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The odds against coal — and Adani 

Earlier this month, the founder and chairman of the Adani group, Gautam Adani, told Reuters that the group was prepared to abandon its proposed $16 billion Carmichael coal mining project in Australia, because of the delays caused by legal challenges.

Some observers describe it as a classical case of ‘sour grapes syndrome’. The project was unviable anyway. According to Richard Denniss, Chief Economist of The Australian Institute, a think tank, every objective analysis of the project has found the project unviable.

But it is not fair to assume that Adani walked into the project without even assessing its viability. Surely, something has changed since the mine was given to the Adanis in November 2010.

What has changed?Not the prices — prices keep fluctuating and no project that looks 60 years into the future will be given up because the prices have crashed. Indeed, coal prices have begun to rise again, and have just touched $50 a tonne.

Nor is it reasonable to buy Gautam Adani’s refrain that delays have upset him. A few years delay for such a long-term project shouldn’t matter — not, at least, to Indians, who are familiar with project delays like no one else.

Perhaps Adani is just posturing, but that is not likely too, for it would be easily seen as an empty threat.

The core issue is something more profound — that the very outlook on coal is changing.

Today, there is so much pressure on fossil fuels that their future is much shorter than thought earlier. Investors and financiers are pulling out of fossil fuels, and those who stay put are being subject to disapproval.

On the flipside, there is an unprecedented support for renewable energy, which is fast becoming cheaper than fossil fuels. Among fossil fuels, the first to go could be coal.

Just last month energy minister Piyush Goyal made a statement that has been quoted widely in the global media, that solar is already cheaper than coal.

The only issue with renewable energy — its intermittency — is being tackled by technology. Energy storage, which can smoothen the supply curve, is fast turning out to be the answer; other non-intermittent green energy sources, such as wave, tidal and hydrogen, are rising on the horizon.

Who would want dirty fossil fuels, if cheaper, cleaner alternatives are at hand?

Bad energyThat this truth is gaining ground can be amply illustrated. Last month, the Norwegian sovereign fund — the world’s largest — which had last year made some famous coal divestments, came out with a list of 52 fossil fuel companies in which it would not invest. Reliance Power and Tata Power are among them.

Again last month, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pulled out its entire investment of $187 million in the oil company, BP. Earlier, it had divested $824 million in ExxonMobil. In early 2014, the Foundation had $1.4 billion in fossil fuel companies, now it is down to $200 million.

Similarly, the Royal Bank of Scotland has severely pared its exposure to fossil fuel companies — from £22 billion to £6.6 billion in oil and gas, and from £4.7 billion to £2.1 billion in mining, including coal.

While these are marquee divestments, there are many, many more. Those who stay put in fossil fuel companies are seen as not being socially responsible. Societal disapproval will inevitably make them fall in line with the rest.

Good energyIn April, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, who effectively runs the kingdom, stunned the world by saying that the country would use the proceeds of its oil company Aramco’s IPO to set up a $2 trillion sovereign fund — profits from the fund’s investments, and not oil, will run Saudi Arabia’s economy in future. Saudi Arabia is investing big in solar, though the motivation is not solely environment protection.

It is no coincidence that investments in renewable energy are going up. Year 2015 saw a record $330 billion of fresh investments in renewable energy, overtaking those in fossil fuels.

Thanks partly to the agitations of the civil society — The Guardian’s ‘keep-it-in-the-ground’ and US activist group Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaigns — many coal plants are shutting down.

In the US alone, 200 aging and polluting coal plants were shut between 2010 and mid-2015. Now Germany, the theatre of a anti-coal strong civil disobedience campaign called Ende Gelande (‘here and no further’), wants to close eight lignite-fired plants to reduce carbon di-oxide emissions by 12 million tonnes a year, and is paying the plant operators €1.6 billion as compensation.

Such high decibel campaigns are making it tough for financiers to lend to fossil fuels. Nine major international lenders, not counting State Bank of India, have said ‘no’ to the Adani Carmichael project.

The series of recent high profile coal company bankruptcies, including industry icons such as Peabody Energy, is bound to make lenders further wary.

The fossil fuels industry, particularly coal, is caught in a pincer grip of tough activism and the rise of cheaper renewable energy. Many commentators have started scripting the beginning of the end of fossil fuels.

It is, therefore, hardly a surprise that Gautam Adani is talking about rethinking on the Australian mine, citing delays as an ostensible reason.

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Comment (1)

  1. Awesome post about adani, adani is one of the amazing entrepreneurs in india. he may also become india’s #1 richest person if he constantly increases his wealth like now.

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