“Nothing else here:” Why is it so hard for the world to stop coal

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DHANBAD, India (AP) – Every day Raju grudgingly gets on his bike and pedals a little closer to climate catastrophe.

Every day, he attaches half a dozen bags of coal stolen from the mines – up to 200 kilograms, or 440 pounds – to the reinforced metal frame of his bicycle. Driving mainly at night to avoid the police and the heat, he hauls the coal 16 kilometers (10 miles) to traders who pay him $ 2.

Thousands of others are doing the same.

This is the life of Raju since his arrival in Dhanbad, a city in eastern India in the state of Jharkhand in 2016; annual flooding in its home region has decimated traditional agricultural jobs. Coal is all he has.

This is what the United Nations climate change conference in Scotland, known as COP26, is facing.

Earth desperately needs people to stop burning coal, the world’s largest single source greenhouse gases, to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, including the intense flooding that has claimed agricultural jobs in India. But people depend on coal. It is the largest source of electric power in the world and so many desperate people like Raju depend on it for their lives.

“The poor have nothing but sorrow … but so many people, they have been saved by the coal,” Raju said.

Alok Sharma, the British conference president-designate, said in May that he hoped the conference would mark the moment when coal is left “in the past where it belongs”.

While this is possible for some developed countries, it is not so easy for developing countries.

They argue that they should be allowed to expand the “carbon space” like developed countries have done, by burning cheap fuels like coal, which is used in industrial processes like steelmaking. and electricity production. On average, the typical American uses 12 times more electricity than the typical Indian. There are over 27 million people in India who have no electricity at all.

Electricity demand in India is expected to grow faster than anywhere else in the world over the next two decades as the economy grows and increasingly extreme heat increases demand for air conditioning than the rest of the world. takes it for granted.

Meeting this demand will not fall to people like Raju, but to Coal India, already the world’s largest miner, which aims to increase production to over a billion tonnes per year by 2024.

DD Ramanandan, the secretary of the Indian Trade Union Center in Ranchi, said conversations about overtaking coal were only taking place in Paris, Glasgow or New Delhi. They had barely started in the coal belt of India. “Coal continued for 100 years. The workers believe he will continue to do so, ”he said.

The consequences will be felt both globally and locally. Unless the world drastically cuts greenhouse gas emissions, the planet will experience even more extreme heat waves, erratic rainfall and destructive storms in the years to come, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. climate change.

And a 2021 Indian government study found that Jharkhand state – among the poorest in India and the state with the country’s largest coal reserves – is also the most vulnerable Indian state to climate change. .

But there are around 300,000 people who work directly with government-owned coal mines, earning fixed salaries and benefits. And there are nearly 4 million people in India whose livelihoods are directly or indirectly tied to coal, said Sandeep Pai, who studies energy security and climate change at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

India’s coal belt is dotted with fuel-intensive industries such as steel and brick making. Indian railways, the country’s largest employers, derive half of their income from transporting coal, which allows them to subsidize passenger travel.

“Coal is an ecosystem,” Pai said.

For people like Naresh Chauhan, 50, and his wife Rina Devi, 45, India’s economic downturn resulting from the pandemic intensified their dependence on coal.

The two have lived in a village on the edge of the Jharia coal basin in Dhanbad all their lives. Accidental fires, some of which have been burning for decades, have charred the ground and left it spongy. Hissing smoke from cracks in the surface near their hut. Death sinks are common.

The couple earn $ 3 a day by selling four baskets of salvaged charcoal to traders.

Families who have lived in the midst of coal mines for generations rarely own land they can farm and have nowhere to go. Naresh hopes his son will learn to drive so he can at least escape. But even that may not be enough. There is less work for the city’s existing taxi drivers. Weddings, which in the past reserved cars to transport guests, have declined. Fewer travelers are coming to town than before.

“There is only coal, stone and fire. Nothing else here.

This could mean even tougher times for the people of Dhanbad as the world eventually turns away from coal. Pai says this is already happening as renewables become cheaper and coal becomes less profitable.

India and other countries with coal-dependent regions need to diversify their economies and retrain workers, he said, both to protect workers’ livelihoods and to help accelerate the transition out of the country. coal by offering new opportunities.

Otherwise, others will end up like Murti Devi. The 32-year-old single mother, mother of four, lost the job she had had all her life when the mine she worked for closed four years ago. Nothing came of the resettlement plans promised by the coal company, so she, like so many others, turned to coal salvage. On a good day, she will earn a dollar. On other days, she relies on the neighbors for help.

“If there is coal, then we live. If there is no coal, then we are not living, ”she said.

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PA journalists Shonal Ganguly and Altaf Qadri contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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