Could India’s coal plans derail the global climate?

If India were to grow its electricity system based on coal (as China has done), would it derail the global climate? According to our calculations, under a “coal-heavy” scenario, India would need to increase is coal-fired power generation capacity from the 156 GW in early 2015 to 677 GW in 2035. What would be the CO2 implications of such a strategy?

  • Globally, we have used up 58% of the carbon space we have available to us, if we want to keep climate change to less than 2 degrees
  • India’s share of the carbon space should be high, based on its large population and low historical emissions
  • Still: a coal-strategy would break the bank, with potentially terrible consequences to the world and especially to highly vulnerable countries like India

India’s Power Minister, Piyush Goyal, has made it clear on a number of occasions that India plans to significantly ramp up its coal-fired power plant capacity in addition to the renewables. It needs to, he argues, in order to generate the vast amounts of power the country needs. In January 2015, India had a total installed capacity of 259 GW, of which 156 GW, or 60%, was coal (CEA, refer). Due to an above average plant load factor, coal contributed 67% to the electricity generation (World Bank, refer). If this were to grow to 677 GW of coal in 2035 to enable a 7% annual increase in power generation for a development growth trajectory, could the global climate cope?

blog 23.3.15


First, let’s look at the carbon budget that is available to us as mankind. If we want to have a reasonable (2/3rd) chance of limiting global warming to 2 degrees (which would already have serious implications, but might not set in motion self-reinforcing effects), then our global carbon budget is 1,000 gigatons of CO2 equivalent. This is the total amount of greenhouse gases we can emit into our atmosphere starting at beginning of industrialization in the late 19th century, when we first burned large amounts of fossil fuels.

Until today, we have already emitted 589 gt of CO2e. That leaves us with 421 as our remaining global carbon budget (refer). At the current rate, we will have exhausted this sometime in the year 2039. Now, let us assume that India is historically unburdened and has not emitted anything yet and let us assume that it is entitled to 1/6th of the global carbon budget because it has 1/6th of the world’s population. Then, India’s total carbon budget would be 167 gt of CO2e.

Another way of looking at it is to take only the remaining budget into account (if you prioritize survival over justice). One could take the 421 and divide it by 6 to adjust it for India’s population. That would come to 70 gt of CO2e. To take into account historical emissions (fact is, that countries like the US, Germany or Japan have already exceeded their budgets), one could add, say, 50% to that. So India’s budget would be 105 gt of CO2e. Thus, taking into account both India’s population and historical justice, the carbon budget India has is limited to 105-167 gt CO2e.

Power generation typically makes up around 25% of a country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Applying that factor to India would give a range of 26-42 gt CO2e. Now, let’s assume that India goes for a “coal-heavy” scenario and builds an additional 521 GW of coal (on top of the existing 156 GW it already has). A best-in-class coal-fired power plant currently emits 790 kg CO2e per MWh (Indian plants emit on average more than 1,000). We can expect that efficiencies will improve due to technological process. So let us assume that India’s future coal plants will emit on average 600 kg CO2e per MWh.

Let us further assume that a plant’s lifetime is 30 years (currently many Indian coal-fired plants are significantly older) and that it runs for 6,500 hours per year (a 74% plant load factor). Then the emissions of these new plants alone, over their lifetime, will be 61 gt of CO2e. This is 145% of what India’s carbon budget would be under the “justice first” approach or 240% of India’s carbon budget under the “survival first” approach.

In a “solar-heavy” scenario, wherein India would need to build only 94 GW of new coal-fired power plants, extra emissions would be 11 gt of CO2, in line with the carbon budget. So the answer to the question is: Under a “coal-heavy” scenario, India would indeed bring the global climate to the brink.

Tobias Engelemeier is the Founder & Director of BRIDGE TO INDIA

1 comment

  • I do consider all of the ideas you have introduced in your post.
    They’re very convincing and can definitely work. Nonetheless, the posts are very short for novices.

    May just you please extend them a little from next time?
    Thanks for the post.

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