In spite of the fact that emissions from coal-based power plants were responsible for an estimated 100,000 premature deaths between 2011 and 2012 in India, coal consumption grew by one third. Today, India experiences more premature deaths due to air pollution than any other country and is home to some of the most polluted cities in the world.
India is also the only major coal consuming economy that does not count it mandatory for coal-based power plants to comply with emission standards for SO2 and NOx, the two major pollutants released by power plants.
Such lack of elementary emission standards, were expected to soon be addressed by new and relatively stronger standards that had to be complied by within two years of notification by the environment ministry as of December 2015. However, what has become clear to clean air advocates across the country, is the lack of determined implementation of the compliance notification and more of foot-dragging and excuses, by the time which, the deadline is sure to be missed.
As of now, the rationale behind revising the deadline and diluting emission standards so much that almost no effort needs to be taken by power plants to comply with the standards, is quite an alarming new development that the government and the power industry have decided upon.
There’s certainly no doubt about what’s at stake- the air and the health of tens of crores of Indian citizens. So, it’s worth taking a look at the arguments presented by the industry in detail.
The Indian industry continues to point in the direction of 20 of China’s almost- 30 -year-old guidelines that were given by the World Bank, that even China has moved away from. The industry has been misrepresenting the current situation in China by quoting standards that were passed way back in 2003 and 2012. It is quite evident that China has moved on since then and has mandated for all new plants to meet standards that are 2 to 3 times as strict as India’s new standards with almost every single power plant having to meet these standards by 2020. This means China’s emission standards in the year 2020 will be about 10 times as strict as India’s. So it doesn’t quite make sense to mention China as an excuse for not installing these controls in India.
Besides, the guidelines given by the World Bank have also explicitly stated that they are not meant to be replaced by existing robust national standards of any country, and that hey have not been based on a definite set of emission limit values, but rather recommendations that should be executed depending on the existing pollution levels in a region where a new coal-based power plant may get set up. Despite this, the Indian industry has quoted these 30 year old emission values for application in areas with “moderate” air quality.
Do you think the air quality in North India is only “moderate”? Well, neither does the World Bank. In fact, the reason why the World Bank’s guidelines are almost 30 years old is because the Bank has recognized that the building of any more new coal based power plants as futile and unprofitable. This principle eminently makes sense, but the Indian power industry’s continuous violation of standards has only driven up the country’s total emissions at a rapid pace.
The Indian coal power producers have begun complaining about the lack of space available to install new emission control equipment now, when thousands of old power plants built before any of the modern emission controls were required or even invented, have installed the controls retroactively in Europe, China, Japan, U.S. and many regions more.
This only adds up to two things. A massive amount of smoke, and mirrors meant to obfuscate one simple fact- The Indian power plant industry’s desire to keep running massive number of old and dirty coal plants indefinitely, without installing any kind of emission controls for existing plants.
Lauri Myllyvirta is a Senior Global Campaigner, Coal, at Greenpeace International