January 21, 2023

A Comprehensive Economic Coal Transition in South Asia


Executive Summary: Many countries are considering accelerating their coal transition. A coal transition refers to an energy sector’s shift from a reliance on coal toward an energy mix largely based on cleaner fuels and renewable energy sources. Such a transition is not just related to greenhouse gas emissions, but also encompasses a range of benefits, recognizing that global energy costs and options are changing. Since 2015, proposed new coal power capacity has dropped by three-quarters globally, leaving only a few countries that develop coal-fired power plants at scale (Littlecott et al., 2021). Historic steps were taken at the United Nations Climate Change 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, as countries pledged to stop new coal builds, end international coal financing, phase down and phase out unabated coal use, and transition to clean energy. In South Asia, there have been several indicators suggesting that countries may be open to moving toward a coal transition. For example, the number of coal power plants under development across South Asia has decreased by 87% since 2015 (Littlecott et al., 2021). However, the challenges of assuring a just transition are substantial. Because coal plays a critical role in the energy and economic systems in South Asia, especially India, moving away from coal means realizing a broader country-wide economic and social transition. A comprehensive, integrated transition strategy for each state is thus needed urgently. This report briefly reviews the current trends and policies on coal in South Asian countries, develops a framework for a comprehensive economic coal transition, and assesses the opportunities and challenges of the transition in key countries. Several important findings emerge from the analysis. First, a coal transition can support overall economic growth and stability. Financial advantages to a well-planned coal transition include mitigating the risk of stranded assets and taking advantage of low-cost renewables. As a global coal transition proceeds, funds are being diverted from new unabated coal power plants, and utilization rates are declining. The likelihood that coal assets will become stranded is increasing, and the potential for future losses therefore increases as well. Second, coal imports in South Asia are rising. Of the coal consumed in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, 32% is imported; this number increases to 94% when excluding India (International Energy Agency [IEA], 2021d). This illustrates a serious energy security risk. One example is the recent increase in coal prices in South Asia, to be discussed in Section 2.2.1. A diverse energy portfolio that incorporates local renewable energy can provide resilience in the face of changing commodity prices and availability. Third, the social benefits of a coal transition include positive health impacts and broader economic improvements in job creation, although assuring a just transition may be a challenge. Phasing out or phasing down coal can significantly reduce air pollutant emissions and therefore minimize associated premature mortality and improve life expectancy. Additional societal benefits of a coal transition include the high economy-wide potential for job creation, although it creates challenges in terms of reintegration and resettlement for coal miners and their communities.

Published: January 21, 2023


Pressburger L.D., M. Evans, S. Yu, Y. Cui, A. Somani, and G.C. Iyer. 2022. A Comprehensive Economic Coal Transition in South Asia Richland, WA: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

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