–Written By Mayank Pratham
Now almost nine months into 2019, the year has been ground-breaking for us Indians. With erratic rainfall and grappling droughts accompanied by devastating floods that wash away the ground right from under the feet and roads that break up only to be a testament of these devastating natural imbalances make the year literally ground breaking for us all. With such instances becoming seemingly obvious in nature, it is not just in India that we find such examples, the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil also known as the lungs of the earth is on fire, but as fire rages 15000 km away, we the Indians may feel that we’re unaffected, well nothing could be farther from the truth.
To draw a contrast with this daunting truth, we need not look beyond our own boundaries, as this summer locals prayed for some rain in Chennai, whereas people in Mumbai were reeling under a deluge. Long ago, these disparities may have been solely blamed on nature’s caprice, but now science has well established that human-induced climate change has played a major role resulting into such extremities of nature.
In recent decades, the global climate has been changing in an unpredictable manner which prima facie reveals that climate change has the potential to disrupt and reshape lives. There are several alarming predictions about its impact. The UN Sustainable Goals Report, 2018 notes that climate change is among the key factors in rising hunger and human displacement. The World Health Organisation estimates that climate change will cause an additional 250,000 deaths per year between 2030 and 2050, due to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress. In 2018-19, as many as 2,400 Indians lost their lives to extreme weather events such as floods and cyclones, according to the environment ministry. The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) says these events are increasing in both frequency and intensity. Extreme events may be the most tangible and immediate impact of climate change, but another more long-term and equally dangerous effect is rising temperatures.
Climate change, caused by emissions from industries and other human activity, is making the world warmer, disrupting rainfall patterns and increasing the frequency of extreme weather events. No country is immune to these forces, but India is particularly challenged in this regard as the World Bank projects that climate change could cost India 2.8% of its GDP, and diminish living standards for nearly half the country’s population, in the next 30-odd years and undoubtedly, much of this loss will be accounted for by low-income groups in India.
With a country as vast in population as India and as versatile economically climate change poses many proxy threats in lieu of the visible ones, which I would like to cover parallel to the rise in temperatures and as to how it affects the different strata of our society.
As climate change becomes more palpable, some parts of India due to their topological composition will be affected more than others. According to IMD data released by the statistics ministry, average temperatures have increased by 0.6 degrees Celsius between 1901-10 and 2009-18. In parts of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the North-East, average temperature over the last decade has risen by nearly 1° C compared to the historical average in the 1950-80’s. At an annual level, this may seem trivial, but projections deeper into the future paint a more alarming picture. For instance, the World Bank estimates that, if climate change continues unhindered, then average temperatures in India could reach as high as 29.1° C by the end of the century (up from 25.1° C currently).
However, these areas won’t necessarily be the most affected by the change in temperature. A region’s vulnerability to temperature changes depends on several factors such as access to infrastructure (electricity, roads and water connections) and dependence on agriculture. According to the World Bank, central districts in India are the most vulnerable to climate change because they lack the infrastructure and are largely agrarian. Within this region, the districts in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region are particularly susceptible to climate change damage. These are also the districts that are already under severe rural distress, having experienced the greatest number of farmer suicides in recent years. In these districts, the World Bank suggests that GDP per capita could shrink by nearly 10% by 2050 because of climate change.
A primary channel for such fall in incomes comes from climate change’s effects on farmers. The timely monsoon season and suitable temperatures are critical inputs for farmers. Hotter weather and disrupted rainfall hurt crop yields and, perpetually their incomes as well. According to the 2017-18 Economic Survey, extreme temperatures and droughts (defined as temperatures or rainfall loss 40% greater than the median) shrink farmer incomes to the tune of 4-14% for key crops. Poorer farmers in regions with weaker infrastructure and less irrigation are most affected.
Farmers may be the most hurt by climate change, but other workers can be affected, too. In industries such as construction, high temperatures can make life miserable for workers and decrease their productivity. According to the International Labour Organization, the loss in productivity by 2030 because of heat stress could be the equivalent of India losing 34 million full-time jobs (up from 15 million in 1995)—the highest among the world’s most populous nations.
Rising temperatures, especially combined with humidity, can even be fatal. In his new book, Air: Pollution, Climate Change and India’s Choice Between Policy and Pretence, Dean Spears suggests that a newborn exposed to a week of hot and humid environment is much less likely to survive compared to one faced with a less hostile condition. And so have such dangerously rising temperatures coupled with such hostile pollution ridden environment has championed over the ecology in India, as though the western and eastern ghats cover a small part of the subcontinent, they are or must I say were teeming with life as they are home to more than 30% of the country’s flora and fauna, the aggravated loss of both unique species and their habitat has led to UNESCO recognising this areas as one of the eight global “hottest hotspots” of biodiversity.
While much of India’s climate change crisis is a result of outside forces, there are domestic drivers as well. For instance, the country still overwhelmingly relies on coal for electricity, the emissions from which contribute significantly to climate change (68% of India’s emissions come from generating energy). Not only does this add to climate change, it also aggravates another major environmental problem: Air pollution. Similarly, inefficient agricultural policy encourages excessive water use, which exacerbates any climate change-induced monsoon variations. Thus, climate change is inextricably linked with India’s other environmental crises, which makes a case for a comprehensive plan to tackle it critical for our future.
Several initiatives have been implemented to create awareness about climate change — about how to mitigate it and adapt to it. In 1991, the Supreme Court directed the Central government and all State governments to provide compulsory environmental education to all students in schools and colleges. This directive was reiterated in 2003 (M.C Mehta v. Union of India). Corporate organisations, research and education institutes, NGOs and foundations have committed themselves to educating people about climate change and providing the know-how for mitigation, adaptation and resilience building. These initiatives target urban and rural populations including schoolgoing children. Their thrust ranges from inculcating the concept of environmental sustainability to driving home the impact of climate change on food, water, nutrition and health.
India’s stance historically has been inclined to take up a shared responsibility for the disastrous climate change caused by both the developed and the developing nations as pertaining to the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 and the same has built a narrative for it’s environmental policies of today.
India has already achieved its solar power target four-years ahead of its schedule, as a part of its climate change mitigation strategy. Whereas, in his Independence Day speech, our Prime Minister Narendra Modi also called for phasing out single-use plastic. The central government has planned a mass movement from 2 October, Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary, to phase out single-use plastic. Speaking at the 8th Asian Ministerial Energy Roundtable (AMER) at Abu Dhabi on 10 September 2019, where India is the co-Host along with UAE, petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan said, “The Energy Vision of India, as enunciated by Prime Minister Modi in 2016, is based on four pillars i.e. energy access, energy efficiency,energy sustainability and energy security. As part of our integrated approach towards energy planning during the last five years, energy justice will be a key objective in itself. In this context, we are working towards the early realization of the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7.”
Hence, the future can still be moulded by our actions today, the onus lies not on the government but us the citizens as well, as climate change doesn’t differentiate between the two, calling for united action as equal partners of this social and ecological exchange between man and nature.