Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old Swedish girl who lectured the United Nations on climate change, is being touted as a possible Nobel Prize winner. She believes she and her white Swedish teenage friends have to save the world from us terrible oldies who created the oil and coal industries.
She will be appalled by the plea of India’s coal secretary, Subhash Chandra Garg, that India must urgently expand its coal production from 600 million tonnes a year to a billion tonnes per year to meet basic energy needs. Yet Garg is right. Thunberg made headlines by sailing to the US in a solar-powered-ship to avoid using fuel oil. Does she have any idea of the enormous electricity used to produce the solar cells in her ship?
India is a lower middle income country. Sweden is among the richest. Despite the green sermons, Sweden’s annual per capita carbon emissions are 4.5 metric tonnes, higher than India (1.7 metric tonnes), Pakistan (0.9 metric tonnes) or Bangladesh (0.5 metric tonnes). South Asians can double their carbon emissions without matching Sweden’s prodigality.
Widespread activist attempts to stop all oil and coal production are hypocritical. A total switch to solar and wind energy is impossible since these are produced only intermittently when the sun shines and wind blows, maybe 25% of the year on an average. For the rest of the time, India needs coal-based electricity. Maybe new electric storage technology will ultimately change that, but today India needs massive coal expansion for thermal power.
Current carbon emissions are just the tip of the iceberg. More than 90% of historical carbon emissions since the industrial revolution are the cumulative emissions of rich western countries and Japan. The share of developing countries, including India, is a tiny fraction. Sorry Greta, the problem is not that grown-ups like me have ruined your future but that rich Swedes are still emitting more carbon than coal-using Indians.
Economist Kirit Parikh once framed India’s policy as being “we will never emit more carbon per capita than the West”. This would allow India to raise its emissions six-fold or more without being worse than others. Modi has embraced renewables massively. Even so, for round-the-clock power, India will have to create much more coal-based capacity. If the West develops viable carbon-capture technologies, India will happily adopt those.