Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Opinion | Europe’s fiery summer is a climate change warning

Raging fires across the northern hemisphere show the costs of failing to do enough to combat climate change

Summers in Lisbon tend to top out at a balmy 28 degrees Celsius or thereabouts. It makes for a pleasant tourist season in the Portuguese capital. This year, though, Lisbon’s beaches are likely empty. Over the past weekend, temperatures called the north Indian plains to mind more than moderate Western Europe, climbing to a blazing 44 degrees Celsius. This is the highest for Lisbon since records began in 1943, with 16 locations seeing temperatures above 45 degrees Celsius, and 30 forest fires. Spain is suffering in similar fashion. The European heatwave is spreading. Warning signs about the perils of climate change could not be clearer.

Swathes of the northern hemisphere have been turned into hellscapes this summer. From Greece’s eastern coast near Athens to the plains of Siberia to California, vast fires have burnt for weeks at a time. One of the Californian wildfires has generated enough heat to create its own weather. The smoke from 38,000 sq. miles of fire-swept Siberia has reached Canada. Hundreds have died and been injured in Greece and elsewhere. Countries ill-prepared for such phenomena, such as Sweden, are struggling with the outbreak of forest fires.

That’s just the beginning. Changing weather patterns will have economic consequences. Medical expenditure will go up, as will the cost of emergency response efforts and infrastructure damage. To get an idea of the big picture, the Financial Times reports that Lloyd’s insurance market has estimated $123 billion of the global gross domestic product (GDP) of cities is at risk. Various studies have also made dire forecasts about the hit to global incomes and GDPs. For all of the northern hemisphere’s summer of fire, it’s the global south that will bear the brunt of this burden. It could potentially go beyond economic damage to encompass geopolitical tension.

For a preview, look at the ongoing fracas about the National Register of Citizens in Assam. A potential rise in illegal immigration caused by inundation in Bangladesh and saltwater intrusion in the Ganges delta will stretch resources unsustainably in the affected states. A political reckoning is inevitable. The same holds true elsewhere: African migration to the European Union (EU) via North Africa is already a pressure point, as is the South American migration to the US via Mexico. Nor is migration the only flashpoint. Tension between upper and lower riparian states could be exacerbated by changing flows. India is on both ends of that equation—and intra-state conflicts over water sharing are vexing enough without further complication.

The Paris climate agreement made in 2016, for all its noble intentions, hasn’t been particularly effective so far. There is a fair chance that its target of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius, with pre-industrial levels as a baseline, will not be met. Developed economies must shoulder most of the blame here. They are increasingly disregarding the crucial principle of “common but differentiated" responsibility. Developing countries such as India and China may be responsible for a significant chunk of the flow of emissions today, but the stock has been created by developed nations. The former cannot be expected to compromise on the well-being of their citizens to fix a problem they did not create.

This is not to say India should do nothing. But development, industrial and economic considerations create knotty problems. Take the safeguard duty on the import of solar panels from China and Malaysia—the US and EU have imposed similar duties—announced last week. Perhaps it will boost domestic manufacturers and the Narendra Modi government’s “Make in India" push. But it will also hit under-construction and recently bid projects of almost 7,000 megawatts. This will have two consequences. It will make investors in the sector wary of an unpredictable regulatory regime. And, since the project price rise will be passed on to consumers, it could slow solar power adoption. Meanwhile, the economy of the eastern states is built on a foundation of coal. And banks holding substantial amounts of stressed assets in the form of coal-fired plant debt will be keeping a wary eye on any further disruption of the sector.

The Modi government’s laudable renewable energy ambition will perhaps be more successful when it is tempered with pragmatism. Long-haul policies that coordinate across sectors and settle for lower targets may well provide for more sustainable renewable energy growth paths. Nor, in fact, should the job be left entirely to centralized planning, important though it is. US states and cities that have vowed to work in the spirit of the Paris agreement despite President Donald Trump pulling the US out of it show the way forward. Cities are the locus of climate change and will become more so as the world becomes more urbanized. As Anil Nair has written in these pages on Monday, it makes sense to allow local administrations in Indian cities—the ones most attuned to what is workable and what is not—the latitude and the authority to set their own agenda. For their part, they will have to step up their game, from urban planning aimed at minimizing energy use to policies that go beyond an ad-hoc rush towards e-vehicles.

None of this is easy. But it beats the prospect of more fiery hellscapes in years to come.

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