‘The end of coal is in sight’ declared Alok Sharma, president of this year’s climate summit, to delegates in Glasgow attending COP26. Sharma was heralding the fact that more than 40 countries had agreed at the conference to phase coal out in the coming decades. But (and it is a very big but) along with the US and Australia, two of the world’s largest producers and consumers of coal declined to sign: India and China.
COP26 came to an end this week. But in the media coverage of the conference, there has been zero effort made to understand why two of the biggest consumers of fossil fuels have pushed back at attempts to reduce coal use. It is much more comfortable to run stories about how poor countries around the world are suffering instead. Last Wednesday, for example, the BBC’s climate editor told the story of a Madagascan family facing life-threatening consequences from the world’s first climate change made famine.
But to my knowledge there has been no comparable look at the millions of families in India and China who depend on coal to provide them with life-saving electricity. From the perspective of India, this is the West – having fuelled its own economic growth during the 19th and 20th centuries thanks to coal – now kicking the ladder away. As one Indian entrepreneur put it: ‘Why should Indians be asked to reduce carbon emissions, when the West has been polluting the planet for decades, and has reaped the benefits?’ Li Gao, director general of the Chinese ministry’s department of climate change, asks: ‘Many developing countries don’t even have electricity. In this situation, if you don’t use coal, what will you use?’
There are some echoes here of the anti-GM movement so beloved of middle-class virtue signallers in the West. Never mind that modified foods have kept famine at bay for millions of the world’s poor and provided an economic living for farmers throughout the developing world.
There are good and powerful reasons why politicians in India and China baulk at the commitment to phase out coal. The livelihoods and lives of millions of their citizens depend on it. A Brussels-based institute, the Heinrich-Boll Stiftung, which is affiliated to the German Green party, even had to concede this point: ‘India has been able to reduce poverty alongside a massive expansion of coal use over the last two decades… Coal has alleviated India’s energy access problem and contributed to poverty reduction’.
India’s need for coal is immense: 70 per cent of India’s electricity comes from coal-fired thermal power plants and its energy policy currently focuses on bringing affordable electricity to all homes, as millions still lack an electricity connection. And let’s not forget that India’s per-capita electricity consumption is still only one-third of the world average. Recent World Bank data puts India’s average power per head at 107 watts per person, whilst America’s is 1,387 and Britain’s is 513.
China’s energy structure, too, is dominated by coal power – so says Su Wei, deputy secretary-general of the National Development and Reform Commission. And while China has ambitious goals for cutting its carbon emissions, its energy policy is focused primarily on economic targets and raising the quality of life for millions. There is no doubt that Chinese policymakers are making clear that economic growth remains a top priority — and that growth depends largely on coal power.
Politicians in India and China face a difficult choice. Of course, it is vital for these countries to reduce their use of fossil fuels. Yet there seems to be little understanding that any such reduction will directly lead to millions of lives being harmed. No wonder the US-based Global Energy Monitor found that last year China built more than triple the amount of new coal power capacity as the rest of the world combined. India, too, continues to increase its coal output.
But in the reporting of COP26 has there been any attempt to explain why India and China are moving in a completely different direction to the one so confidently proclaimed by Sharma? Tim Davie, Director-General of the BBC, has made quite a thing about his commitment to impartiality. But the BBC has been woefully failing when it comes to the issue of coal and fossil fuels.
I am not suggesting that we fill the airwaves with climate change sceptics. Though, it should be said, when I was in charge of BBC’s current affairs department, the two ideas that defined good journalism was scepticism and curiosity. But let’s forget about scepticism for the moment. Whatever happened to curiosity? Isn’t anyone interested in explaining to viewers and listeners why India and China, despite some diplomatic bromides, have declined to phase out coal production? Impartiality means analysing an issue or story from all perspectives. Right now, it seems we are back to the somewhat jejune characterisation of ‘good’ guys (the countries who signed the declaration) and ‘bad’ guys (the countries that did not).
The BBC’s recent film on the Madagascan family was undoubtedly moving. But there would be an equally compelling film to be made showing the rural poor in India using cow-dung or firewood as fuel – causing serious respiratory problems especially among women who do the cooking. Or the poor lighting which means school children cannot do their homework in the evenings. But would a piece explaining the need for coal in the developing world get commissioned? I’m not convinced.