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Coal beneath the trees and tigers
Greenpeace recently released a report which warns of the risk to India’s tiger population from the Indian coal industry. Energy Publishing’s new weekly Indian Coal Report has a closer look at the reports and its implications for India.
The risk to tiger population, the report argued, comes from the “fragmentation of forest habitat” and the “loss of vital connecting corridors for the tiger and other species” that result from coal mining and other industrial activity.
India’s tiger is under immense threat of extinction. Only 1,706 are said to be alive. A high profile public campaign supported by government, civil society, celebrities and media has been underway for several years.
By placing the tiger centrally in the conflict between mining and environment, Greenpeace has sought to tap into the surging popular sentiment for the tiger.
Recent campaigns around the tiger have been successful in creating a popular broad based coalition of supporters.
Everyone agrees that the tiger should be saved. But not everyone will agree that mining has to be stopped or even limited. The unity of that broad coalition could come under threat if the findings of the Greenpeace report percolate through.
The Greenpeace report comes against the backdrop of India’s worst ever collapse of the power grid last week. It left over 620 million people across North, East and North-east India without electricity. Lack of generation capacity against growing electricity demand is being cited as the key reason for the system failure. Most agree that fuel shortages, particularly of coal which is more readily available in the country, is holding back additions of new generation capacity.
The blackout says nothing about the 400 million Indian still without meaningful access to electricity and the significant latent demand for energy that exists.
Clearly, India needs energy.
Last week the environment ministry cleared over a dozen mining projects awaiting environmental clearances under pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office. That may only be the start. Coal India Limited (CIL), the country’s largest coal producer, has about 102 proposals for mining currently waiting environment clearances. The company has long argued that procedures and rules for environmental clearances have stalled production and that it cannot continue to mine more coal if it is not allowed to mine more.
The debate between the environmental preservation and growing energy needs isn’t new to India.
In fact, Greenpeace uses the same sets of maps and data that the Ministry of Environment and Forest initially used three years ago to classify several areas as “no-go area” for mining. An earlier audit report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, the Government independent audit entity, found that 239 CIL mines did not have proper environmental clearances. Charges of environment damage have come as much from within the Government as it has from outside.
Does the Tiger entry’s into this long running debate change things? It might, just not in the way that is being anticipated. The report could shift the focus from the GHG emissions associated with burning coal to the localized environmental impacts of mining.
The Greenpeace report adds to a growing chorus demanding a more detailed examination of mining practices in India. The continued emphasis on open-cast mining, often with outdated technology, and the associated impacts on air, land and water quality are being challenged. It is becoming increasingly clear that India’s mining methods and technologies must be modernized to be more environmentally benign.
The emphasis on local mining impacts could take the pressure to the need to rethink the continued reliance on fossil fuels. It could accelerate the search for smarter mining practices, hasten the adoption of new technology and improve the management of environmental impacts. All this could better protect bio-diversity, forest cover, flora and fauna and make mining more environmentally sensitive. But it does not necessarily mean less coal will be produced.
A government seeking to balance the environment and energy needs might find it easier to protect the Tiger than wean the country off coal.
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