India’s Obsession With Coal And Delhi’s Air Pollution

Manoj Mishra

The irony couldn’t be crueler and the power of the lobby any more evident. Last week, when Environment Minister Mr. Yadav steps out of the chute at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA) like a victorious ‘General’ having accomplished a last-minute ‘amendment’ against coal phase-out in the Glasgow Climate Pact, schools in Delhi were shut for at least a week and, citizens were working from home and the Supreme Court suggested a short duration lockdown in the city not to contain the Covid-19 but to halt the adverse health impacts of the toxic air in the city. 

That use of fossil fuel including coal is amongst several reasons for the dangerous air quality in Delhi would hopefully not be lost on him.    Some might say, but it was just a word! True. 

But a word that might have doomed any hope whatsoever of the global warming on earth limiting itself within 1.5deg C above pre-industrial levels during the current century, which for many island states might have sounded like a death sentence. As it is science tells us that we have already reached 1.1deg Celsius. Let us recall the sequence.  

At the final plenary following up on intervention by China, India suggested a last-minute change in the draft agreement with regard to Coal to read phase ‘down’ from the already agreed phase ‘out’. This dramatic intervention was momentous although good or bad, only time can tell and analysts and historians would debate for long. But the disparaging remarks by most who spoke after the change was suggested and near tearful and apologetic Mr. Alok Sharma, the President of the Conference reluctantly admitting the dilution in the relevant para said it all. 

International Conferences

International conferences are often a drab affair. The euphoria of opening statements and few rhetorical speeches by politicians soon give way to the official ‘negotiations’ where national delegations carry their pre-decided briefs to the conference table with a resolve to take all but give little. 

Democracy is dangled in front of media personnel in form of voting results on different resolutions. No one tells how much of backroom cajoling including carrot and stick to influence the ‘weak’ nations has gone into the said voting outcomes. Civil society groups and individuals have of late become fairly active to keep the journalists busy and national delegates under at least moral pressure to deliver ‘correct’ decisions. 

In short, results if any at these conferences are anything but democratic. And the world goes on in a business as usual fashion (BAU) till the next CoP (Conference of Parties) is called to order. 

Believe it or not, this has happened for almost 30 long years since 1992 when the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was first conceptualized at the Rio de Janeiro ‘Earth Summit’ following a firm realization that increasing levels in the atmosphere of greenhouse gases (GHG) – in particular the CO2 – resulting from human activities was adversely impacting global, regional and local climate patterns.  

So the disappointment of the parties especially those most vulnerable to climate change impacts like the island states is understandable when this last-minute amendment has diluted the global efforts to phase “out” coal as the pre-eminent fuel of electric power by its phase “down” version of the compliance of which is hard to assess or monitor. Frustrations are more pronounced since it was the first time ever that the issue of ‘coal’ was finding a specific mention in the agreement of any CoP to date.  

India justified its stand by objecting to singling out of coal while all fossil fuels are bad for the environment and that India’s national circumstances and developmental needs cannot rule out the use of coal in the foreseeable future while still committing itself to an economy-wide reduction in GHG emissions. The jury nevertheless is out on such an approach.    

Objectives and achievements of Glasgow Conference

On 1st November 2021, the 26th meeting of UNFCCC at Glasgow (UK) set out to not just agree on rules for the implementation of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement on climate mitigation, adaptation, and finance keeping global warming within 1.5deg Celsius above the pre-industrial temperatures but to go beyond the rhetoric. 

At its end on 13 November 2021 (Saturday) while there are notable achievements in the Glasgow Climate Pact like a reiteration of climate action finance target for the developing nations of $100 billion per year till 2025; forest pledge by over 120 countries to halt and reverse forest loss by 2030; methane pledge by over 100 countries to cut its emissions by 2030; more than 40 countries agreeing to shift away from coal and USA and China pledging to boost climate cooperation over the next decade, the target of 1.5deg C appears iffier than before.   

So what are now the important actions that the most vulnerable nations to climate change, India amongst them needs to take?  

Focus on Climate Adaptation

While governments should continue to take actions on climate mitigation especially drastic reduction of GHGs, phase out / down on all kinds of fossil fuels and their replacement by solar and wind technologies, halt forest loss, carbon capture in the soils and in the seas, etc, for common folks it is action on climate adaptation which shall matter the most since climate change impacts are already beginning to hurt and new science shows that once the 1.5deg C threshold has been breached irreversible impacts including sea-level rise, inundation of low lying coastal areas and extreme weather events shall take hold of the world and the most vulnerable shall suffer the most.   

Challenges of Air-conditioning

Since summers shall become hotter and winters cooler air-conditioning of human homes, offices, and shops, etc shall become a dire necessity with air-conditioners remaining no longer a luxury item. This shall require not only huge technological advancements for improvements in air-conditioning efficiencies but suitable changes in construction material and building designs to usher in an era of natural solutions to meet the needs of air-conditioning. 

Challenges of managing climatic disasters and climate refugees

With climate disasters becoming all too common and climate refugees beginning to pour into relatively safer locations sometimes even across international borders, all nations would require up their efforts, expertise and finances to deal with these emerging challenges.  

What is achieved by 2030 is of real relevance?

It is heartening to note that there have been pledges made at Glasgow COP with the year 2030 as the target year and hopefully they shall also be kept. 

It has been said time and again by experts based on scientific evidence that the decade of 2020-2030 is the make-or-break decade for humanity. In the words of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), GHG emissions must be cut by 45% by 2030 compared with 2010 levels to stay within 1.5 deg Celsius. Presidents and Prime Ministers have graced the opening few days of Glasgow CoP and made ambitious claims and pledges. Now it is time for them to walk the talk. Amen. 

First Published in The Dialogue India’s Obsession With Coal And Delhi’s Air Pollution on November 15, 2021.

Read another piece on climate change by Manoj Mishra titled Climate Change: ​​Let’s Talk Specifics, How About Water Budget? in IMPRI Insights

About the Author


Manoj MisraConvener, Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan.



    IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.

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