Comment: Australia, India’s dirty energy friend

Indian PM Narendra Modi shakes hands with PM Tony Abbott after a signing ceremony for the Agreement of Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy. (AAP)

Instead of being India’s dirty fuel friend, Australia can build a sustainable energy relationship with India by helping boost India’s growing renewables industry.

As heads of state prepare to arrive in Brisbane next week for the G20 summit where climate change will be conspicuous by its serious absence on the agenda, the Australian government is finalising paperwork to start exporting uranium – a highly risky fuel – and approving giant mines like Carmichael in central Queensland to ship coal – a climate change culprit – to India.

The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also preparing for a four day Australia tour alongside attending G20, including addressing a joint sitting of federal Parliament. It will be the first official visit by an Indian head of state in nearly three decades, marking the beginning of a strong phase in Australia-India relations. This new cooperation might sound like good news to the Indian diaspora in Australia and make regional cooperation experts enthusiastic, but its basis in extracting and exporting dirty and dangerous forms of energy to India needs to be questioned.

India is a densely populated country with many living in poverty, inadequate infrastructure, and a lack of government planning to deal with complex weather systems. This makes it ill-prepared to deal with the scale of impacts from unchecked climate change on humans and ecosystems as highlighted in the latest IPCC report – decreased river flows, increased food insecurity from fall in food production, increased tropical diseases, sea level rise and mass human displacement. Neither are its 22 running nuclear power plants managed to avoid future disasters of the scale of Fukushima or Chernobyl, as a scathing 2013 report by the Indian national auditor general on the lack of nuclear safety in India showed.

As an Indian activist now working in Australian for a healthy environment, I have a personal interest in seeing a firm cooperation between both countries I call home based on clean technologies which combat climate change. Which is why I was very disappointed to hear Prime Minister Tony Abbott blithely say that “coal is good for humanity”.

If Australia’s largest coal mine becomes operational, it will extract and export 60 million tonnes of coal each year to India, producing four times the emission of New Zealand. Federal environment minister Greg Hunt approved the Carmichael mine in the Galilee Basin in Queensland this July even as scientists, environmental groups, tourism operators and concerned Australians strongly opposed the sounding of the death knell for the Great Barrier Reef from the twin effects of transporting coal across the reef and burning it in a climate change threatened future.

Last month, Indian activist Debi Goenka made history when he appeared before the Land Court of Queensland to appeal against the Adani Enterprises owned Carmichael coal mine decision, making his organisation Conservation Advocacy Trust the first international party to object to a Queensland mine. Goenka reminded the Australian government that “coal is not the solution to energy poverty” and that “India’s people are best served by renewable energy sources like wind, solar and small-scale hydropower

India has nearly four hundred million rural poor. Rural India, even in coal rich states, remain largely unconnected to the central coal-fired power grid. Australia’s coal exports have been purported to benefit these rural poor, but that is far from the truth. According to the International Energy Agency, 147 million Indians will remain without electricity into 2030 under a business as usual scenario emphasising coal. Apart from aggravating global warming, coal also causes 80,000-115,000 premature deaths in India per year.

The case of economic and environmental injustice from coal power generation also applies to nuclear power generation in India. As reports of contamination around nuclear plants show, the rural and the poor in India will be put to greater harm from increased nuclear power generation through increased risk of radioactive contamination around unregulated and barely managed plants.

The rural and the poor in India are not likely to be able to access the electricity generated from coal or uranium exported from Australia. And yet they are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and contamination of the air, water and land on which their survival depends. This is the unfortunate bargain India’s rural and poor are forced into, despite the false benevolence of the Federal government at the behest of mining export industry.

India sees a fair share of natural disasters – floods and landslides during the monsoons, killer quakes and cyclones which decimate coastal communities. The scale of the devastation from the 2004 tsunami which swept the Indian coast killing and affecting millions in the wee hours of the morning on Boxing Day will not be easily forgotten. The Fukushima disaster was the consequence of a tsunami in Japan which has the worlds’ best safety standard of nuclear power generation. The risk from a natural disaster fuelled nuclear crisis in India where safety standards are literally non-existent is unimaginably catastrophic.

Where coal and nuclear have failed millions of Indians, solar lanterns and solar photovoltaic panels have brought electricity to millions of Indians who have remained in the dark for generations. The renewables industry in India is growing and has the potential to re-energize India’s economy by creating new jobs at home. Highlighting the fact that “India added the equivalent of about 40% of Australia’s installed electricity capacity in renewable power generation from 2010 to 2014”, Goenka dispels the myth spread by coal magnates and governments hiding their climate inaction behind India’s poor by showing that local small-scale renewable energy are the real solutions to India’s energy poverty.

Instead of being India’s dirty fuel friend, Australia can build a sustainable energy relationship with India by helping boost India’s growing renewables industry. Instead of approving massive mines and uranium shipments to India, Australia can do its share in global climate responsibility by putting a price on pollution. Instead of weakening Australia’s environmental protection by handing Australia’s international environmental responsibilities and oversight for the extraction and transportation of dangerous uranium to ill-equipped state governments, the Australian government can protect Australia’s unique environment and the life-support systems on which people depend into the future.

Rather than shackling India’s large impoverished population to Australia’s short term, boom and bust, carbon intensive coal and uranium misadventures - we should instead be fostering strong international collaborations that strengthen and grow clean safe energy to the benefit of millions and millions of Indians now and into the future.

Ruchira Talukdar is a Healthy Ecosystems Campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation.

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