Why India will never become an industrialized nation

It’s easy for people to underestimate the effect that environmental conditions have on a nation’s economic development. In the case of India, these environmental conditions prohibit the nation from ever experiencing the type of economic boom we have seen in nations like China and South Korea.

There is no reason whatsoever for us to assume that a pattern that played out in currently industrialized nations will per definition repeat itself in other nations. Many nations are likely never to experience the type of carbon intensive lifestyle currently seen in the developed world.

The argument frequently heard from right-wing politicians in the US and Europe, that it doesn’t matter what they do to address global warming because India and China are just going to continue spewing out carbon dioxide miss an important point: India is never going to industrialize. How much carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere will ultimately come to depend mostly on the decisions made in countries that are currently developed.

Some of the problems India is bound to run into that will inevitably prohibit it from industrializing are as following:

Peak coal

India simply doesn’t have the big coal reserves that other nations do. Coal India Limited is a state owned corporation responsible for 80% of India’s coal production. Based on its current estimated coal reserves, the growth rate the company aims for means that it would exhaust its reserves in 14 years, as of this moment.

Note that currently estimated reserves don’t consider the problem that not all reserves can be accessed. India has lignite reserves, located in the middle of the Rajasthan desert. Lignite can’t be transported far from the place where it’s mined, due to its low energy content. Other reserves are located beneath valuable farmland and densely populated areas. Keep in mind that the entire nation of India has a population density roughly as high as the Netherlands, universally understood to be an overpopulated nation.

Ozone pollution

India’s crop yield is decimated by ozone pollution from cars and industrial processes. It’s estimated that ozone pollution as of 2014 caused India to lose 9.2% of its yield every year. Most ground-level ozone pollution can be traced back to vehicle transport. India in 2011 had 13 cars per 1000 people, compared to the 500-800 per 1000 range that’s typical of industrialized nations.

Ozone formation is a strongly temperature dependent process, that rises non-linearly as temperatures increase. This is why the impact of ozone pollution in India on crop yields is so much higher than in other nations. As temperatures in India continue to rise, ozone pollution is set to grow much worse.

As a result of climate change, India is expected to see a strong rise in stagnant air days by up to forty per year, which ensure that the pollution generated by fossil fuel combustion isn’t blown out over the ocean. As a consequence, Indian citizens will suffer the health effects and Indian crops will suffer reduced yields. To have as many cars driving around in India as in Europe and North America would be a very bad idea.

Thermal pollution and water shortages

To exploit coal and natural gas requires the use of water to drive steam turbines. In most Western nations, water shortages are not a big issue. In India however, water is scarce and is about to become even more scarce. India has some of the world’s most rapidly depleted aquifers. The Indus river mostly depends on meltwater from the Himalaya.

If India can not find the cool fresh water it needs to drive its steam turbines, the rapid rise in coal and natural gas use will prove to be unsustainable. As a consequence, electricity use would have to be rationed. The country’s thermal power plants already draw in over half of the country’s total water use. A water shortage will thus inevitably also mean an energy shortage.

The bottom line

The IEA thinks China’s coal use has permanently peaked in 2013, while its carbon emissions peaked in 2014. Europe’s emissions have also peaked years ago and are now rapidly declining. If India’s industrial development is inevitably constrained by its own situation, the outcome of this crisis will largely depend on nations like the United States. Dodging responsibility by pointing to China and India is not a viable argument, as decisive action in the United states could strongly reduce the total cumulative emissions our world will witness.


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