Monday, November 30, 2015
It’s rush hour in the world’s most polluted city, and just visible through the dense blanket of smog is an electronic billboard informing motorists that the air quality has dropped from “very poor” to “severe”.
If this were Beijing an emergency would be declared, with schools closed for the day and production at factories halted. But here in Delhi, judging by faces barely visible behind anti-pollution masks, nobody seems to have noticed.
On top of the carbon-spewing traffic that clogs the Indian capital’s streets, that challenge comes in the enormous form of the 1.5bn tonnes of coal the country aims to extract annually by 2020. That is double its current output.
And if there is one thing that Western countries can agree on, it is that dirty, polluting coal needs to be phased out.
Unfortunately, that isn’t something India, already the world's third-largest polluter, is about to do.
Faced with a rapidly growing population, a buoyant but fragile economy blighted by constant power shortages and millions still living in abject poverty, India argues that it cannot simply decide between renewable and non-renewable power - it needs both.
So a breakneck dash for coal is taking place across the country, where on average one new mine is opening every month.
As a result, India’s carbon dioxide emissions, are expected to rise from 1.7bn tonnes in 2010 to 5.3bn - about a sixth of all the carbon dioxide released in the world last year - by 2030. And even that is unlikely to satisfy India’s ravenous demand for energy.
India has announced efforts to boost renewables too. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will launch a “solar alliance” of 122 solar-rich countries at Paris, seeking to attract $100bn per year global investment in the technology. He has also spoken of the need for new, cleaner methods of coal generation.
In both cases, Mr Modi seeks to remind the West of its promises to help finance the developing world’s fledgling green industries - promises he says it has failed to honour.
Either way, Mr Kerry’s "challenge" comment was received with fury in New Delhi. Officials here are quick to point out that it still burns less coal than the US or China - and besides, the West has been profiting from pumping out carbon for decades.
“Kerry’s comment is unwarranted and unfair. The attitude of some of the developed countries is the challenge for the Paris conclusion,” said Prakash Javadekar, India’s environment minister. India is "not in the habit of taking any pressure from anybody", he added.
“This smacks of a ‘carbon imperialism’,” wrote Arvind Subramanian, the Indian government’s chief economic advisor. “And such imperialism on the part of advanced nations could spell disaster for India and other developing countries.”
Of course, it is not just the West that is worried by India’s coal rush. A group of developing countries known as the ‘V20’ nations - mainly smaller, vulnerable countries, many of them low-lying islands - are also applying pressure.
Even Beijing, on whom Delhi in the past could always rely to champion the cause of rapid industrialisation at any cost, has begun to turn away from coal, as its economy pivots from manufacturing to services.
China’s enlarged middle-class has had some success in pressing for cleaner air, with the government committing to targets to significantly reduce the use of coal and increase that of renewables over the coming 15 years.
But back in Dehli, the capital of a country where one-in-four lack access to even basic electricity - and where coal continues to provide the cheapest solution - the prospects of a cleaner future seem murky at best.