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June 17, 2013

Indian Coal Plant Standards are Four to 20 Times Deadlier Than China's

In March of 2013, Conservation Action Trust, Greenpeace India, and Urban Emissions revealed a shocking death toll from coal-fired power plants in India. They found that 80,000 to 115,000 people die every year from air pollution caused by coal plants. Their report thrust the 'silent killer' into the spotlight. With numbers as high as those, the groups were curious to figure out why coal was killing so many Indians. They commissioned a subsequent analysis (see analysis here) comparing Indian power plant air emissions standards with those of China and Japan. It turns out the reason is somewhat obvious and perhaps even more shocking: Indian standards are anywhere between four and twenty times worse than those in China.

That's right, China - home to the "airpocalypse" and 1.2 million deaths from air pollution - has stronger coal plant pollution standards than India.

But just how bad are India's standards? Glad you asked, because you'd be shocked to know they are quite literally off the charts (Check out the comparison below). That's because India doesn't even have standards for sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides - both of which lead to deadly Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5 pollution (A quick note: The charts below use 'nominal' figures to show what emissions from an uncontrolled coal plant might look like).
India coal
To help you understand why these standards are so important in controlling pollution, it's important to distinguish between technology-based and health-based standards. Many countries employ a multi-tiered approach to managing air pollution using a mix of both technology-based requirements and health based limitations. The technology based requirements affect coal plants and are those that are described above.

Health-based controls involve setting standards for the amount of pollution in an air shed that is deemed "safe."  Of the two technology based requirements are the most cost-effective opportunities to reduce pollution by applying state of the art pollution controls to large point sources (i.e. coal plants). It's these that are woefully lacking in India and for which modern pollution controls are widely available.

Even worse though, the standards India does employ (PM) are nearly five times worse than their Chinese counterparts (see the chart on PM emissions). It's also widely known that monitoring or implementation of these weak standards is next to non-existent. To sum it up - India's coal plant standards are deadlier than China's. Given what we know about China, that's downright frightening.

It's important to remember here what Greenpeace and Conservation Action Trust have chosen as their baseline - China. This is a country that has already gone down a deadly coal path and is struggling with the consequences not just in terms of morbidity and mortality but also in social cohesion. Remember, pollution led to 90,000 mass protests in China in 2011. 90,000!

That's why India's path is so concerning. China currently has roughly 775 GigaWatts (GW) of installed coal fired power plants - almost seven times the number in India (121 GW). Those plants are responsible for almost half of all deadly PM in China. The problem is, instead of learning from China's mistake, India is seeking to replicate it. Current plans forecast construction of between 500-600 GW of coal plants with standards far more lax than China currently employs. That means, before long, Indian air quality will be even worse than China's. Not to mention the rampant destruction these plants will bring to India's forests, tigers, and indigenous populations or its water supplies.
India coal2
Which brings us to our silver lining: These plants have not yet been built. That means there is still time to avoid a Chinese fate. Already, Indian think tanks have called for a complete moratorium on new coal fired power plants due to overwhelming environmental effects. That may seem a bit aggressive, but it's not at all out of line with what many Indian elites are saying about coal these days. Take EAS Sarma, former Minister of Power: "Clearly, it is time for us to halt coal mining to pre-empt further human misery and environmental degradation."

Or try former Minister of Environment and Forests Suresh Prabhu: "Time for a reality check. The present coal-fed centralised energy system will not be useful in the long-run."
 
With the ministry of coal calling for a freeze on coal plants all together (due to fuel supply constraints) India now has the opportunity to radically rethink its approach to coal development. 100,000 lives every year depend on that decision with countless more hanging in the balance.

-- Justin Guay, Sierra Club International

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