the UN this week, at the Sustainable Development for All Forum, to debate how best to supply electricity to the 1.3 billion people who don't have it—at least 250 million of whom are Indians. The drive toward universal energy access is just one element of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, a super-ambitious worldwide to-do list that the nations would like to finalize in New York in September, shortly before they meet again in Paris in December to finish a climate change treaty. That's the shaky part.
Despite aggressive investments in solar-powered electricity almost everywhere, erasing energy poverty also means more coal for developing countries, and India is the developing world's most ardent defender of its use.
India thinks of coal right primarily as a poverty-fighting tool. It's the most vocal and influential champion of the fuel these days now that China's industrial hangover has begun. China in March took the dramatic step of shutting down the last four major plants that serve smog-choked Beijing, and recent analyses suggest that its coal use overall may peak by 2020.
Indian coal demand could jump 42 percent, or 300 million metric tons, by 2020, and India is expected to add 124 gigawatts of electricity capacity in that time, according to Bloomberg Industries. In just two years, it may surpass China as the largest importer of seaborne coal.
The Global Coal Plant Tracker, below, shows where it's happening (everywhere). The tracker is a project of the environmental research group CoalSwarm, which is funded in part by the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and the Energy Foundation.
Southeast Asia is adding 205 gigawatts of coal overall by 2020, one of the most intense periods of coal-plant construction ever.
The Indian government understands the climate problem. Like China, it believes that the West has had a century or two to enjoy fossil fuels, and that developed nations should wind down the fires while India catches up. India has taken a harder line than China on commitments it is willing to make in the UN climate talks.
Rich nations have to some extent acknowledged the historical pattern. India is right about the West polluting for decades before the Asia boom started. But the developed nations are opposed to climate change policies that might punish them economically, and like to point out that the developing world is making up for their late economic start with record emissions in record time.
A fortuitous quirk of the last several years is that the U.S. has discovered a way to reduce its emissions rate and enjoy economic growth at the same time. The natural gas boom has made coal less competitive, and coal's share of electricity generation has shrunk from more than 50 percent in 2005 to 39 percent today. The Obama administration has been trying to lock in that pain with the first ever CO2 regulations, which should be final this summer.
The upshot is that the U.S. is dropping coal plants at an unprecedented rate, but still nowhere near as quickly as India is adding them. By the end of this year, some 7.5 percent of the U.S. coal fleet will have disappeared, casualties of low natural gas prices, old age, and new regulations. That's a lot. But by 2020, India may have built about 2.5 times as much capacity as the U.S. is about to lose.
Rich nations can afford to dump their coal. Poor nations can't afford not to take it on. To misquote Gandhi, the wealth of a nation, and its technological progress, can be judged by the way its coal is treated.