India is the world's biggest consumer of coal for power after China
With India facing deadly air pollution, high healthcare costs and growing disaster threats from global warming, the head of the United Nations warned the country's leaders Friday that investing more in coal was "bad economics".
India, the world's third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has been ramping up its use of renewable energy - but coal remains its dominant fuel for power production.
"India must end its reliance on polluting, financially volatile and costly fossil fuels," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a virtual address to the New Delhi-based environment think-tank The Energy and Resources Institute.
"Investing in fossil fuels means more deaths and illness and rising healthcare costs. It is, simply put, a human disaster and bad economics."
He urged India to instead invest in solar power, which he said could tackle poverty by generating jobs at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has destroyed livelihoods and also boost access to energy for 64 million Indians who live without power.
"With the Covid-19 pandemic threatening to push many people back into poverty, such job creation is an opportunity that can't be missed," he said, adding that investment in renewable energy creates three times more jobs than fossil fuels.
Guterres called for a halt on commitments to new coal power after 2020, saying "the coal business is going up in smoke" as growing numbers of large investors abandon its use.
Neither the environment ministry nor the power ministry responded to repeated requests for comment.
India is the world's biggest consumer of coal for power after China.
The coal ministry said on Tuesday that it plans to significantly reduce its coal imports in "the next few years" and boost local production to improve the economies of states in central India, where most coal mines are located.
The country's coal demand this year has fallen after strict lockdowns hit the economy.
'Challenge is urgent'
Coal-fired power plants, vehicle exhaust fumes and industry emissions make India home to about half of the world's 50 most-polluted cities, according to IQAir, a Swiss-based group that gathers air-quality data globally.
New Delhi was named in February as the capital with the dirtiest air.
India's toxic air claimed an estimated 1.24 million lives in 2017, according to a study published by scientific journal The Lancet Planetary Health.
But Indian cities such as New Delhi got a taste of what lower fossil fuel emissions might look like during the coronavirus lockdown, when a drop in driving and factory output meant blue skies for a time replaced the more usual haze.
Guterres said 5.5 million deaths could be prevented each year across the world by stopping fossil fuel emissions.
He lauded India's growing push for renewable energy, including its recent decision to raise its initial target of 175 gigawatts by 2015 to 500 GW by 2030.
India has pledged to cut emissions and have clean energy account for at least 40% of its installed power capacity by 2030, up from about 20% now.
But the country is ahead of schedule, with power generation from non-fossil fuel sources expected to reach 40% by 2022, and over half of total output by 2030, according to the power ministry.
Guterres, however, said India needed to double down on its coal-cutting efforts to avoid more deadly heatwaves, floods and droughts, increased water stress and reduced food production.
Facing some of the fastest-rising threats from planetary heating, India was ranked as the fifth most weather-affected country in a climate risk index by environmental think-tank Germanwatch last year.
Under the Paris climate accord, about 200 countries, including India, in 2015 agreed to slash greenhouse gases and keep global temperature increases "well below" 2°C, with an aim of 1.5°C.
But global emissions continue to rise, and temperatures are ticking upward.
Guterres warned if the temperature limits were breached, "India will face the brunt of the climate crisis".
"Our challenge is urgent and clear," he said.