Characterised by dust, smog and smoke, India's bustling streets are known for its air pollution. But with a downturn in the demand for coal power in light of the pandemic, India's once-suffocated streets might be starting to breathe again. But can this last?
Despite current economic turmoil playing havoc with India's already challenged power industry, out of the chaos a number of environmental benefits are beginning to emerge. Bucking a 37 year pattern of growth, 2020 has seen a fall in India's carbon dioxide emissions for the first time since 1982. With an estimated 15% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions in March alone followed by a 30% drop in April according to analysis by CarbonBrief, a diminishing demand for coal power might be the final nail in the coffin for the dwindling industry.
2020 has seen a fall in India's carbon dioxide emissions for the first time since 1982
Although the power plummet may seem corona-related, India's power industry was in trouble before. In particular, lessening demand for coal power has meant increased government bailouts to save coal companies under strain, which in itself could encourage the return of soaring carbon dioxide emissions if clean air standards are not revised.
The 2019 introduction of India's 5-year National Clean Air Programme aiming to reduce particulate matter pollution in 102 cities by 20-30% clearly represents a need to cut emissions. But despite a promising decline in fossil fuels before lockdown, there is concern that emissions may once again sky-rocket when the world frantically tries to restart its economies post-pandemic. However, with the pandemic causing global economies to reconsider the way they've worked for decades, it begs the question: Could renewable energy be the future for India?
A promising advantage of renewables in India is that they provide a cheaper energy source than coal, with an hourly cost of 2.55 rupees for solar energy compared to 3.38 rupees for coal-generated electricity. However, that only applies to new renewables vs. new coal. Revert to old coal and the cost is quite literally dirt cheap in comparison.
Literal and metaphorical blue skies in India have left people with a sense of belief that it is possible to repair the country's fraught history of air pollution. But is the promise of clean air enough to make a lasting switch?
Fortunately, the Indian government seem keen to implement clean air policies, with plans to raise current standards in accordance with the World Health Organisation's more stringent guidelines. With hopes that the coronavirus crisis may act as catalyst, a glimmer of environmental hope may place renewable energy at the heart of India's economic future.
This virus has undeniably offered a window of opportunity for a huge global overhaul in the toxic non-renewables that have choked the environment in the last century. With major changes needed to curb the environmental damage from relentless human exploitation, 2020 may be the time to revolutionise coal power.