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Energy and Climate Change

Fossil fuels--coal, oil and natural gaspower corporate globalization. India is a case in point.. As it becomes increasingly integrated into the global economy, India is increasing its imports of oil and natural gas, most of it from the Middle East. It is already very reliant on coal for energy. Moving toward an increasing fossil fuel dependence comes with a priceboth financially as well as in terms of human costs. This Energy and Climate Change Section of our Issue Library explores fossil fuel-based development in India, and alternatives to it.
Investment in fossil fuel-based development comes at the price of a better health care, education, housing and other immediate needs that India has. Whats more, this energy most often does not benefit the vast majority of people in India, but rather just the elite few and the transnational corporations investing in the country. One may not get this picture by visiting Indian cities but one has to remember that over 70% of India lives in rural areas, not urban centers.

For instance, numerous automakers, from Toyota to Mercedes, and even the Indian Tatas, continue to manufacture and market status symbols in the form of gas guzzling Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs). Yet only a handful of people in India can actually afford one. What about the new airline companies and airports? Again, a small minority of people in India can afford them. We even have instances in places like Singrauli, site of one of the largest thermal power plants, and Dabhol, the site of the infamous Enron power plant, where the poor who live in the proximity of the plant do not have access to power while the government and the corporations are laying grids and pipelines to fuel factories and other foreign investments, while building roadways to distribute their goods. Clearly, energy development in India is for a handful minority that can afford it and who will benefit from it.

This skewed situation is compounded by the injustice of the energy life cycle. Most often, coal mining is done in adivasi (indigenous) areas in India with complete disregard for the human rights of the communities or the ecology. And India has relies heavily on coal; in fact, about 70% of the countrys electricity comes from coal. Meanwhile, oil refineries are notorious for air pollution that severely affects human health and the surrounding environment.

And finally, there is the end result of our consumption of fossil fuels. The burning of oil, coal and gas and the resulting release of carbon dioxide is the single largest contributor to climate change. As the climate changes, it is often those that are the poorest and most marginalized that are the hardest hit around the world. India is no different. The cyclones in Orissa in 1999 which resulted in over 10,000 deaths and hundreds of thousand homeless was the kind of intense storm forecast by climate scientists to become more frequent as global warming increasingly becomes a reality; it is a sign of things to come as we ignore the warning signs as a society and continue to depend on fossil fuels for our energy development.

Regardless of what the fossil fuel companies may pay their own scientists to say and write, climate change is happening. We are way past the discussion of whether it might occur, but rather are debating how bad it will be. Needless to say, the global community has no choice but to wean itself away from such a destructive source of energy. It is true that industrialized nations in the North contribute most significantly to climate change with their massive historical and current consumption of fossil fuels. And that they need to lead the transformation away from fossil fuel dependency.

Of course, India has genuine energy needs and we need to meet them. But instead of becoming increasingly addicted to fossil fuels, the country has a tremendous opportunity to buck the trend and develop alternative energies- biomass, solar, wind - renewable energy forms that India has plenty of potential for. Otherwise India too, will be stuck on an increasingly unstable (and finite) supply of oil and gas from the Middle East, and coal at home. If the country does not change its energy strategy, it will begin to look like those industrialized nations that do the dirty business of refining oil on the back of the poor and the marginalized.

And finally, in order to have an equitable distribution of energy, we have to seriously examine who we do business with and how. Deregulation of the power sector, history has shown, increases the cost of power and leads to cases like the Enron fiasco in Dabhol and the price gouging in California. Many of these fossil fuel companies, from Shell to UNOCAL to Chevron, have been complicit in serious abuses of human rights and caused intense ecological degradation. These corporations have no qualms about working with repressive regimes to get their way. And as the Enron disaster is showing us, multinational corporations have far reaching influence in world politics, and can get their way anywhere, including India.

Energy is too precious to be given away to a handful of people for profit.

Updated: 11/28/2003

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