In August last year, Coal India put out an eye-popping statement. Quote-tweeting India’s Union minister for coal, it said: “CIL is poised to become a “Net Zero Energy Maharatna PSU”.”
The accompanying video had more details. Coal India would produce 3,000 MW of solar power by 2023-24, it said, enough to cover all of its energy needs. It would no longer need polluting thermal power for its operations. “Coal India Limited… Going Green”, the video said at the end.
Tiny as they were, the tweet and the video posed large questions. The state-owned miner is the world’s largest producer of coal. It has a mandate to grow even bigger and produce no less than 1 billion tonnes of coal by 2024. Can such a firm switch to clean energy for its operations and claim Net Zero status? Who is responsible for emissions from all the coal it has unearthed?
At the same time, is it realistic to expect Coal India to sequester all those emissions? Apart from other greenhouse gases, one billion tonnes of coal will produce over 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. Carbon capture technologies are too expensive, and running at too small a scale to be useful. More traditional responses such as tree-planting pale before Coal India’s scale as well. In 2019, the total carbon stock in India’s forests stood at 7.12 billion tonnes. Can Coal India–or even India–add 28% to India’s forests each year? Who will pay? Where will the land come from?
Inadvertently, the tweet reiterated larger truths. The scale of our emissions is mind-boggling. Our mitigatory options are modest. Denial and subterfuge is how policymakers respond to the climate crisis.
In this welter of suboptimality, we now have ‘net zero’.
That is the first part of my essay, written trying to think through Net Zero. Part two likens Net Zero to green creative destruction, and gets into more detail. Read that here.
Energy is a major determinant of global geopolitics.
We saw that with western interference in the Middle-East. We saw that again in the global reorderings that followed the rise of shale energy in the United States. Now, net zero offers a similar reset.
We do not know what form it will take. Might carbon taxes on borders split the world into two trading blocs–one subscribing to net zero but not the other? Will companies push green products to the first world and brown goods elsewhere? Will OPEC countries quietly remake themselves or, seeking to sell oil/gas a bit longer, will they try to enter downstream markets in the third world?
At its core, net zero is green creative destruction, according to Tim Sahay, a policy manager at the US-based Green New Deal Network. For the world to decarbonise, old 19th century business models have to disappear. This point was recently made by economist Adam Tooze. “Together, Europe and the United States inaugurated the mass manufacture of cars in the early 20th century. They should now work together to end global trade in internal combustion engines.”
Hardwired into that process of destruction is the prospect of something new. The old world of fossil fuels has spawned oligarchs, inequality and sweeping environmental loss. In India too, the fossil fuel-based energy complex dictates policy, levels forests, and throttles cleaner alternatives.
One way out is to reprise what China did in the nineties–dipping into its own resources to become a superpower in solar and renewables–and what the US is trying to do now with its green new deal.
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