Globally, the year was a mixed bag for concerted climate action. The UN Climate Action Summit, in September 2019, saw some participating countries present concrete, realistic plans, and not just speeches, to realign their nationally determined contributions, so as to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. These were in line with the broader mandate, to restrict the global temperature rise to within 1.5-degree celsius of the pre-industrial era baseline.
Apart from government and sub-national participants, the summit also saw pledges by a group of the world’s largest asset management funds, who together control over $2 trillion in investments, to make their portfolios carbon-neutral by 2050. Over a hundred banks also signed up to align their businesses with the Paris Agreement goals.
Despite this momentum, the 25th Conference of Parties (COP), in December 2019, was a failure of sorts, because none of the major industrialised nations is yet on track to honour their commitments made during the 2015 Paris Agreement. There was no consensus on any major rule on the carbon markets, regarding offsetting vs. cutting emissions. This failure occurred at a time, when public support for aggressive climate action is only increasing, following the release of the IPCC report earlier this year, which had indicated we are far away from the intended 1.5 degree Celsius target.
In India, extreme weather events and rising temperatures have reared their ugly head in recent months – highlighting the urgent need for global and national action on the climate change challenge.
Concretisation, construction near wetlands and mangrove areas, as well as an inability to increase the height of the stormwater drains, in coastal cities like Mumbai and Chennai, resulted in flood situations, already made worse by erratic rainfall in terms of the varied frequency and intensity.
Unless the drainage and absorption capacities are improved upon by human intervention, the continued impact of climate shocks is only going to lead to losses in human, physical and economic capital. With the municipal bodies of cities like Mumbai commanding ample cash reserves, it is perhaps time to utilise these resources in a better manner for the citizens.
Erratic rains and lower absorption of the same by the soil has also impacted the availability of groundwater, across the length and breadth of the country. Northern India is already said to be the worst affected geography, in terms of receding groundwater. This has intensified the use of diesel-based pumps across our farms, further adding to emissions and costs.
With the crop plants unable to reach to the lowering groundwater table, in our primarily rain-fed agriculture tracts, this has meant a loss of crop harvest as well; which has multiple ramifications, in terms of food security, farmer incomes, and distress migration from rural to urban clusters.
Water shortage also impacts the processes for coal-based thermal power generation, which require a lot of water, and which is a leading source of energy in India, thus bringing risks to energy supply.
Another feature of climate change has been the varied frequency and intensity of cyclones, especially along the south-eastern seaboard. Be it Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal or Tamil Nadu, all have been severely impacted by cyclones in recent months.
While investments in early-warning systems, evacuation processes and disaster management have meant a reduction in the loss of human capital, the loss to physical and human capital still requires precious resources to make up.
The challenge of rising temperatures and heat is also affected large swathes of the country. Till 2018, six of the warmest years for the country, since 1901, occurred within the last decade itself. While the rise in average temperature from 1901 to 2018 was 0.6-degree celsius, above the pre-industrial baseline, it was 0.4-degree celsius above the 1981-2010 average, indicating the surge seen in this millennium.
While this may sound less than the 1.5-degree celsius target for 2100, the fact is even the 0.6-degree change is causing havoc to crop yields, water availability and human health – some of these are already visible.
Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, etc., which have seen a higher temperature rise than others, are already reeling under chronic water shortages. More importantly, given the pace of economic activity in this country, we seem to be on course to exceed even the 1.5-degree celsius target by the end of the century, which would cause manifold damage.
Rising temperatures also have ramifications to the pace of snow melting in the Himalayas, which can create upsurges in the flow of rivers downstream, bringing with it risks of floods, the flow of silt and changes in river direction; all of which severely impact downstream communities.
Dry terrains and erratic rainfall have also combined to cause droughts in several parts of the country. Recent months have seen continued droughts in large portions of Maharashtra’s Vidharba region as well as Odisha, Jharkhand, etc. This has intensified the focus on cultivating drought-resistant crops, like millets instead of rice and wheat, which are more water-guzzling.
Southern states like Andhra Pradesh are popularising millet cultivation as a state policy, and millet-based cereal products are today available, across stores in India’s metro cities; something unheard of a year or two ago. Ironically, the staple cereal of India was millets throughout history, and the migration to wheat and rice only occurred a few centuries ago.
This is a dichotomy, because a developing country which has a population of 130 crores, most of whom are still poor and vulnerable, does require rapid GDP growth to uplift the masses out of chronic poverty. There is no other way!
However, the way by which we are achieving this GDP growth is causing proportionately larger damage. In terms of greenhouse gas intensity (territorial CO2 emissions/GDP), India ranked better than only Russia and South Africa when compared to major emerging markets.
Hence, the way by which we are achieving the growth perhaps needs realignment. One example is to move towards the circular economy model of recycle, reuse, repair and redesign as compared to the existent linear model of take, make and waste. This would help us adapt and become more resilient to climate change impacts like water and resources shortages.
Water and silt shortage would also impact the processes for the granite and sand industries, which require a lot of water while cutting and dredging of silt from river-beds respectively. This brings risks to the construction sector, which is a key buyer of both sand and granite and is also a key sector within India’s GDP mix.
In the end, India is one of the most vulnerable countries, when it comes to climate change-related shocks. No other country on earth has a population comparable to us at the level of average income our people have.
China, with an equally large population, is far richer and hence better placed to pay for the changes required to tackle the climate crisis. Indonesia and Brazil, the next most populous countries amongst emerging markets, are also better-off than India on a per capita basis.
Moreover, the increase in the Gini Coefficient in recent years has only deepened the divide between the haves and have-nots, making India’s poor even more vulnerable to externalities like climate change. If there was ever a time for concerted action on climate change issues, the time is now for India!