Environmental impact of the coal industry

By: Vikrant Srivastava

Year 1774 with John Sumner and Suetonius Grant of the East India Company in the Raniganj Coalfield along the Western bank of Damodar River, This was the first time when coal in India started commercializing.

However, for about a century the development of Indian coal digging stayed drowsy for the need of interest however the presentation of steam trains in 1853 gave a fillip to it. Inside a limited capacity to focus, rose to a yearly normal of 1 million ton which at present is 729.10 MT (Provisional)


Indian coal is known to contain 30-50% ash; meaning that for every two units of coal burned one unit of ash could be produced, making it one of the most polluting coals in the world.  So, manufacturing or power-producing unit has to burn more coal which releases toxic chemicals such as arsenic, barium, cadmium, nickel, and lead, among others. These are known to cause cancer, lung and heart ailments and

Neurological damage, and contribute to premature mortality. In northern and northeast states of Canada, mercury emissions from coal plants are suspected of contaminating lakes and health officials warn against eating fish caught in these waters since mercury can cause birth defects, brain damage, and other ailments.

Coal is the largest source of electricity in the world.  The world’s two biggest coal expending nations in 2019 were likewise the world’s two most crowded countries: With roughly 51.7 percent of the world’s coal utilization in China, while India represented 11.8 percent.

Coal-fired plants generate 72% of India’s electricity and that shows how much we are dependent on coal. “The future of coal depends on Asian demand, which is still growing, and is offsetting the decline from the rest of the world over the next decade,” said Shirley Zhang, an analyst at Wood Mackenzie Ltd.

Demand for electricity plunged — and with it, the need for coal increase but our dependence on coal is more than we thought while Europe, where the green transition is more advanced and coal prices in May slumped to the lowest level since 2016 when the industry was beset by a wave of bankruptcies.

The U.K. hasn’t burned coal for power since April 9, the longest coal-free period since the country opened the world’s first coal-fired public power station in 1882. Planned coal expansions have been scrapped in Poland and the Czech Republic, while Austria, Sweden, and Portugal have closed their last plants during the pandemic.

The U.S. coal industry has been hit hardest. As power demand slumped, American utilities shut coal plants first, crimping domestic consumption of the fuel. World coal consumption fell by 0.6% (-0.9 EJ), its fourth decline in six years, displaced by natural gas and renewable, particularly in the power sector as a result, coal’s share in the energy mix fell to 27.0%, its lowest level in 16 years.

India is the second-largest producer and importer of coal in the world

Coal consumption continued to increase in some emerging economies, particularly in China (1.8 EJ), Indonesia (0.6 EJ) and Vietnam (0.5 EJ), with the latter posting a record increase in part related to a sharp drop in hydroelectric power.

Asia, however, is another story. The continent remains coal’s stronghold and is slated to buoy global demand for the next decade as consumption drops elsewhere. Asia’s share in total global coal demand will expand from about 77% now to around 81% by 2030, according to IHS Markit.

While India as a party to Paris’s Agreement and its commitment but the nation has a large existing fleet of coal plants and that there’s a mismatch between peak periods of demand and output from renewable. That will leave a big role for the most-polluting fuel in the nation’s future electricity mix. India is the second-most populous country in the world with 1.38 billion people in 2020, and its population is projected to increase to 1.5 billion by 2030 and any development or step needs to have this in mind of its impact on the population.

The Central Electricity Authority, analysis shows that India may be able to exceed one of its 2015 Paris Agreement commitments — reaching 40% of installed capacity from non-fossil fuel sources. But the report also sees annual carbon emissions from the power sector rising about 12% from levels expected in 2022 to 1.154 billion tons. The report didn’t include an assessment of what that means for another key India goal — cutting emissions intensity of gross domestic product by as much as 35% from 2005 levels.

India is the second-largest producer and importer of coal in the world. Over the decades, the value of mineral production has also risen and, as of 2015-16, stands at around Rs 2.82 trillion. There are over 3,500 mining leases that are in force in the country across 23 states covering an area of 316,290.55 hectares. Of those, nearly 70% are in five states alone. (Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh)

India has promised 175 GW of renewable power by 2022 and at least 350 GW by 2030 which At present, India’s overall installed renewable capacity is 87.66 GW and of installed solar power capacity is around 35 GW, with projects like 750 MW Solar Power plant in Riwa, Madhya Pradesh and Kakrapar-3 Atomic Power Plant, plan for the creation of 7,500 MW Solar Park, Northeast states of  India with Solar potential 0f  62.33GWp with additional potential reserves of almost 60,000 MW this trailblazer can lead India in Renewable Superpower and The International Solar Alliance which was initiated by India.

Coking Coal43.7244.5641.6447.0051.8451.88
Non-Coking Coal174.07159.39149.31161.27183.40196.72
Total Coal Import217.78203.95190.95208.27235.24248.55

But, what about Ditching Coal, according to Coal India Limited which is the single largest coal producer in the world and one of the largest corporate employers with manpower in the next five years, it is going to open 55 new coal mines and expand at least 193 present ones. Together, these two steps will ensure an increase of 400 million tons in coal production.

Coal India Limited has about 463 coal blocks with which the country can continue thermal power production for another 275 years. “India’s coal demand is growing up” the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month reinforced its commitment to coal as part of broader Covid-19 stimulus measures, including more than $6 billion on coal transport infrastructure and offering 50 mining blocks for auction plan to revive Indian economy hit by COVID-19.

Coal Kills

Of all fossil fuels, coal puts out the most carbon dioxide per unit of energy, so burning it poses a further threat to the global climate, already warming alarmingly. Coal is as yet the greatest scalawag fighting to stop climate change, there is disturbing proof that significant tipping focuses, prompting irreversible changes in significant biological systems and the planetary atmosphere framework, may as of now have been reached or passed.

“Assessment of Climate Change over the Indian Region” by the Union Ministry of Earth Sciences — acknowledges that human activity is a major factor in climate change which shows temperatures of the warmest day and the coldest night of the year have risen by about 0.63°C and 0.4°C in the recent 30-year period. If the current GHG emission rates are sustained, the global average temperature is likely to rise by nearly 5°C, and possibly more, by the end of the twenty-first century.

Image credits: Ravi Choudhary / HT

Even if all the commitments made under the 2015 Paris agreement are met, it is projected that global warming will exceed 3°C by the end of the century. This is an alarming, heatwave over India is projected to be 3 to 4 times higher” and the “average duration of heatwave events is also projected to approximately double.” The impact of heatwave stress is expected across India but particularly over the densely populated Indo-Gangetic river basin. Climate change is increasing the damage, cyclones like Nisarga and Amphan cause in several ways like increasing sea surface temperatures that can make cyclones more powerful, increasing the rainfall intensity during the storm, and rising sea levels.

Hindu Kush Himalayan region, an area covering high mountain chains of central, south and inner Asia, faces the risk of losing over 60 percent of its glaciers by 2100. It supports 120 million people directly through irrigation systems, and a total of 1.3 billion indirectly through river basins in India, China, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.

The rapid changes in the temperature would mean increasing stress on India’s “natural ecosystems, agricultural output, and freshwater resources, while also causing escalating damage to infrastructure.” This ultimately means a serious impact on the “country’s biodiversity, food, water and energy security, and public health.”

At the Paris Agreement, the world decided to limit global warming to two degree Celsius below pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degree Celsius but at current greenhouse gas emissions trajectories, global average temperature may rise 3-5 degree Celsius and perhaps higher if tipping points are triggered. Coal is the main offender for global warming humanity’s hunger for energy – and its reliance on fossil fuels – shows few signs of letting up. While many countries are slowly phasing out coal in favor of other fossil fuels such as natural gas, coal use rose, but still, coal remains the planet’s top source for electricity.

Burning coal has been responsible for over 0.3 degrees C of the 1-degree increase in Earth’s temperatures since the late 1800s.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, an average 500-megawatt coal plant each year emits: 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, (Sox) is the main cause of acid rain, which damages forests, lakes, and buildings.3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide, Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main greenhouse gas, and is the leading cause of global warming.

Coal, the most polluting way to generate electricity, and a serious threat to our climate, burning coal is the biggest single source of carbon dioxide emissions from human activity air pollution from coal-burning is thought to create the largest health burdens in terms of heart and respiratory diseases.

The major killer among the air pollutants from coal combustion is PM2.529 (particles smaller than 0.0025mm in diameter), which due to their extremely small size are able to travel deep into the respiratory tract and reach the lungs. Excessive exposure to these particles affects lung function and also causes asthma and heart disease.

A study by Greenpeace India and Conservation Action Trust estimates the monetary cost for India of premature mortality due to PM pollution to be in excess of INR 160 billion to 230 billion (US$3.3-4.6 billion) per year. Ghaziabad, an area close to New Delhi in northern Uttar Pradesh state, is ranked as the world’s most polluted, with an average PM 2.5 concentration measurement of 110.2 in 2019, threatening was nine times more than what is considered to be healthy by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), from the global Air Quality Life Index nearly 250 million people in northern India could lose over 8 years of their lives due to air pollution with average Indian life expectancy by over 5 years.

We must admit that the impact of air pollution is not restricted to just respiratory issues, as previously thought. There’s increasing evidence that air pollution is the silent killer and coal need to be ditch for the plant and people. To address the air pollution crisis, we need to accept that coal burning is responsible for increased emissions of SO2 and NO2 contributing to overall particulate matter concentration and identify the correlation between such increases and major coal consuming hot-spots in the country.

There will still be serious climate impacts at 1.5°C, this is the level scientists say is associated with less devastating impacts than higher levels of global warming, every fraction of additional warming beyond 1.5°C will bring worse impacts, threatening lives, livelihoods, and economies.

70% of coral reefs will die, but at 2°C, all reefs over 99% will be lost which hosts over one million plant and animal species are involved and receive more than 25% of all species of marine life. More than 275 million people live within 10 kilometers of coastline and within 30 kilometers of coral. One-eighth of the world’s population, approximately 850 million people live within 100 kilometers of coral and are likely to reap the benefits of ecosystem services provided by coral reefs.

Insects, vital for pollination of crops and plants, are likely to lose half their habitat at 1.5°C but this becomes almost twice as likely at 2°c. Many species on earth could not cope up with the changing environment. As a result of which, they have since vanished and many are on the brink of vanishing. Up to 50% of species are forecast to lose most of their suitable climate conditions by 2100 under the highest greenhouse gas emissions scenario.

Unorganized and haphazard exploration of coal resources in the past resulted in large scale degradation of the coalfield, which has manifested in disorganized infrastructure development, reduction of the green belt, and overall ecological and environmental imbalances.

Coal mining, especially open-cast mining, involves large surface areas to be temporarily disturbed. This raises a number of environmental challenges including topsoil erosion, loss of vegetation, noise, dust, water pollution, change in landscape, and adverse impact on local biodiversity.


The pollution problem is more complex now a day since it involves a large array of polluting substances in the air, water, soil, and plants. The pollutants include gases, particulates, and sometimes even agricultural chemicals. Coal remains one of the most important energy resources and the dominant fuel for power generation in India. Many policymakers see coal as the ‘go-to’ energy source for India’s economic future. Coal is sometimes called the ‘poor people’s resource for energy accesses.

Image Source: TripodStories-AB

The huge cost this dirty resource incurs on communities, the environment and the climate is often overlooked, as is its inability to meet India’s long-term energy needs. Destruction and damage attend every stage of the life cycle of coal power, starting with mining, which causes widespread deforestation, soil erosion, water shortages, and pollution. Many of India’s coal mines and power plants are located in areas inhabited by tribal people and populations belonging to scheduled castes. The indigenous communities (Adivasi) who are known as guardians of the forest, consider the forest as part of their lives and maintain a unique relationship with it. They share a close relationship with the forest and the environment; they rely upon timberland assets and mining is taking their asset and lives.

The negative impacts of coal exploitation leave the social fabric of such areas vulnerable to total breakdown. While the costs with respect to the environment and climate change can be estimated in monetary terms, it is impossible to attach a cost to the social destruction wreaked by coal mining and use in power plants.

Coal companies want us all to believe that coal is inevitable. Coal helped build the economies of developed countries and so it must be the right choice for the rest of us. Yet by that logic, the opium trade and slavery should also be reintroduced, since they also contributed to the enrichment of many countries. The coal industry not only fuels climate change, but it also pollutes our air, water, and lands.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said “there is no reason for any country to include coal in their COVID-19 recovery plans and investments should instead be made in non-polluting energy sources”, while delivering the 19th Darbari Seth Memorial Lecture he stressed that India must end its reliance on polluting, financially volatile and costly fossil fuels and instead invest in clean, economically resilient solar power. He talked about India’s role in that vital effort, That India has all the ingredients for exerting the leadership at home and abroad envisioned by Darbari Seth. Scaling up clean energy, particularly solar, is the recipe for solving both poverty alleviation and universal energy access drivers.

But India is putting fossil fuel at the forefront of its strategy to turn the pandemic into economic opportunity.

We have to understand that dirty fuel won’t be good for the people and planet, India is home to more than a billion people and has huge energy needs which can be turned into an opportunity “most attractive” market in the clean energy space which can be benefited for energy and employment.

The target of installing 175 GW of renewable energy capacity by the year 2022, 60 percent of its installed electricity generation capacity from clean sources by 2030, This will help India emerge stronger from the current crisis and achieve the government’s goal of Atmanirbhar Bharat, but we must not ignore that India is the fifth most vulnerable from effects of climate change, with its poorest being the most at risk, India’s economic losses due to climate change were the second-highest in the world, with a loss of Rs 2.7 lakh crores, nearly as much as its defense budget in 2018.

Indian’s still await “Green New Deal” a congressional goal that spreads out an amazing arrangement for handling climate change to decrease ozone harming substance discharges so as to stay away from the most exceedingly terrible results of climate change while additionally attempting to fix cultural issues like financial imbalance.

Climate change, malnutrition, inequality, poverty, ecological degradation, and India faces many complexes, interrelated challenges and it is clear many of our fundamental systems are broken. Except if we can comprehend the master plan in which these difficulties sit, we will just wind up alleviating issues or giving shallow arrangements.

(The views expressed in the article are the author’s own. Let Me Breathe neither endorses nor is responsible for them.) 

    Vikrant Srivastava

    Vikrant was born in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. Growing up he understood that as a result of extraordinary climate conditions, there is a need to surrender horticulture land and possessions. He has grown up learning and adapting nature from home town to learning place in remote areas. Having background in environmental and being a naturalist, he feel like giving myself to fight against climate change. he wish he could some way or another impart to denial the desperation of the climate crisis, such that shook them to their center, wish they could perceive what he see. At that point we could stop it together.

    Know More

    Decline in wildlife to action on climate change – The Weekly Wrap

    Delhi govt to release plan to set up 200 EV public charging stations

    Cricketers and Volunteers all for Clean Air for Blue Skies