• India chases clean energy, but economic goals put coal first

    In the shadow of a retired coal-fired power plant in India’s capital, Meena Devi tries to make her family home — four brick walls with a tin roof — a safe place to breathe.

    Although the smokestacks at the plant went dormant years ago under a court order, there is no shortage of hazards in her air, ranging from vehicular exhaust to construction dust to ash from crop stubble burning in adjacent states.

    Emissions from the dozen coal-fired power plants still operating around the New Delhi region feed a toxic smog that hangs over the city each winter, imperiling people of all backgrounds. Sometimes it is Devi adding to the smoke with wood fires she burns when her husband, a house painter, has no work and the family has no cash to refill the cooking gas cylinder.

    While the central government gives poor families a small subsidy for cooking gas as a cleaner alternative to firewood, the main energy subsidies go to consumers of gasoline and diesel, mainly benefiting the middle class, and to producers, transporters and processors of coal as well as utilities that burn coal.

    “My throat burns, and the kids are not able to breathe when I’m lighting the chulha,” Devi said, using the Hindi term for a wood stove. “What can I do? We’re not the only ones contributing to pollution.”

    Devi is in the crosshairs of a global challenge: how to bring power to the world’s poor and fight climate change at the same time.

    In India as in many other countries, political and economic considerations have yielded an energy strategy of simultaneously pursuing clean energy and burning fossil fuels, an approach that ultimately puts security ahead of climate.

    Despite pledges at climate conferences to lead the world’s transition toward green energy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is in full expansion mode on the fossil-fuel front. Cheap, reliable prices for electricity and gasoline are its priority.

    India’s subsidies for fossil fuels were nine times the size of clean energy subsidies in 2021, according to the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

    The investments have boggled advocates of green energy, but officials say India’s ambitious economic growth targets — reaching annual gross domestic product of $5 trillion before the end of the decade, up from $3.2 trillion in 2021 — can be met only by sharply increasing dirty and cleaner energy sources alike.

    “Energy security is my first priority,” India’s power minister, R.K. Singh, said at a recent forum, explaining the government’s commitment to burn more coal.

    “I will not compromise on the availability of power for this country’s development,” he added.

    India will soon have the largest population of any country, so its choices will be critical not only for the health of its citizens but also for the prospects of limiting global warming to a sustainable level.

    “India is pivotal to the future of global energy and climate policy,” said Amy Myers Jaffe, an energy and climate expert at the New York University School for Professional Studies. “Their emissions trajectory will be material on whether global emissions can reach net zero by midcentury.”

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