India’s workers are trapped in a vicious cycle of coal and heat

11 months ago 67

NEW DELHI – Standing by vast, ash-coloured coalfields, miner Rabi Behera expressed few doubts about the job at hand. To cope with increasingly brutal temperatures, India has to keep its power grid standing– and for now that means digging up ever expanding quantities of the dirtiest fossil fuel.

“It’s hard to survive without electricity during the summer,” he said, giant trucks rumbling past in clouds of black dust. “Our production target is raised every year. Every year we’re producing more coal.”

So far, this year has been less blistering than 2022, when temperatures in New Delhi climbed past 49 deg C, but February still broke records, April saw lethal conditions and forecasters issued warnings for this month, when pre-monsoon heat tends to peak. Extreme temperatures are increasingly frequent, and that’s driving electricity consumption surges, which in turn push up demand for fuel from vast pits like Gevra’s in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh, where Mr Behera works – soon to become the largest coal mine in the world.

Wealthy nations are, by and large, moving away from coal, the single largest contributor to climate change, according to the International Energy Agency. But even with considerable advances in renewable energy, the world’s most populous country still relies on the black stuff for roughly three-quarters of power generation, and will need it for years to come. The fuel is relatively cheap, and, crucially for an energy-importing economy, readily available domestically. 

As a result, India is now the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, even if it still lags China and the US, and per-capita figures remain below the global average. A vast, climate-vulnerable nation is making its own predicament worse, leaving hundreds of millions of its workers caught in a vicious heat cycle – with all the health and economic productivity costs that come with toiling in sweltering conditions. A 2020 McKinsey Global Institute report e...

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