Current General Studies Magazine: "Climate Change Challenge Confronting India" November + December 2016

Current General Studies Magazine (November + December 2016)

General Studies - III "Science & Technology Based Article" (Climate Change Challenge Confronting India)

What is the Climate Change Challenge?

Scientific evidence affirms that anthropogenic emissions of Greenhouse Gases (GHGs), such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and several industrial gases, since the Industrial Revolution that started two and a half centuries ago have been changing the Earth’s climate. While naysayers remain, there is now overwhelming scientific certainty that increasing GHG concentration in the atmosphere due to human activities has been the dominant cause of the observed warming of our planet since 1950. Over the years, the atmosphere and oceans have warmed. Snow, ice, permafrost and glaciers have reduced at the poles and elsewhere. Sea level has risen and oceans have become more acidic by absorbing more CO2. Several extreme weather events have intensified. Current GHG emissions are the highest in human history while atmospheric CO2 is at its highest level since at least 800,000 years. Over the last century, global temperatures have risen +0.8°C and sea levels by 20 centimetres. It is now over three decades that the world has not had a month when temperatures were below average. The rising temperature of recent years, rather than the relative stability of the past, has become routine. Irrespective of future GHG emissions, further warming is inevitable and more dramatic modifications could follow in our lifetime unless we urgently take corrective steps.

Much of the latest scientific evidence of climate change derives from the 5th Assessment Synthesis Report of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and related documents. That Report emphasized that risks arising from warming of +2°C above pre-industrial levels pose challenges to human security, affecting development, food and water supplies, health, infrastructure, and livelihoods across many parts of the world, including India.

India: Floods and Droughts, Lives and Habitats

Climate change related risks will increasingly affect the Indian subcontinent via sea level rise, cyclonic activity, floods and droughts, change in temperature and precipitation patterns. Natural hazards and vulnerabilities arising from economic, social and environmental circumstances already make India one of the more disaster-prone countries. The harsh consequences of climate change will intensify challenges to development in India, given the number of its poor and since many Indians depend on climate sensitive sectors for their livelihood.

The mean global sea level rise in this century and its future rate of growth will very likely exceed that of the past few decades. Coastal populations and assets exposed to risks in India will increase significantly due to urbanisation. India’s urban population, projected to rise from 377 million in 2011 to 745 million in 2041, is already challenging services and infrastructure in stressed Indian cities. By the 2070’s, coastal cities most at risk will include Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai. Climate change will increase the risks of death, injury and ill-health and disrupt livelihoods in low-lying coastal zones due to cyclones and flooding, storm surges and sea-level rise. Increased river, coastal and urban floods could cause considerable loss of life and widespread damage to infrastructure and settlements. Rising sea levels have already started submerging low-lying islands in the Sunderbans, displacing thousands, and contaminating coastal freshwater reserves. Melting Himalayan glaciers would reduce downstream water supply in many of India’s rivers in the dry season, impacting millions.

While the impact of climate change on tropical cyclones would vary by region, projections across models agree on more frequent and heavy rainfall days and that an increase in extreme rainfall events related to monsoons is very likely in South Asia. Alteration in the Indian monsoon pattern can be expected, with the volume of rainfall during the monsoon season set to rise. Not only would there be more water, the way in which it is delivered would also change. While the number of monsoon days is expected to be less, the intensity of rainfall would be more.

If global temperatures rise beyond +2°C, around seven million people are projected to be displaced due, inter alia, to submersion of parts of Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai. Floods are an annual calamity in Assam that takes lives, harms livelihoods and damages infrastructure. Floods due to glacial lake outbursts are an emerging threat in parts of the Himalayas. The flash floods in Kedarnath in 2013 highlighted the need for far better disaster preparedness. The severe flooding in Mumbai in 2005, Srinagar in 2014 and Chennai in 2015, suggests interaction between climate change and other stressors.

It would appear that rapid and unplanned urbanization, encroachment of Valley wetlands, and deforestation in the Jhelum River basin leading to silt accumulation in Srinagar’s water bodies - these have primarily contributed to Srinagar’s devastation by floods in 2014. Houses have been built on floodplains and river beds, making drainage systems inadequate and reducing natural water storage areas. Channels leading into nearby wetlands have narrowed considerably over the last century due to encroaching structures. Nullahs have been replaced by roads and shops, wetlands have metamorphosed into residential colonies. Reviving Srinagar’s natural drainage channels to serve as storm water drains is hugely important. Looking ahead, an effective early warning system and accompanying response plan would be crucial.

Impact on Human Health

Extreme weather events often also collapse health and emergency services, electricity and water supply. Moreover, increased heat-related mortality and heat stroke due to rising and extreme temperatures could undermine India’s modest progress in recent decades in tackling disease, malnutrition and early deaths. Disease causing pathogens and parasites will multiply faster at higher temperatures, escalating the incidence of many tropical diseases. Japanese encephalitis and dengue fever outbreaks are also associated in India with high temperature and rainfall. Malaria prevalence in India has been linked to rainfall patterns. Studies show an association between higher temperatures, heavy rainfall and diarrhoea and cholera outbreaks.

Temperature trends show that the frequency of hot days in India is likely to increase further. Record high temperatures are already occurring more often. In urban areas, where child mortality is already high, extreme temperatures will lead to more deaths and greater heat stress. There are recent reports of a new kind of chronic kidney disease, occurring in hot areas, which may be one of the first epidemics due to global warming. A warmer atmosphere could worsen existing respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses and will spread tropical diseases and pests to new areas. Greater incidence of mental disorders and post-traumatic stress syndrome would also be seen in disaster-struck areas. Contaminated urban flood waters will increase exposure to disease and many toxic compounds. To better tackle these, efficient heat-health early warning systems must be put in place.

Effect on Food Production and Livelihoods

Climate change will seriously impact global food production as drought, increased unpredictability of precipitation, and rising temperatures would reduce global crops yields, while warming and acidification of the oceans would affect marine wildlife and fisheries. Most of the food-insecure are in South Asia, where over 400 million poor and undernourished people currently live. Climate change will disproportionately hurt many of them. More erratic rainfall in parts of India could lower rice yields and lead to higher food prices and living costs, while increased drought related water and food shortages linked to rising temperatures may increase malnutrition and worsen rural poverty. Over 55% of Indian rural households depend on agriculture for a living and, if you add fisheries and forestry, it is amongst the larger contributors to India’s GDP. Many Indians who earn livelihoods in coastal regions will also be affected.

Heat stress would decrease labour productivity and could cause substantial food yield and production declines. Sorghum production, for example, is expected to decline by 14%. In the Indo-Gangetic plains, which produce 90 million tonnes of wheat a year or 14-15% of annual global production, projections indicate a substantial fall in yields (up to 51%) unless there is a shift in crop varieties and management practices. Climate-related food productivity decline will also affect livelihoods and exports.

Climate change will also negatively impact livelihoods through its effects on ecosystems, some of which are highly vulnerable. The geographic range, seasonal activities and migration patterns of several land, freshwater and marine species have shifted in response to climate change. Abundance of species has changed. Permafrost degradation has been reported in parts of the Tibetan Plateau. Earlier greening has already been observed in Himalayan forests and could increase their vulnerability to wildfires. Coral reefs off Lakshadweep and Andamans are bleaching due to higher sea temperatures.

On the other hand, there is high agreement amongst scientists, though only a medium level of evidence, that cooler regions are likely to benefit from warmer temperatures leading to an increase in arable area. Climate change may also boost wheat production in some hilly areas, where warmer temperatures would make it possible to grow at least two crops annually of maize and wheat.

Importance of Disaster Risk Reduction

Disasters displaced over 166 million people worldwide during 2008-2013 and this number is likely to rise due to the impact of global warming. While low and middle income countries suffer nine out of ten disaster-related deaths, there is a tendency to avoid or postpone disaster prevention expenditures as it counts less with voters compared to post-disaster assistance. However, the return from disaster prevention is invariably better than from reconstruction. It is estimated that spending $6 billion a year on prevention could save $360 billion by 2030. Disasters cost India $10 billion every year and disaster risk reduction is a smart investment that needs to be made.

Addressing Climate Change

Seeking to address climate change, the world community agreed at the Rio Summit in 1992 on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities of its ratifying states. In negotiations leading to its adoption, India consistently highlighted equity, historical responsibility and per capita emissions as the basis for a differentiated approach to the collective arrangements being considered. The notions of fairness, justice and equity underlying its differentiation between developed and developing countries in terms of responsibilities and capabilities, remain as relevant today.

As developed countries have been responsible historically for GHG emissions and remain their main emitters on a per capita basis, the primary responsibility devolves on them to address the problem, especially since they also have the financial resources and technological capacities to do so. As part of international cooperation, developed countries also need to provide new and additional financial resources and technological cooperation on preferential terms to developing countries to enable them to more effectively respond to climate change. In contrast, developing countries cannot accept binding mitigation commitments for now, though they could consider doing so provided incremental costs are met by the developed world. Indeed, the UNFCCC recognized that developing countries cannot be required to divert scarce resources from their overriding priorities of poverty eradication and economic development.

India: Responding to the Climate Change Challenge

India was not a major GHG emitter in 1992, but has come into the spotlight now for its rising GHG emissions. Yet, India’s per capita GHG emissions footprint is small and it remains a fraction of that of all major emitters. India’s historic and current levels of GHG emissions per capita remain the lowest amongst the G20, even though in volume terms it is now the third-largest GHG emitter, after China and USA. Moreover, it has one of the lowest rates of energy intensity of GDP growth.

To tackle its massive development challenges, India needs sustained economic growth at a high level. Moreover, it does not want to pursue the environmentally harmful development path unwittingly followed by developed countries in their process of industrialization. However, India cannot finance the huge investments needed to adapt to climate change unless its economy grows at a fast tempo. India seeks to meet the climate change challenge by expanding use of low carbon and renewable technologies and improving energy efficiency of buildings, factories, appliances, etc. In the long run some low-carbon development options may be less costly for India and could offer new economic opportunities. Inclusive growth too is integral to an effective climate change policy for India and studies in India show that low carbon growth pathways are consistent with it.

India’s response to climate change must be guided by its national plans, programmes and priorities, not by the push and pull of international negotiations. It has to encompass enhanced adaptation measures and also such mitigation measures that restrict GHG emissions without compromising its development compulsions.

(a) Mitigation: Mitigation efforts must be intensified as they can deliver early benefits. There are several ways to significantly reduce GHG emissions and the magnitude of climate change, including by switching from conventional fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) to low or renewable carbon energy sources like wind, solar, ocean, geothermal, hydroelectric, and nuclear energy, by energy conservation and more efficient energy usage (e.g., via more fuel efficient vehicles, spread of Metro mass transportation and use of less energy consuming LED bulbs and home appliances), reducing energy wastage, as well as by more effective urban planning (reduced vehicle usage and emissions) and better building design. As forests serve as sinks, mitigation can also be achieved by increasing area under forests and thus their carbon sink capacity.

(b) Adaptation: India must also adapt to meet some climate change risks. Adaptation delivers many immediate and future benefits, but has its limits. Improving ecosystem resilience and helping local communities is a low-regrets path to successful adaptation in India. Opportunities to implement such low-regrets adaptation measures emerge, for example, by:

  • Reducing water use via drip irrigation and recycling;
  • Enhancing water harvesting and water storage;
  • Planting drought-resistant crop varieties;
  • Enabling cities to cope with increasingly frequent extreme weather;
  • Building infrastructure to protect coastal cities from sea-level rise;
  • Using more porous materials for berms/footpaths in urban settings;
  • Improving land governance and ensuring security of land tenure;
  • Developing sustainable habitats;
  • Creating sustainable climate resilient agricultural production systems;
  • Implementing adaptation measures for vulnerable species, forest-dependent communities and ecosystems;
  • Safeguarding the Himalayan glaciers and mountain ecosystem
  • Boosting disaster-relief preparedness;
  • Building social protection systems and safety nets;
  • Using satellite imagery to verify crop insurance claims;
  • Raising skill levels for better absorption of new technologies; and
  • Involving all stakeholders from the outset in planning processes.

The key to effective adaption lies in empowering individuals and communities and backing assurances with financial and technological resources. Two-way flow of information and perspectives is vital. Vulnerable local communities should have the opportunity to present their grassroots perspective to policy makers. In turn, scientific information needs to be couched and shared in a simple manner appropriate to local context. Local institutions need to have a meaningful dialogue with scientists, government officials, policy makers and community members. Huge gaps in climate change knowledge-sharing persist and have led to adaptation information not reaching the most vulnerable communities. This must be corrected. Use of community radio for outreach purposes also offers a largely untapped opportunity and may prove particularly useful in places like Srinagar Valley.

India’s INDC, plans, programmes and priorities

In spite of the enormous development challenge of eradicating poverty and ensuring housing, electricity and food security to all, India declared a voluntary goal at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009 to bring down the emission intensity of its GDP by 20-25% by 2020 over 2005 levels. It did so despite having no binding mitigation obligations under the UNFCCC. With its thrust on measures such as promotion of clean energy, enhancing of energy efficiency, developing climate resilient urban centres and sustainable green transportation network, India is on course to achieve this voluntary goal.

On October 2, 2015, India announced its ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contribution’ (INDC), as its mite towards international efforts to rein in climate change. It includes: (a) reduction in the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33-35% by 2030 from 2005 level, (b) changing India’s share of non-fossil fuel in total installed capacity from 30% in 2015 to about 40% by 2030, and (c) creating an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.

India’s renewable energy strategy is driven by objectives of energy security, energy access and reducing the carbon footprint of national energy systems via technologies that contribute to better air quality, reduce reliance on fossil fuels, curb global warming, add jobs and protect water and habitat quality. India hopes to enhance the share of renewable energy in electricity generation from 6% to 15% of its energy mix by 2022. India will scale up the share of non-fossil fuel based energy resources in its total electricity mix, including wind power, solar power, hydropower, biomass, waste to energy and nuclear power. The target for renewable energy capacity addition has been raised from 30 GW by 2016-17 to 175 GW by 2022. Within this, solar power capacity in India is to be rapidly enhanced to 100 GW by 2022 and scaled up further thereafter. Development of twenty five solar parks, ultra-mega solar power projects, canal top solar projects and provision of one hundred thousand solar pumps for farmers is underway. India has also taken the initiative to host a global solar alliance - the International Agency for Solar Policy & Application (INSPA) - bringing together 121 countries located between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn.

Last year, India also doubled its clean energy tax on coal and set up a National Adaptation Fund with an initial allocation of INR 3,500 million (US$ 55.6 million). Moreover, under the Zero Defect Zero Effect Scheme over a million small and medium enterprises are improving their quality, energy efficiency, pollution control, waste management and shifting to renewable energy. The energy efficiency of thermal power plants will also be mandatorily improved.

India’s urban transport policy will encourage moving people rather than vehicles, with a major focus on Mass Rapid Transit Systems. Major metro projects are planned for cities like Ahmedabad, Pune and Lucknow. Switching from Bharat Stage IV (BS IV) to BS VI to improve fuel standards across India is also envisaged.

Turning to forestry, India’s long term aim is to increase its forest cover via initiatives like Green India Mission, financial incentives for forests, green highways policy, REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation)-Plus etc. Devolution of federal funds to States will be based on a formula that attaches 7.5% weight to forest area and incentivizes greener distribution of resources. This will condition about US$ 6.9 billion of transfers to our States based on their forest cover, which will increase to US$ 12 billion by 2019-20.

As per preliminary estimates, over US$ 2.5 trillion would be required between 2015 and 2030 to implement India’s climate-related plans. Substantially scaling up these plans would require even greater resources. Developing countries like India are resource constrained and implementing climate change mitigation/adaptation actions would require domestic and new & additional funds from developed countries to meet the resource gap. Moreover, the technology gap between rich and poor countries remains enormous and the capacity of developing economies to adopt new technology needs to be boosted. Enhanced action on technology development and transfer will be central to implementation of India’s INDC. Developed countries should help in the transfer of environmentally sound technologies, in providing climate finance, capacity building, creating a framework for R&D on clean coal technologies.

India can achieve a similar level of well-being as the developed world without going down a path of reckless and wasteful consumption. It has in the past indicated that its per capita emissions would never exceed those of the developed countries, including their historical emissions. It is also prepared to share its technologies with others, as seen from its offer of free-of-cost remote sensing satellite data to other SAARC countries and its readiness to develop a satellite specifically for South Asia by 2016.

The Paris Agreement and Beyond

On December 12, 2015, the 21st Conference of Parties of UNFCCC (COP21) adopted in Paris a new Climate Change Agreement for a post-2020 arrangement. While it is contoured like a legally binding instrument, many of its most important provisions are voluntary/non-binding. It replaces the Annex-based approach to differentiation incorporated in the UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol by an approach that enables self-differentiation and takes into account changes in a country’s circumstance and capacity. It replaces the "top-down” approach of the Kyoto Protocol by a "bottoms-up” approach. It also establishes a longer-term architecture and institutionalizes a process by which parties will take stock of their collective progress every five years and put forward progressively stronger emission reduction action plans for the next five-year period. It uses a transparency and accountability framework to incentivize States to carry out their NDCs or be confronted with public/peer pressure to do so. On April 22, 2016, 174 countries and the EU signed up for the Paris Agreement, which comes into effect once it is ratified/acceded to by 55 States representing at least 55% of GHG emissions.

Under the Paris Agreement, each State has pledged via its INDC to contribute what it can to tackle global warming. Presently 188 countries have put forward INDC’s, representing about 95% of global emissions. However, developed country INDC’s, comprising their mitigation targets, provision of finance, technology transfer and capacity-building support to developing countries, have been disappointing. The EU has targeted an unambitious 40% GHG reduction by 2030, compared to 1990, besides increasing energy efficiency by 27% and share of renewable energy by 27%. USA has targeted a 26-28% GHG reduction by 2025, but from a 2005 baseline. Our developed country partners must do more to curtail their GHG emissions and assist developing countries meet climate disruption challenges. China’s INDC target has 2030 as an approximate peaking date for its carbon emissions, by when China’s per capita emissions would be comparable to current EU emissions. This is an unambitious and conservative contribution - most Chinese experts believe it is set to peak earlier, perhaps by 2025.

As per Climate Action Tracker, the INDCs put forward by countries in connection with COP21 will at best limit temperature increase to +2.7°C. Unless NDCs are significantly enhanced in future, the Paris Agreement will not cap global warming to +2°C, let alone at +1.5°C. Meanwhile, it is revealing that contributions to the Green Climate Fund set up as a key institution for global climate finance have barely crossed $10 billion so far, compared to its target of $100 billion per year by 2020.

Even if international action curbs temperature rise, global climate benefits will only emerge in the latter half of the 21st century. Meanwhile, the support of all stakeholders at the local, national and global levels is needed as we seek to curtail global temperature rise to +2°C, if not +1.5°C, and secure a better life in a clean, safe and healthy environment for all.

(Source -

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