Activists say solar can power India, but politics and economics of coal win out

DHARNAI, India -- One year ago, environmentalists hailed this tiny village as the future of clean energy in rural India. Today, it is powered by coal.

Dharnai, a community of about 3,200 people in eastern India's Bihar state, had been without electricity for three decades. So when activists with Greenpeace set up a solar-powered microgrid in July of 2014, the excitement was palpable. But, residents said, the problems started almost immediately.

When the former chief minister of Bihar state visited to inaugurate the grid, villagers lined up to protest, chanting, "We want real electricity, not fake electricity!"

By "real," they meant power from the central grid, generated mostly using coal. By "fake," they meant solar.

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In India, climate change takes a back seat to coal-powered development

SINGRAULI, India -- Here at the foot of a mountain of coal mining debris live 150 people in one of the most polluted places on Earth.

The air is dense with coal dust and other particulates. The drinking water source is a spring that emerges from the coal dump. When the rains come, landslides from the rock pile threaten to crush the small mud homes at its foot.

Kunti Baiga, who is 25 or 30 years old by her best reckoning, lives there with her kids -- two boys and a girl. The coal mining company, Northern Coalfields Ltd., has offered her family a spot in a resettlement camp nearby. But she refuses to move because she has seen the miserable conditions there.

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Why wealthy Singapore resists tough domestic climate action

SINGAPORE -- This is a rich island nation, and despite pressures to help combat climate change, it fully intends to stay that way.

Standing on the peak of Jurong Hill, looking out across a man-made isle off the mainland bearing the same name, it’s easy to see why. Manufacturing facilities crowd the artificial land mass. Silver-colored storage tanks and giant chimneys painted in red and white indicate its status as one of the top three oil refining centers in the world.

Home to oil giants like BP PLC, Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Exxon Mobil Corp., Jurong Island's refineries contribute heavily to Singapore's greenhouse gas emissions profile. But they also make this tiny nation one of the richest per capita in the world, and its leaders have signaled no plans to restrict the country's economic engine.

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Stories in the Series

OVERVIEW — The debate over curbing climate change used to be a fight between rich and poor countries. Now it's a lot more complicated. (10/07/2015)

CHILE — Ambitious environmental goals could be undermined by old-fashioned transmission issues. (10/08/2015)

TURKEY — Hunger for coal-fired power and infrastructure may push this European neighbor past the point of no-environmental return. (10/09/2015)

ETHIOPIA — Determination to use clean energy as a foundation for economic development may not be enough to lift its people past years of famine and hardship. (10/13/2015)

MEXICO — Privatizing the country's energy markets changes its game on fossil fuels and its ability to cut carbon growth. (10/14/2015)

SINGAPORE — Being one of the wealthiest countries in the world has not made cutting carbon emissions any easier. (10/15/2015)

INDIA (Part 1) — Prioritizing economic development primarily through coal-fired power has come at the cost of rising emissions and the country’s most unfortunate citizens. (10/16/2015)

INDIA (Part 2) — Enviros want India's poor to get solar power, but villagers clamor for cheaper, reliable coal. (10/19/2015)


Previous Stories in the Series


Mexico tries to bridge U.N. climate talks roadblocks

Where some are planning walls, others are planning windows. Or rather, pipelines. Across the dusty 1,954-mile border between Mexico and the United States, international companies are gearing up to spend more than $10 billion on thousands of miles of steel tubes carrying cheap natural gas from Texas to hungry markets on the other side of the Rio Grande.

The recent surge in natural gas investment is just one element of the colossal changes underway in Mexico's energy portrait. Fracturing monopolies, surging demand, falling oil prices and ambitious climate change mitigation goals are intersecting in Mexico, creating unprecedented challenges and opportunities for curbing greenhouse gases.

The United States' southern neighbor is the world's 10th-largest oil producer, and by 2050 is expected to become the world's fifth-largest economy. Though it contributes less than 2 percent of the planet's carbon emissions, the country made an aggressive climate pledge toward a new global accord: to peak national emissions by 2026 and drive them down 22 percent by 2030. That makes Mexico one of the largest developing countries to issue such a proposal.

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30 years after famine and strife, Ethiopia sees a future that is bright green

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- From atop Mount Entoto, which rises 10,500 feet above sea level and draws thousands of pilgrims annually as one of this country's most revered spiritual sites, it is impossible to look upon the sprawling capital below without sensing both the burden of Ethiopia's history and the promise of its future.

Addis Ababa, meaning "new flower" in Amharic, has been shaped by forces both internal and external since its founding in 1887. They include a devastating 16-year civil war and communist tyranny, multiple foreign invasions, and chronic cycles of drought, flood and famine that contributed to more than a million deaths since 1970.

Today, 24 years since its last government overthrow and 30 years since its last crippling famine, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia is enjoying relative peace and prosperity. Those conditions have helped Addis Ababa emerge as one of Africa's political and economic superhubs alongside Johannesburg, Nairobi and Accra.

Unlike many of its sub-Saharan neighbors, however, which have embraced economic growth at the expense of environmental protections, Ethiopia has embarked on one of the world's most ambitious green growth and climate mitigation programs.

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Can a country planning 80 coal-fired power plants get serious about climate change?

ISTANBUL -- Driving along the E5 highway, this ancient city's jumble of concrete block high-rises and Ottoman-domed mosques recedes into the distance. The future gleams.

Sleek luxury condominiums and shopping malls tower over modern new suburbs. Orange construction cranes have taken up residence along the side of the roads, feeding the teeming city's seemingly endless building boom.

Fueling Istanbul's growth -- and, as the country's economic center, Turkey's development, as well -- is coal. With the second-highest energy consumption growth after China, Turkey is highly dependent on Russian and Iranian oil and gas. Even as the country works to take advantage of its location between Europe and Asia to become a regional energy corridor, the government is also banking heavily on coal to power the future.

The Turkish government is planning to double its coal power capacity over the next four years, making it the country with the world's third-largest investment in the fossil fuel, according to a Turkish energy consulting group. Plans for 80 new plants will quadruple the number of coal-fired power plants from the 22 currently online.

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In Chile, solar power lights the way to a cleaner, more competitive economy

CALAMA, Chile -- Since opening in 2009, the striking installations at the Gabriela Mistral mine have been a source of praise for their innovative approach to mining and community development -- and as an unconventional yet practical example of how climate change-related measures not only are necessary, but also can be economically convenient. But the shift to a cleaner, more sustainable energy sector is easier said than done here. The problem? Transmission lines.

Since opening in 2009, the striking installations at the Gabriela Mistral mine -- or Minera Gaby -- have been a source of praise for their innovative approach to mining and community development. More recently, Gaby has drawn the attention of scholars and government officials as an unconventional yet practical example of how climate-change-related measures are not only necessary, but also can be economically convenient.

"I was listening [and] thinking, 'If only a country could pollute their own atmosphere, that's fine. But if we're all going to pay the price of it, somebody needs to be responsible here.' I didn't feel that I should keep my mouth shut. I felt somebody had to stand up," Hood said from Beijing, where he now serves as Grenada's ambassador to China.

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The pending Paris accord: not your father's climate agreement

By the time Ambassador Karl Hood took the microphone on a warm South African evening in December 2011, many hours into a marathon overtime U.N. climate change negotiation, he had just about enough.

For days, major emerging economies led by India had pushed back against efforts to launch a new deal that included all nations, insisting they should not be forced to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Wealthy countries have not done enough to fight climate change, they argued, and poorer nations must have the right to develop with unrestricted fossil fuel use.

Those representing the most vulnerable countries -- like Hood's tiny island of Grenada -- disagreed, but were reluctant to rupture the united front developing nations presented to the world. The role of battling China, India and other advancing powers was usually left up to the United States and Europe. Hood decided something had to change.

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