New Delhi: Eight years is all the world has to start seriously reducing greenhouse gas emissions if the consequences of climate change are to be averted. That’s a warning from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN panel of scientists.
The UN panel says world emissions would have to fall 50-85% by 2050 in order to achieve the goal of limiting temperature rises to 2-2.4°C (3.6- 8.6°F) above pre-industrial levels.
Concerned about the debilitating effects of epidemics and all-round natural catastrophes caused by global climate change, environmentalists are squarely blaming the rapid pace at which fuel is being burnt for energy for this sordid state of affairs. Worse, they’re now looking more closely at developing nations led by China and India, which are using more coal and oil to power their fast-growing economies.
Today, the average Indian produces around a 10th of the greenhouse gases of the average European and a 20th of the average American.
The effects of global warming on India vary from the submergence of low-lying islands and coastal lands to the melting of glaciers in the Indian Himalayas, threatening the volumetric flow rate of many of the most important rivers of India and South Asia.
An Indian man drinks water from hand pump on the polluted banks of the Yamuna in New Delhi. Climate change is melting the Himalayan glaciers, which feed rivers in northern India
IPCC predicts that if the current warming rates are maintained, the glaciers of the Himalayas will melt away and could shrink to 100,000sq km by 2030 from 500,000sq km at present. And that would disrupt river flows and accelerate the incidence of rock avalanches, affecting hundreds of millions of people.
How susceptible is India to the perils of climate change? There is no dearth of indicators. S.N Patro, working president, Orissa Environmental Society, a non-governmental organization observes that Indian agriculture to a lot of extent is monsoon-dependent, given the inadequate irrigation network in the country. The impact of climate change is already visible in the form of decreasing annual yield.
The 10th Plan has highlighted the failures in the last decade on the agricultural front. India’s net sown area under crops and area under canal irrigation have fallen drastically. The National Commission on Farmers has provided the blueprint for rejuvenating agriculture sector. Patro, an active environmentalist since 1982, says, “As a signatory to the Climate Change Convention, the Government of India must promote best conservation practices, expand the forest cover, and adopt clean technology. It has already taken a step in this direction by setting up the Clean Technology Cell and the Ozone Cell. Industries must do their own bit by preferring ‘source treatment’ method over the ‘end-of-the-pipe treatment’ as the latter puts more stress on the environment.”
The UN report says increases in temperatures and changes in precipitation will increase hunger in Asia, especially in developing countries. Around 30% of Asian coral reefs could be lost in the next 30 years. As rivers dry out, between 120 million and 1.2 billion people are likely to experience more water shortages by the 2020s, states the report.
In India, the annual per capita availability of freshwater is expected to drop from 1,900 cubic meters to 1,000 cubic meters by 2025 due to population growth and climate change.
Studies suggest several effects of global warming, such as steady sea level rise, increased cyclonic activity, and changes in ambient temperature and precipitation patterns, have impacted or are projected to impact India.
Rising sea levels have submerged Suparibhanga and Lohacharra two islands in the Sunderbans, and scientists say a dozen more islands are under threat.
Narahari Das, who runs an NGO Powerr, refers to the alarming results of a six-year study on the impact of future climate change on the world natural heritage site that India shares with Bangladesh. “Satellite imagery has failed to spot the two islands. In the next decade, some 100,000 people will have to be evacuated from this coastal region.”
Official records list 102 islands on the Indian side of the Sunderbans, where the Ganges and Brahmaputra empty into the Bay of Bengal. The temperature on these islands has risen over a degree centigrade. The Bay of Bengal is rising at a rate of 3.14mm a year, against the global average of sea level rise of 2mm.
These islands act as natural buffers, shielding millions from cyclones and tidal waves. Experts observe that while their annual number has fallen, cyclones in the region are more intense when they occur.
Temperature rises are also affecting the Tibetan Plateau, causing Himalayan glaciers to retreat, reducing the flow rate to the Ganges, Brahmaputra and other major rivers on which hundreds of thousands of farmers depend. According to a 2007 World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) report, the Indus River may run dry.
The pressure on industries to adopt safe effluent treamtment practices is mounting. ‘Today, the 2,525 km long Ganga river supports 29 class I cities, 23 class II cities, 48 towns and thousands of villages. Nearly all the sewage, industrial effluent, runoff from chemical fertilizers and pesticides used in agriculture within the basin, and large quantities of solid waste, including thousands of animals’ carcasses and hundreds of human corpses are dumped in the river everyday,” says Rakesh Jaiswal, founder and executive secretary, Ecofriends, an NGO dedicated to restore the purity of the Ganga.
He adds, ”In the 21 years since the launch of the Ganga Action Plan, Rs1,500 crore has been invested. All that time and money seem to have completely gone waste, with no visible improvement in the condition of the river.”
The challenges facing India are many. But they can be managed if the government speeds up the process of providing solutions and takes steps to ensure participation at every level.