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Studies show that urban heat islands may result in a projected 8°C increase in temperature in cities by the end of the century. Photo: AP
Studies show that urban heat islands may result in a projected 8°C increase in temperature in cities by the end of the century. Photo: AP

Opinion | Heat is an invisible climate risk

The government's efforts to implement a national cooling strategy via the India Cooling Action Plan are inadequate

When we hear of climate change, it often triggers images of melting icebergs and long periods of drought. What we often miss is the slow and gradual trend of rising temperatures that directly impacts people’s lives, livelihoods and productivity. Heat is an invisible climate risk that catches communities unaware. In most cases, vulnerable people have limited or no knowledge of how they can protect themselves from heat stress or treat themselves when exposed to extreme heat. Recent research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) suggests that heat waves in South Asia could push heat and humidity levels beyond survivability thresholds of 35°C.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) special report presents the difference between two scenarios of global warming at 1.5°C and at 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Under the 1.5°C scenario, 14% of the global population will be exposed to severe heat at least once in five years. This increases 2.6 times under a 2°C scenario, exposing 37% of the world’s population to severe heat. Recent research shows that over the last decade, heat waves have impacted the mortality of more urban than rural residents. Studies show that urban heat islands may result in a projected 8°C increase in temperature in cities by the end of the century.

In response to these trends, the ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) recently released a draft of the India Cooling Action Plan (ICAP) for public comment and suggestions. The ICAP is an opportunity for cities, state governments and policy makers to address ‘cooling’ as a national adaptation need: to develop an institutionally coherent approach, addressing technology, regulating future urban growth, protecting natural ecosystems, retrofitting existing built forms and planning for vulnerable people. However, the ICAP in its current form fails to move beyond the first—that is, addressing future cooling demand through technology innovations. It must consider three critical interventions to integrate heat action and cooling strategies towards a sustainable, equitable and climate resilient future.

Vulnerable people have limited or no knowledge of how they can protect themselves-

First, the ICAP fails to integrate future climate trends in its projection of heat risk under different geographic conditions. Cooling requirements in dry and arid regions as opposed to humid coastal regions will vary drastically; so will the technology and planning. Integrating climate projections in city and regional plans can emphasize the need for climate sensitive urban environments and potentially reduce ambient temperatures. In addition to land use plans, cities can use remote sensing data to produce vulnerability maps that corelate urban heat islands with depleted tree covers, under different temperature scenarios. This can help cities identify highly exposed areas and target interventions such as increasing tree cover and mandating building regulations towards climate sensitive urban development. Heat vulnerability maps under different climate scenarios can be used to inform decision makers of the costs of inaction by corelating data on health impacts, economic productivity loss and risks of emigration.

Second, increase awareness on heat stress to influence long-term adaptation action. Heat is an invisible and slow-moving climate hazard that is yet to be recognized as a ‘natural calamity’ by the National Disaster Management Act, 2005. Currently, most disaster preparedness action focuses on flood risk and other natural disasters (sudden shocks). Even citizens perceive heat as an inconvenience or health risk at best. They retrofit their homes, buildings and neighbourhoods in response to flood risk, but rarely come together to plant trees and plan for long-term heat resilience. In response to increasing threats, the ICAP misses a crucial opportunity to 1) mandate retrofitting guidelines for existing buildings, infrastructure and services to potentially reduce urban heat island effects; 2) create awareness and encourage informed participation to plan for collective heat resilience rather than focusing on a greater reliance on personal cooling solutions; and 3) ensure early warning alerts include heat warnings and personal resilience strategies that are responsive to dry and humid heat conditions, factoring temperature and humidity as two simultaneous risk factors.

Third, focus on the needs of vulnerable people living and working in highly exposed places. A recent study conducted in poor and vulnerable communities in Surat showed that residents living in poor communities lack the information, awareness, and understanding of the severity of heat risk on their bodies and their lives. For example, respondents said they lose an average of 7-8 workdays during extreme summers due to illnesses and exhaustion. Some daily-wage workers reported job loss and the inability to find new jobs once they had recovered. Unfortunately, people still perceive heat as an inconvenience and respond to it by adopting personal comfort habits rather than organize or demand for long-term solutions.

The ICAP is an opportunity for cities to leverage existing adaptation potential in poor communities and channel this towards long-term cooling action. It would do this by way of planting more trees in the neighbourhood, identifying common institutions to be designed as ‘cooling shelters’ and mandating improved labour and housing conditions through labour unions, companies and pro-poor housing authorities.

Addressing heat risk through long-term heat resilience strategies will result in more sustainable and long-term cooling actions for all.

Lubaina Rangwala is manager—urban climate resilience, WRI India

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