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Coal Mining and Climate Change – the problem of the hour

by Purvai Parma Shivam

How coal mining has been affecting climate change and vice versa?

Over the years, coal mining has taken a tremendous toll on the environment and human health. Vast tracts of forest, farmland and mountains have been cleared to make way for coal mines. Communities have been forcibly displaced and their lands destroyed.

This Carbon-rich black rock - coal is formed deep underground over thousands of years of heat and pressure. It releases energy when burned along with other airborne toxins and pollutants from mercury, lead, sulphur dioxide to various other particulates and heavy metals. Impacting the health of human beings through asthma, brain damage, heart problems, cancer etc. the significant amount of carbon emissions through coal burning also contributes to accelerating climate change - the problem of the hour.

In this carbon-constrained world, Coal plays an important role in the economies of various countries from South Africa to India. In the constraint of these developing economies, it is important to remain competitive and be able to meet energy demands and at the same time reduce the country’s carbon emissions. While the South African industries are committed to investing in and using clean coal technologies in order to actively participate in the country’s transition to a low carbon economy, the same cannot be said for India.

In retrospect, as much as coal mining has assisted India in its development, that much it has also impacted Climate Change. While India’s economy is growing rapidly, our country stands to be the third-largest producer of greenhouse gases - a part of which is sourced from coal mining. The state of Jharkhand is one of the richest areas in the whole country in terms

Jharia Coal mines in Jharkhand. Image Source: climatechangenews.com

of mineral deposits and forests. The region has profuse iron ore, coal, mica, bauxite and limestones in addition to considerable reserves of copper, chromite, kyanite, china clay, uranium, manganese, dolomite etc. 40% of India’s mineral reserve belong to the state of Jharkhand. The Jharkhand government has also formed the Jharkhand State Mineral Development Corporation (JSMDC) to facilitate mining but lacks guidance on how to thrive on natural resources.

Over the years, Jharkhand has been witnessing gigantic industrialization and development process through the exploitation of its natural and human resources, all in the name of national interest. The opening of Coal mining in the Dhanbad area along with the establishment of the Tata Iron and Steel company in Jamshedpur (Tata Nagar) in Singhbhum district in 1907 marked the beginning of such colossal exploitation of industrial resources and minerals in this area. One such example of the heavily exploited mineral region could be the town of Jharia, which lies in the neighbourhood of Dhanbad. This remote corner of Jharkhand is not only the principal coal belt of the region that provides highest quality coal fuelling India’s rapid economic expansion but is also an image of swirling clouds of toxic fumes from dozens of fires and swirling clouds of coal dust, contributing massively to the degrading human and environment swirling clouds of coal dust, contributing massively to the degrading human and environmental health.

To discuss the large-scale mining and allied activities going on in the Jharkhand region that has been severely contributing to the climate change, I reached out to a former coal mining officer, Prakash Rao, who is currently residing in Kiriburu, Jharkhand. Mr. Rao began by explaining how coal mining affects climate change and vice versa. “The mining sector is extremely energy-intensive and one of the major emitters of greenhouse gases”, he said and continued that the total amount of CO2 emissions varies across the industry, largely depending upon the type of resource mined as well as the design and nature of the mining process. “A greater scrutiny of industry’s carbon emissions has shown an increase in the industry’s climate footprint,” Mr Rao said.

The build-up dependency on the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel presents our country with a profound dilemma. A third of the worlds poor live in India, and so the country requires massive energy to fuel industries and jobs to pull millions out of poverty. However, Mr. Rao is of the view that the government’s digging into the coal rush, could end up the world in an irreversible climate change impact. “Climate change is particularly vulnerable to coal mining and vice versa. If India continues its coal mining at the present rate, it will straightway lead the country downfall, of which it will be the biggest sufferer,” he said. To support his claim, the former coal-mining officer put forward the fact about coal mining releasing by-products that are hazardous to public health. He gave the example of Jharia and remarked it as “Even a brief stay in the city of Jharia coal mining area takes a toll,” and further added, “Smoke from its coal fires stings the throat and burns the eye within seconds. Imagine people working there 24/7, what sort of health crisis they must be dealing with.”

Mr. Rao further explained how the exposure of underground coal, like the one that lies in Jharia, to atmospheric oxygen causes spontaneous combustion and thus contributes to climate change. He said, “Coal provides for approximately 20% of the world’s primary energy demand, contributing to global warming through direct emissions when burned, but also through fugitive emissions that are released during the process of mining coal from under the earth’s surface.” The former coal mining officer further added how Indian coal, with its high ash content, ignites at a relatively low temperature, 122 degrees Fahrenheit and thus in the Jharkhand state’s Jharia coal region, it contributes to releasing toxins including carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and other volatile metals such as mercury and yet again affects the climate change.

Highlighting how coal mining is itself vulnerable to climate change Mr. Rao talked about how climatic conditions have both a direct and indirect impact on the mining sector. He counted the impacts from bushfires, heat strokes to sea level rise and further highlighted how haphazard mining over nearly a century has led to environmental changes to a large extent such as degradation in the quality of air, water, soil, changes in landform etc. He said, “Huge areas of rich forests and agricultural land belonging to the indigenous people have been laid waste because of haphazard mining.”

Developing countries like ours, who depend on the mining sector for their development, share a climate risk. Since a large and increasing number of extractive resources come from developing nations which already lack resources for climate adaptation, there is an increasing need to undertake robust measures to ensure that supply chains are climate-resilient. In view of this, Mr Rao said that in order to have positive effects on the climate, operations have to be guided by a strong commitment to international performance standards and overseen by a robust regulatory environment. “If India starts a dedicated commitment towards switching to cleaner energy, we might be able to reverse the effects of climate change,” the former coal mining officer concluded.

Yes, such a shift from sourcing fuel from coal mining to cleaner energy is a humongous task as Anil Swarup, Secretary of India’s Coal Ministry also said, “No one would want coal to happen. Coal is happening because that is the only alternative available with us at this point in time. Until there is an answer available, how do you suddenly stop mining coal? You can’t.” However, only 2020 has already shown us how much climate has changed - unseasonal rain, hailstorms, frightening developments which are impacting farmers and thus all this directs towards the stark reality that Climate change is no more a question for the future, but rather a question for today. In other words, climate change has arrived in India and needs urgent attention.

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